Serbian Roman Artifact Vanishes 24 Hours After Discovery

A recently excavated ancient Serbian Roman artifact, a stone slab covered with engraved Latin text, has been stolen only 24 hours after it was discovered. The rare Roman artifact was discovered on Friday, July 10, 2020, during road construction works leading to the Vinča landfill site. According to a report on Archaeology News Network one of the road workers informed the National Museum in Belgrade about the remarkable finding, however, when a museum archaeologist arrived at the site the next morning the Serbian Roman artifact had vanished without a trace.

Serbian Roman Artifact and The Lost Life Of A Roman Official

The museum archaeologists knew the Serbian Roman artifact was part of a marble monument dating to the 2nd century AD and that one side of the artifact depicted two feet wearing sandals that were part of a previous sculpture. The other side, however, was inscribed with 15 lines of Latin text describing in detail the life and times of a high-ranking Roman military official who, according to the National Museum in Belgrade, “led various military detachments against the Dacians and served in three legions.”

Side of the stolen Serbian Roman artifact showing the Roman inscription. (National Museum in Belgrade)

Side of the stolen Serbian Roman artifact showing the Roman inscription. ( National Museum in Belgrade )

Most of the modern state of Serbia was part of the Roman Empire for about 600 years, from the 1st century BC until the arrival of the Slavs in the Balkans during the 6th century AD. This ancient monument could have been a significant addition to the known ancient history of Serbia because it also provided new evidence about a war in the area of Singidunum or ancient Belgrade.

Stolen Artifact an Example of Daring, Swift Archaeological Theft

Before the stone slab mysteriously disappeared the museum staff had informed the landfill management team that due to its size and weight the stone was going to be raised by crane and carefully transferred to the National Museum in Belgrade. A museum spokesperson said in a press release that archaeological objects discovered on the territory of the Republic of Serbia “belong to the Republic of Serbia by law.” And they also said the “epigraphic monument” had been officially recorded and that an administrative procedure had been actioned to retrieve and restore it. And this means that the incident is being treated as a case of “aggravated theft” and criminal charges have been raised against the unknown criminal(s).

Side of the stolen Serbian Roman artifact showing the sandal-covered feet in the upper right. (National Museum in Belgrade)

Side of the stolen Serbian Roman artifact showing the sandal-covered feet in the upper right. ( National Museum in Belgrade )

How on earth, in 2020, can such a logistically complicated open-air crime take place and succeed? I mean, it’s not like the artifact was a golden ring or a silver bracelet that a solo criminal could just hide in their pocket. To have moved such a vast stone, an entire team of men with heavy construction equipment would have been required. And this is most likely exactly what happened: a criminal gang most likely paid off the right people at the site, managed to get the object into a truck, and then quickly disappeared to sell the stone to the highest bidder on the dark web.

Well, the something seemed to spook the gang, as the stone has now been found, after an appeal across the media by National Museum of Belgrade.

But as bad as this all sounds, it gets worse, because this type of daylight robbery is commonplace in Serbia.

The Roman stone is now safelyi in the National Museum of Belgrade. ( National Museum in Belgrade )

Serbia: A Territory With Too Much Unguarded Treasure

A 2016 paper “ Archaeological Robberies of Antiques in Serbia” published by a team of scientists from the Institute of Archaeology , Belgrade, Serbia, states that the territory of Serbia is a target for archaeological criminals because it has been home to many specific cultures throughout the past: “from European prehistory, Roman civilization, Byzantine and Serbian Medieval art up to the present day.” What this means is that Serbia has thousands of “unguarded” archaeological sites and medieval monasteries representing the country’s “material, cultural and spiritual past.” And with most sites being largely unprotected, it is not surprising that criminal gangs tear the landscape apart in Serbia. But adding to the sheer weight of unexplored sites is the problem of just how valuable even the smallest Serbian artifacts can be.

An example of an illegal archaeological excavation in Serbia was the discovery of the “Golden Avar Belt Buckle,” that was discovered with a metal-detector at a depth of about two meters in the village of Divoš, near Sremska Mitrovica (Sirmium). This single palm sized object was estimated to be worth “around one million euros.” Fortunately in the case of the stolen belt buckle, “ МUP RS ”, the Serbian department for fighting organized crime, arrested the main criminal and his accomplices, who were all charged with a three year suspended sentence for contravening the illegal trade act, which prohibits unauthorized archaeological excavations. Hopefully the recently stolen stone Roman artifact and those who stole it will soon be found.

Top image: Stolen Serbian Roman artifact composite photo showing both sides of the stone, the sandal-covered feet, and the Roman inscription.  Source: National Museum in Belgrade

By Ashley Cowie

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