RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – A North Carolina woman who returned a chunk of ancient Rome to Italian authorities 25 years after her husband pocketed it said Thursday she never felt comfortable keeping the terra cotta fragment, and her eldest son’s death prompted her to set things right.

“Whenever I looked at it, I’d feel bad about it,” said Janice Johnsen, 52, of Greensboro. “Then, a little over a year ago, our oldest son was killed suddenly. Since then, we’ve been struggling with some hard things.”

Johnsen didn’t tell her husband, Mike, about her decision until after she had returned the artifact. She mailed it anonymously, but put her return address on the package.

The couple was visiting Italy about 25 years ago while on a trip for Mike’s new job. He bent over and picked up the fist-sized fragment of a slab of terra cotta near the Colosseum, putting it in his pocket. It then sat on a shelf with their other travel souvenirs.

“I was Googling online, trying to figure out if it was a crime first of all,” Johnsen said after getting a call from The Associated Press. “I saw a line about stone robbers and went, ‘Oh my gosh.”‘

She read that historic sites can be ruined by people removing bits and pieces.

“I hope they don’t think we’re horrible people,” she said. “It was a silly thing to do.”

The return came to light Thursday, when Rome’s archaeological office said it had received the package. Although Johnsen said in her letter to Italian authorities that the rock came from near the Colosseum, the office said the piece probably came from a bit farther away, such as the Forum or the ancient Palatine Hill.

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

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

In the letter, signed only “an American citizen,” Johnsen wrote that she and her husband picked up the fragment “as a spontaneous souvenir from nearby the Colosseum” on a trip some 25 years ago.

“My husband and I apologize for our thoughtless and selfish act,” Johnsen wrote, requesting that the piece be put back at the Colosseum “so it may again be at rest back where it belongs.”

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

Johnsen says she and her husband visited Italy for their 30th anniversary and again last year with their youngest son. They took no artifacts on either trip, she said.

“I’m hoping we can go back,” Johnsen said. “I hope they understand it was a goodwill gesture.”

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