by Nora McGreevy/Smithsonianmag.com
Eagle-eyed archaeologists at an Italian lab first realized something might be awry when they noticed a strange item crop up in a European exhibition catalog. As the Associated Press (AP) reports, the image of a limestone stele, or funerary slab dating to pre-Roman times, looked suspiciously similar to another fragment held in a local museum in Puglia, a region in Italy’s southeastern tip.
Italian law forbids the export of cultural heritage items excavated in the country. If the stele was transported out of Italy for the exhibition, which traveled to Geneva and Paris, the move likely took place illicitly.
Authorities launched an investigation into the stele in 2017. The inquiry soon snowballed into a much larger project than anticipated.
Four years later, the Italian Carabinieri has finally recovered the stele and returned it to its country of origin. In addition to the slab, the team uncovered 781 ancient Apulian artifacts and pieces of pottery, all of which have now been sent back to Italy. Dated to between 600 B.C. and 300 B.C., the trove of treasures’ estimated value is $13 million (€11 million), according to a statement from Eurojust, the organization that facilitated international police communication during the investigation.