Canadian Tourist Returns “Cursed” Stolen Artifacts to Pompeii

woman claims theft of tiles, ceramics caused her cancer and financial hardships

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A woman who stole fragments of Pompeii 15 years ago claims they were cursed, The Guardian reported. She returned the artifacts in a package with a note claiming they caused her to contract breast cancer and to fall on hard times financially. The Pompeii archaeological site still offers historical wonders to visit.

Pompeii ruins
Tourists have been known to take “souvenirs” from the Pompeii site; a museum was created to display the items that were then returned in later years. Photo By S-F / Shutterstock

A tourist who visited Pompeii left Italy with more than she intended, according to The Guardian. “The Canadian woman, identified only as Nicole, sent a package containing two mosaic tiles, parts of an amphora, and a piece of ceramics to a travel agent in Pompeii, in southern Italy, alongside a letter of confession,” the article said.

“Nicole, who was in her early 20s when she visited Pompeii’s archaeological park in 2005, blamed the theft for a run of misfortune that she had suffered in the years since, including having breast cancer twice and experiencing financial hardship.”

Curses aside, Pompeii’s rediscovery several centuries ago has led to some incredible archaeological finds that have changed what we know about ancient cultures.

Ash of Pompeii

Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, killing countless people in the city of Pompeii and neighboring towns like Herculaneum.

“Over at Pompeii where excavations first began about 1750, time froze during that late August morning in 79 CE,” said Dr. Eric H. Cline, Professor of Classics and Anthropology and the current Director of The George Washington University Capitol Archaeological Institute. “Bread is still on the tables, a dog remains chained, graffiti is still on the town walls, and bodies are in the streets, some of them clutching jewelry and other objects.”

Dr. Cline said this happened because as ash and pumice fell onto the city, the ash mixed with rain and eventually hardened like cement. Over time, the flesh and organs of the encased bodies decayed, leaving empty husks, each in the shape of the bodies once held within the encasements.

In 1863, Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli excavated Pompeii, filling hundreds of body cavities with plaster of Paris and letting them dry so their poses would remain even after the ash had been excavated away. Entire families, furniture, and even food were preserved this way.

Art Imitates Life

“The sudden burial of Pompeii also preserved the paintings on the walls of the houses and buildings, including scenes that now give their names to the structures,” Dr. Cline said. “One scene of a bacchanalian revelry featuring Dionysus and lots and lots of wine is in a house called the Villa of the Mysteries, because if you weren’t a member of the cult of Dionysus, it was a mystery to you as to what they did.”

In addition to the paintings, graffiti has been preserved from the daily life of Pompeii. Some of it is purposeful—Dr. Cline mentioned advertisements written outside of shops for gladiator events, dates of fresh markets by locations, and so on. Other graffiti included political campaigns, with Dr. Cline’s favorites standing out as, “I ask you to elect Marcus Cerrinius Vatia to the aedileship. All the late-night drinkers support him,” and “The petty thieves support Vatia for the aedileship.”

Still other graffiti resembles what we’d expect to find in modern-day bathrooms. “One is in three parts,” Dr. Cline said. “The first part reads, ‘The weaver Successus, he loves the innkeeper’s slave girl, Iris. She doesn’t care for him, but he begs her to take pity on him. Written by his rival. So long.’ Underneath it is a response, an answer from his rival: ‘Just because you’re bursting with envy, don’t pick on a handsomer man, a lady-killer, and a gallant.’ Then we’ve got the first guy replying again: ‘There’s nothing more to say or write. You love Iris. She doesn’t care for you.'”

Much of Pompeii remains frozen in time, from graffiti to plaster casts of bodies. Perhaps if the legend of cursed artifacts grows, even more of the city that suffered the Vesuvius eruption will stay where it is.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Eric H. Cline contributed to this article. Dr. Cline is a Professor of Classics and Anthropology and the current Director of The George Washington University (GWU) Capitol Archaeological Institute. He holds a PhD in Ancient History from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from Yale University, and a BA in Classical Archaeology modified by Anthropology from Dartmouth College.