Image: Piece of Colosseum
A chunk of Rome's ancient Colosseum and the package that was used to send it from the U.S. are seen at the city hall tourist office in Rome.
updated 5/7/2009 4:18:39 PM ET 2009-05-07T20:18:39

Remorseful and anonymous, an American couple has mailed back a chunk of ancient Rome to Italian authorities about 25 years after their Roman holiday.

The tourists said in a letter tucked inside the package they mailed that they had picked up the fist-sized fragment of a slab of terracotta near the Colosseum.

But Rome's archaeological office said Thursday that the piece probably came from a bit farther away, the sprawling area of the Roman Forum or the ancient Palatine Hill.

The archaeological office, which examined the chunk, said even though the fragment didn't come from the Colosseum "the gesture of returning the piece by the U.S. couple is still important."

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Much of Rome's historic center is littered with fragments of ancient stone and other artifacts.

In the letter, signed only "an American citizen," a woman writes that she and her husband picked up the fragment "as a spontaneous souvenir from nearby the Colosseum" on a trip about a quarter century ago.

"I have been bothered by the fact that we took something that did not belong to us and am now returning it. I have felt badly about it whenever I would see this rock sitting on our shelf among our other artifacts from trips taken over the years of our lives," the letter read.

It is a crime in Italy to illegally export ancient artifacts, and Rome has been cracking down on archaeological theft, including prosecuting art dealers suspected of clandestine trafficking in artifacts. Slideshow: The Eternal City

While the letter was anonymous, the return address on the package gave a street address in Greensboro, North Carolina. A call to a phone number listed for that address yielded no answer Thursday.

"My husband and I apologize for our thoughtless and selfish act," the letter-writer said, requesting that the piece be put back at the Colosseum "so it may again be at rest back where it belongs."

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