Fear Of Coronavirus-Related Apocalypse Forces Man To Return Ancient Relic Stolen In His Youth

The 2,000-year-old ballista stone that was recovered. Uzi Rotstein, Israel Antiquities Authority

In a year that’s seen raging wildfires, mass coral bleaching, and a global pandemic, it’s easy to feel a little bit “Is this the end?” from time to time. For one man, the fear of a pending apocalypse generated by the coronavirus inspired him to shift a weight from his home as well as his conscience. Having stolen an ancient relic from the City of David, he returned the 2,000-year-old weapon to the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) to clear his conscience.

As teenagers, we can all be guilty of thinking we’re immune to everything, but one rebel without a cause back in 2005 discovered that in 2020 he was greatly affected by the fear of wrath. A few weeks back, while cleaning for Passover, the man in question rediscovered his historic loot – a ballista stone taken from an archaeological site at the Jerusalem Walls National Park in the City of David – peppered with dust and regret in his adult home. To this point, his life had been unmarred by guilt over the stolen stone, but as the coronavirus outbreak heightened so too did the weight of his secret.

Now the IAA has revealed the ballista stone – an ancient catapult "bolt" – has been returned. 

Uzi Rotstein of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Moshe Manies with the ballista stone. Photo: Moshe Manies

The IAA first became privy to the story of the stolen stone when a third party, Moshe Manies, posted about it on Facebook, agreeing to its safe return if the identity of the thief never be disclosed, and a follower tagged Uzi Rotstein, Inspector at the Antiquities Robbery Prevention Unit. In a press release emailed to IFLScience, the IAA share that Manies contacted them to tell them how the unnamed thief came to have the stone. “It involved two ‘shababniks’ (rebellious youth), who, 15 years earlier, toured at the City of David site and came across a display of ballista stones," Manies said.

“One of the boys took one of the stones home. Meanwhile, he married and raised a family, and told me that for the past 15 years the stone is weighing heavily on his heart. And now, when he came across it while cleaning for Passover, together with the apocalyptic feeling the Coronavirus generated, he felt the time was ripe to clear his conscience, and he asked me to help him return it to the Israel Antiquities Authority.”

  1. Illustration of the ballista machine. Shalom Kveller, courtesy of the City of David Archives

Ballista balls or bolts were used as weapons in ancient times, to be hurled at enemies by a ballista, a mechanism not dissimilar to a catapult. The stones uncovered at the archaeological site in the City of David are most likely remains from the battles in 70 CE between the besieged residents of Jerusalem and the soldiers of the Roman Legion.

On seeing the Facebook post, Rotstein immediately arranged to collect the stone on behalf of the IAA. “Disconnecting an artifact from its archaeological framework by its removal negatively impacts the research and the ability to piece together its historical puzzle," he said.

"We commend the return of the artifact and appeal to anyone who has taken an archaeological artifact, to take a weight off their heart and return it to the State Treasury. These artifacts, which are thousands of years old, are our national treasure. They tell the story of The Land and of who resided here before us, and should be documented and displayed."

On the subject of returned loot, Alan Turing’s degree and OBE medal turned up earlier this year after missing for 36 years. On the other hand, thanks to the horrible consequence of an attempted restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, the world's "most stolen artwork", we'd be fine if it had stayed missing.

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