In a rare change of pace, officials of the Israel Parks and Nature Authority were pleasantly surprised when they received a package from a Florida couple, containing pieces of ancient mosaic the couple said they took from Caesarea National Park.
The return of the pieces was in sharp contrast to the more common situations where enforcement agents of the Parks Authority, along with the Antiquities Authority, are forced to pursue thieves who steal coins, mosaic pieces, jugs, and larger items from archaeological sites and national parks around the country.
The mosaic pieces were delivered to the offices of the Authority at the park, sent via regular mail. The package contained nine small envelopes, each containing a mosaic piece, with packaging material to protect it. Enclosed with the envelopes was a map of the Caesarea Park, distributed to visitors at the site.
"We found these mosaic pieces on our recent visit to Israel in this specific area," the letter read, with a circle on the map designating the general area where the artifacts were found. "We later read in a pamphlet that taking souvenirs from the park is illegal, so we are returning them. We found these pieces buried in some sand, and it appeared there were other pieces there as well. Please keep me informed on what you discover there."
Officials of the Authority said that the pieces were most likely part of a mosaic that covered the floor of an ancient dwelling or farmhouse. "There was no major damage, but we do stress that taking any items from the parks is illegal," said Dr. Zvika Zuk, Chief Archaeologist of the Parks Authority.
Dr. Zuk added that the small mosaic pieces were not a "critical" find, mostly because they were small, and officials said that most of the items illegally taken by tourists were small in general – unlike the major robberies of large items, usually undertaken by professional thieves, often on behalf of shady antiquities merchants, who smuggle the valuable items out of the country and auction them off to collectors.
46-Lb. Piece Returned Last Month
But amateurs can also be responsible for large thefts as well – and once in a while, the thief's conscience pushes the culprit to own up to his actions and return the pilfered item. This was the case this past June, when a New York priest sent back a 46-pound piece of a column with which a member of his congregation had apparently absconded in 1997.
The Israel Antiquities Authority received an e-mail in early June, officials said, in which the priest wrote that "the fellow confessed to me that 12 years ago he took a stone from Jerusalem and his conscience has bothered him ever since. I wish to return the stone to Israel and hope that you will forgive the man for his transgression." A week later, the massive stone was shipped back to Israel, with the culprit attaching a note saying that he had been given the stone by a tour guide, who assured him that there was no problem.
"Only later did I realize that he probably took the stone from the excavation without permission," he wrote. "For the past twelve years since then, rather than remind me of the prayer for Jerusalem, I am reminded of the mistake I made when I removed the stone from its proper place in Israel. I am asking for your forgiveness."
In both cases, officials of the two agencies said, there would be no action taken against the individuals who took the items, because they were ultimately returned, and the culprits apologized.