Sunday 30 January 2011

Egypt: Protecting Sites From Looting

Reports are coming in that attempts are being made to protect monuments all over Egypt in case antiquity looting breaks out. Many news media are mentioning that access to the pyramids is being prevented. I suspect this is not so much to protect the pyramids (and associated mastaba cemetery) as to keep adventurous tourists stuck in Cairo from wandering too far. To get to the pyramids they would have to cross an area where there has been a lot of unrest these past few days, and obviously the more scattered they are, the more difficult they are to protect (and protecting its visitors is one of the things the Egyptians are very serious about). In addition, the mastaba tombs and their reliefs are particularly vulnerable to looting (a la TT 15 Tomb of Tetiki style). Let us not forget also that Zahi Hawass has a personal interest in the Giza cemeteries.

Unfortunately there are huge numbers of sites which are vulnerable to the same kind of antiquity robbing as civil order breaks down. Sites which have elements that can be broken out and turned into saleable "portable antiquities". I'd suggest reliefs on blocks are the most suitable for this. A mob can break into a temple or tomb with crowbars and in a matter of half an hour or so get some pieces of "ancient art" off the walls and into knapsacks. Museum and excavation stores are full of bits already loose, ready for looters to take their pick. I'd predict that Saqqara is one site which needs to be guarded especially well in coming days, weeks (and who knows, as the national stability carefully built by Mubarak founders, much longer).

I am worried about what might happen in Luxor, where I was due to go next week. On Saturday (apparently before rioting actually broke out there) it was being reported in multiple sources:
Archaeologist Kent Weeks, who is in the southern temple town of Luxor, said that rumors that attacks were planned against monuments prompted authorities to erect barriers and guard Karnak Temple while tanks were positioned around Luxor's museum.
These of course are full of lootable and saleable objects (as is the Luxor temple and lesser-known Medamut complex nearby). There has been no mention of the West Bank - apparently some foreign missions were at work there yesterday (especially as the area around the necropolis is depopulated due to the removal of the village here in the last two years). If civil order breaks down here, these sites are especially vulnerable. I'm not only worried about the monuments, but the people looking after them who I got to know during my wanderings around the necropolis. All of them charming and friendly people, living in shifts in huts scattered around between the tombs and temples.

Here's one of the three or four gentlemen recently guarding the Seti I temple (photo: PMB Dec 2009).

If a mob of 90 blokes with crowbars decided they were going to break into a storeroom (and there are many scattered over the necropolis of varying degrees of sophistication and security) or a tomb or two to see what they could get their hands on, there is no way a few dozen guards could offer any resistance. How long would it take for the police or army to respond to their call for help (I did not see any radios in their guardposts when I drank tea with them - neither do they seem to be armed). There is a small group of armed tourist police guarding the Hatshepsut Temple and there is a police station by the Antiquities Services offices at Medinet Habu. Most of the police stationed actually in the necropolis itself are in outposts which are distant from the areas more approachable from the east (like half-way up the mountain). The Antiquity service is in the process of building a boundary wall around the eastern side of the central part of the necropolis, but its easy to hop over, it serves a demarcation purpose rather than intended to keep armed mobs out. There is now much better floodlighting (the cables put in last year without any kind of archaeological supervision I could see), but its no use being able to see tomb robbers and looters if you can't stop them.

If these sites are looted and stores are broken into in the next few weeks, we will have to be very alert to the appearance of the items on the market. The effects of the appearance of fresh unprovenanced material on the market will mean we will have to look very critically at all the unprovenanced material of Egyptian origin and type on the market, scarabs and shabtis included. And coins of course - maybe the new Egyptian government can ask the US for a bilateral cultural property agreement for all those years of mutual support and friendship.

UPDATE: How little did I suspect how rapidly these predictions would, sadly, become reality.


Damien Huffer said...

This is so frightening! If there's a complete "regime change," then yes, perhaps at least a new MOU will result...

Paul Barford said...

Well, obviously an "MOU" is less preferable to stopping the damage to sites and museum collections in the first place. In any case I think the stuff would most likely go to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States rather than direct to the States.

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