Another “Cursed” Roman Ballista Ball Is Returned in Israel
Ancient curses are most popularly associated with Egyptian mummies, their tombs, and their grave goods. In reality, however, people may associate ancient curses with just about anything, including mundane objects such as projectiles, known as ballista stones, that had been fired from ancient Roman artillery pieces. Indeed, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, a rather bizarre piece of news has been reported in Israel in which a ballista ball was returned to the authorities 15 years after it was stolen. Why was this particular ballista stone considered to be cursed?
Ballista stones at an ancient site in Jerusalem. (brionv from San Francisco, United States / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The Story Of The Most Recent Cursed Ballista Stone
In March 2020, it was reported that a stolen ballista stone had been returned to the Israel Antiquities Authority. The artifact had been returned by an anonymous person via an intermediary by the name of Moshe Manies. According to Manies, the thief who stole the ballista stone committed the theft in 2005, when he was a teenager.
At that time, him and his friends were touring a display of ballista stones at the Jerusalem Walls National Park in the City of David. It is believed that these ballista stones were used by the Romans when they were besieging Jerusalem in 70 AD, as part of the First Jewish-Roman War, known also as the Great Jewish Revolt .
The citizen (right side) who returned the 2000-year-old ballista stone to the Israel Antiquities Authority, that he took without permission 15 years ago from the City of David. Source: Israel Antiquities Authority
In the 15 years that followed, the boy grew up, got married, and had a family. The theft of the ancient artifact , however, weighed heavily on the man’s heart. In a way, he felt as if a “curse” had been put on him.
One day, as the man was cleaning for Passover, he came across the stolen artifact. At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic stirred in the man an apocalyptic feeling. As a consequence, he decided to clear his conscience by returning the ballista stone to the authorities.
Manies posted the story on Facebook, and one of his followers, tagged Uzi Rotstein, an inspector at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Antiquities Robbery Prevention Unit. Rotstein retrieved the artifact from Manies, commending its return, and used the opportunity to appeal to others who have stolen artifacts in the past to return them to the authorities.
A female rabbi posing on the massive stones thrown down from the Temple Mount by the Romans during the Great Jewish Revolt in Jerusalem where the "cursed" ballista stones were taken from. (Sarit Richerson / Adobe Stock )
Other Cursed Israeli Ballista Stones Were Also Returned
The return of this ballista stone in 2020 was not the first of its kind. As a matter of fact, five years before that, a pair of ballista stones were returned to the Israeli authorities by another anonymous individual. This time, the artifacts were left in the courtyard of the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures in Be’er Sheva , the largest city in the Negev desert, in southern Israel. The two ballista stones were placed in a bag, along with a note that was typed in Hebrew.
According to the note, the person confessed to stealing the ballista stones in July 1995. He / she also revealed that the stones were taken from Gamla, an ancient Jewish city on the Golan Heights , an area that is today recognized by the international community as Syrian territory occupied by Israel.
An ancient road to the ruins in Gamla, Israel, where artifacts were stolen that were later reported as cursed and returned. (Robert / Adobe Stock )
Like Jerusalem, Gamla was another city that opposed the Romans during the First Jewish-Roman War. Therefore, the Romans, who were led by the future emperor Vespasian, besieged the city. According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the defenders of the city were able to withstand the siege for several months. In the end, however, the Romans managed to breach the walls. Instead of surrendering, however, the city’s remaining residents, numbering about 9000, fought their way to the edge of the town, and committed suicide by throwing themselves off a cliff into the gorge below.
The thief also mentioned that he / she took the artifacts from “a residential quarter at the foot of the summit.” The person who stole the ballista stones blames the troubles he / she has faced in the years that followed on the artifacts. “They have brought me nothing but trouble,” implying perhaps that the objects were cursed. This prompted him / her to return the objects to the authorities. At the end of the note, he / she made a simple appeal to everyone, “Please, do not steal antiquities !”
Initial excavations were conducted at Gamla during the second half of the 20 th century and were concluded in 1989. Having wrapped up their work, the archaeologists did their best to stow away all the ballista stones they found on site.
In 1995, however, there were no archaeologists at Gamla, which may explain how the theft of the two artifacts could have occurred. In the years that followed, the archaeologists themselves were unaware that two of their ballista stones had gone missing. This is not entirely surprising, partly due to the fact that such artifacts would have been considered to be relatively common.
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According to Danny Syon, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, almost 2000 ballista stones were found by archaeologists during their excavations at Gamla. Syon also added that Gamla is the site where the largest number of ballista stones from the early Roman period have been unearthed.
In any case, the artifacts were subsequently sent to the Israel Antiquities Authority’s National Treasures Department, which is responsible for the “safekeeping and management of the antiquities’ integrity, for advising museums, initiating exhibitions and lending objects to museums, and for exhibits in Israel and overseas.” In the end, the two stolen ballista stones were “reunited” with the rest of the stones that were found at Gamla.
Roman tesserae or the small blocks of stone (or tile, or glass) used in the construction of a mosaic are one of the most common things people steal from the archaeological sites of Pompei, Italy. Apparently, a Canadian woman, who felt she was cursed, had stolen two of these kinds of artifacts before she returned them. (The Portable Antiquities Scheme / The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Stolen Cursed Artifacts That Are Returned Is Not Uncommon!
According to Syon, the return of the ballista stones was not entirely shocking, as the return of stolen antiquities happens once every few years. The archaeologist mentions, for instance, the return of a 2000-year-old Jewish coffin by a resident of Tel Aviv. The man claimed that he handed over the artifact to the Israel Antiquities Authority only when he found out what it was.
In another incident, a New York minister expressed remorse over the actions of a member of his congregation, who had stolen a stone from Jerusalem a decade ago. According to the Israel Antiquities Authority, the stone was eventually returned to them.
The belief that stolen artifacts are cursed is not limited to ballista stones, or objects from Israel for that matter. This is clearly seen in the case of Pompeii.
In an article published this year, a Canadian woman “confessed” that she had stolen some artifacts from the ancient Roman city of Pompei. She believed that by doing so, she had unleashed a curse on herself and her family. Some of the misfortunes suffered by the woman included financial difficulties and breast cancer (twice!).
Therefore, she decided to return the artifacts, in the hope that it would break the curse, and to avoid it from being passed on to her family or children. Similar to the situation in Israel, the petty theft of antiquities by tourists at Pompeii is a known fact.
Over the years, hundreds of stolen Pompei objects have been returned, as the perpetrators of the crime either felt remorse, or managed to convince themselves that they were cursed by the artifacts. So many of these artifacts have been returned that there is even a permanent exhibition at the site for these stolen objects.
Top image: An ancient ballista ball. Credit: Colin / Adobe Stock
By: Wu Mingren
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