Returning stolen goods to Pompeii
Rome - This week’s news that scores of conscience-stricken tourists have returned pilfered artefacts to Pompeii took me straight back to a dreadful incident on my one, ill-fated visit to that ancient city in the Eighties.
We were there with our first-born son George, then three years old, on a day trip from our holiday let in Ravello to Mount Vesuvius and the Roman remains preserved in its ash since its eruption in AD 79.
It was swelteringly hot, I’d been up all the previous night with a debilitating case of Montezuma’s revenge, after eating something that hadn’t agreed with me, and all three of us were exhausted.
When it was my turn to carry George as we walked round the ruins, I felt so weak that I plonked him down on the nearest object — which happened to be a terracotta wine jar, about 4 ft high.
Alas, I’d underestimated the diameter of its mouth. The poor boy fell straight into it, bottom first, with only his forearms, the top of his head and the soles of his sandals visible. Think of Winnie the Pooh, jammed into the entrance of Rabbit’s hole after a surfeit of honey, and you’ll get the idea. He was well and truly stuck.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to extricate a terrified three-year-old from a Roman amphora of the 1st century AD. But if you have, you’ll know it’s no easy matter — particularly if you happen to be pouring with sweat and desperate for the gents.
For what seemed like an eternity, though it can’t have been more than three or four minutes, my wife and I heaved and prised to no avail. A knot of fellow tourists gathered around the amphora, anxious to help, while a kind lady went off in search of an official.
Perhaps, she imagined that mishaps like George’s must be everyday occurrences in Pompeii, and the staff were sure to be equipped with olive oil or winches specially designed for the removal of toddlers from ancient wine jars. If so, she was wrong.
As the agonising minutes passed, and the boy gasped for breath, I steeled myself for what was beginning to seem like the only solution. At the risk of causing terrible damage, I was going to have to tip the huge amphora over. If that failed, I would simply have to smash it — and never mind the cost to world heritage.
It had survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and everything else fate and the elements had thrown at it for more than 1 900 years. But could it outlast a visit from the Utley family? An unpayable bill and an Italian prison cell seemed to beckon me. I suppose it was this thought that gave me strength.
Whatever it was, one final, co-ordinated heave did the trick. George popped out, a little shocked but otherwise none the worse for his ordeal — while the wine jar, too, turned out to have survived unscathed to face another millennium or two.
Never before, I realised as we walked shaking back to the bus, had I fully understood the meaning of the word relief.
But if I had smashed the amphora, leaving Pompeii a little the poorer for future generations to admire, at least I would have had the excuse that I was driven by a father’s love for his son.
No such defence is available to the many tourists who like to take a little Roman something away with them as a souvenir of their visit — a mosaic tile here, a piece of fresco or decorated pottery there.
But what is interesting is that so many who pilfer from Pompeii later return their stolen goods.
Indeed, the site’s archaeological superintendent says that over the years he’s received up to 100 packages from across the world, often accompanied by letters explaining why the thieves have had second thoughts.
In fact, so many has he received that he’s thinking of mounting an exhibition, to be called: ‘What I brought back from Pompeii.’
Some, says Massimo Osanna, are motivated purely by remorse. For example, a Canadian woman who pocketed a decorative terracotta tile while she was on her honeymoon in the Seventies has now returned it, asking forgiveness for “an error she made in her youth”.
But a surprising number, apparently, say the artefacts they stole have brought them bad luck. Among them, a Latin American returning a piece of stone to Pompeii wrote that his family had suffered “trauma after trauma” since he’d taken it.
A letter from Spain, enclosed with a bronze statuette that had disappeared in 1987, also claimed that the stolen object was jinxed.
Indeed, Mr Osanna says many are starting to believe again in the legend of the “curse of Pompeii”, which holds that the eruption of Vesuvius was a divine punishment visited on the city after legionaries had destroyed holy buildings.
Since the eruption itself wrecked several temples, this may seem to have been an odd way for the gods to demonstrate their displeasure — though I suppose that, like the God of the Bible, Roman deities had a habit of moving in mysterious ways.
But whether or not souvenir hunters seriously believe their hot property is cursed, I must say I doff my cap to Mr Osanna for spreading the story.
True or false, you have to hand it to him that it’s a clever way for a curator to encourage people to return stolen artefacts. (“Lost your job? Wife walked out on you? Car failed its MoT? Blame the tile you nicked from Pompeii. Give it back, and all will be well”).
If he’s embellishing the truth, I can think of few worthier causes in which to do it than attempting to maintain intact one of the greatest and best-preserved archaeological sites of Western civilisation.
Yes, there may be more heinous crimes than pinching a single shard of Roman terracotta. But multiply all those tiny tiles and slivers of pottery by the number of people who take them, and this begins to add up to a serious offence against posterity.
Of course, it’s nothing like the grotesque crimes against our heritage now being committed every week by the barbarians of ISIS, as they systematically destroy the ancient monuments at Palmyra in Syria and every treasure that lies in their bloody wake.
God knows, we should weep more for the suffering of the crucified, the beheaded and the millions driven from their homes than for any temple. Faced with the choice of saving a beloved child or a 1 900-year-old Roman amphora, there surely isn’t one of us who would hesitate more than a moment before smashing the jar.
But with so much of beauty and history destroyed over the centuries — whether in Dresden or Coventry, Machu Picchu or Troy — we surely have an ever-greater duty to preserve what we can for those who come after us.
So let’s beware the curse of Pompeii and send back all those little souvenirs to Mr Osanna. And if you’ll take a tip from me, you’ll be mighty careful where you plonk your kid.