Fearing Coronavirus Apocalypse, Man Returns Stolen Artifact to Israeli Authorities
Illustration of the ballista machine. (Shalom Kveller, courtesy of the City of David Archives)

Fearing Coronavirus Apocalypse, Man Returns Stolen Artifact to Israeli Authorities

‘At least something good has come out of the coronavirus epidemic,’ antiquities inspector says upon return of 2,000-year-old ballista stone

Fearing that “the end of the world is near” on the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, an Israeli man has returned a 2,000-year-old artifact to the Israeli authorities 15 years after he stole it from an archaeological site in Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) revealed on Monday.

The man, whose identity has not been revealed, took a ballista stone – used in ancient catapult weapons – from the Jerusalem Walls National Park in the City of David. The IAA discovered the misdeed via a Facebook post after a man named Moshe Manies took it upon himself to be a go-between between the thief and the authorities.

The ballista stone that was uncovered. (Uzi Rotstein, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Manies is a copywriter and content writer living in Modi’in Illit who has five children, a parrot and 26 hamsters. (“It was a baby boom – the quarantine apparently did it for them,” he said.)

He told The Media Line that the thief is someone he knows from within his professional network who is a strictly observant ultra-Orthodox Jewish man but who used to be a “very troubled youth.”

“One day he was in the City of David in Jerusalem and stole it from a display there,” Manies explained. “He’s had it in his house for 15 years and all this time he’s been saying that ‘this stone is weighing on my heart.’”

During an annual Passover house cleaning and amid an “apocalyptic feeling” generated by the global coronavirus outbreak, the man in question decided that he wished to clear his conscience because “he feels that the end of the world is here.” However, the individual was also concerned about potential legal repercussions and requested to remain anonymous, entrusting the precious stone to Manies upon condition that the latter would keep his identity hidden.

Ballistae were ancient weapons used to hurl bolts or stones from the top of fortress walls. According to archaeologists, the stone Manies returned was most likely used in fierce battles between besieged Jerusalemites and Roman soldiers around 70 CE, the year that Jerusalem was destroyed.

“It’s really nice that as the end of the world approaches, people are righting their wrongs,” Manies said.

Uzi Rotstein, an inspector at the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unity of the IAA, was tagged in Manies’ Facebook post and arrived minutes later to collect the artifact.

“At least something good has come out of the coronavirus,” Rotstein told The Media Line. “Because of the [pandemic scare], this man didn’t want God to hold him to account [for this theft] and wanted to be sent to the Garden of Eden.”

(L-R) Uzi Rotstein of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Moshe Manies with the ballista stone. (Moshe Manies)

According to Rotstein, Israeli law requires that anyone unearthing an antiquity must report their finding to the authorities within 15 days. People are also forbidden from searching for artifacts or removing them from sites.

“Our main line of work in the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit is to stop traffickers who damage archaeological sites and who carry out digs in an unscientific manner,” Rotstein explained, adding that most thieves search for ancient coins, some of which are incredibly rare and thus highly valuable to collectors.

Rotstein revealed that his unit deals with dozens of theft cases each year, most of them centered on the Judean foothills due to the area’s abundance of biblical sites.

“Some collectors are willing to pay a lot of cash for ancient coins coming from Israel,” he said.

The IAA has called on citizens to return all archaeological items to the State Treasury in order to ensure their proper documentation and display for benefit of the public.

As the COVID-19 outbreak continues to sow apocalyptic fears in some people, Rotstein hopes that other antiquities thieves will step forward. In fact, he has already received another call from a woman whose father has 30 ancient coins in his possession; however, he declined to provide any further details pending an investigation.

“It could be that this story will have an impact on others [to do the same],” Rotstein concluded.

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