Sunday 30 January 2011

Egypt: Archaeological Looting Already Under Way

With regard to my last post, I am hearing unconfirmed reports from Polish colleagues this evening that suggest there has already been some attempted archaeological looting in the Luxor region, so far I've only got this at second hand, but tomorrow hope to contact the Polish Mission and will try to find out more.

Meanwhile there are alarming accounts appearing in the press about looting of sites as civil disorder in Egypt becomes increasingly serious in the wake of the political crisis caused by the recent massive protests. One example is this one from Discovery News which at the beginning however gives some reassuring news which contrasts with what I had heard elsewhere:
The West Bank, where the mortuary temples and the Valley of the Kings are located, is without any security, with only villagers trying to protect the sites. “All the antiquities in the area have been protected by the locals all night, and nothing has been touched,” Mostafa Wazery, director of the Valley of Kings at Luxor, said.
leaving aside that this is not, I think, his actual title (he is in charge of a broader area), there is now no village in the necropolis, the locals have been resettled in the past two years. There are still houses down the south end, towards the Valley of Queens and Medinet Habu - so where the tourist police post is (UPDATE: I later learnt that the latter and the 'gaffirs' just packed up their things and deserted their posts for one night, but came back in the morning). Note the same theme as the human chain around the museum story, locals coming together to defend their past. It may however be more complex than that, only isolated scraps of information are getting through.

The Discovery News text continues however less optimistically:
According to Monica Hanna, an Egyptian Egyptologist, many other cultural sites have been abandoned by the police. “The Coptic Museum is left without security, as well as the areas of Memphite Necropolis south of the Pyramids. One can only imagine what is happening at the sites in more remote areas in Lower Egypt,” Hanna told Discovery News. Reports also are circulating about looters at the Supreme Council of Antiquities’ storage magazine in Qantara Sharq, as well as some other magazines in South Saqqara. Indeed, Abusir and Saqqara are reported to have suffered great damage. “All the sealed tombs were entered last night. Only the Imhotep Museum and the adjacent central magazines are currently protected by the military. Large gangs are digging day and night everywhere,” Hanna said.
Zahi Hawass picks up the story. He relates how he was receiving messages all night from the inspectors at Saqqara, Dahsur, and Mit Rahina. The magazines and stores of Abusir were opened, and there was nobody to be found to protect the antiquities at the site.

At this time I still do not know what has happened at Saqqara, but I expect to hear from the inspectors there soon. East of Qantara in the Sinai, we have a large store containing antiquities from the Port Said Museum. Sadly, a large group, armed with guns and a truck, entered the store, opened the boxes in the magazine and took the precious objects. Other groups attempted to enter the Coptic Museum, Royal Jewellery Museum, National Museum of Alexandria, and El Manial Museum. Luckily, the foresighted employees of the Royal Jewelery Museum moved all of the objects into the basement, and sealed it before leaving.

Rick St. Hilaire's blog is reporting similar news and suggests that there is a crisis brewing at major archaeological sites in Egypt. "The United States government and others must keep a careful watch at their borders for any ancient Egyptian artifacts". His source is an email from Sarah H. Parcak (Assistant Professor at the Department of History and Anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham). She reports
"immense damage to Abusir and Saqqara, all magazines and tombs which were sealed were entered last night. Only Imhotep Museum and adjacent central magazines protected by the military. In Abusir all tombs opened. large gangs digging day and night everywhere. The damage is *vast*"
Professor Parcak's email continues:
It seems that some of the storage magazines at South Saqqara and Abusir have been looted - hard to say how much was taken and the extent of the robbing. SCA representatives are only today able to check on the museums/storage magazines, but early reports suggest major looting. If you all could please contact anyone who can help and put them on "high alert" for Old Kingdom remains and Egyptian antiquities in general, and please spread the word to law enforcement officials worldwide. Egyptian looters (who may be encouraged by outside Egypt entities) may try to use the general confusion to get things out of the country.

Other bad news: prisons in Qena and Armant (next to Luxor) have been emptied, so people fear major looting will occur in that region. Reports still abound for major looting in the Alexandria Museum---but those reports are hard to confirm. The violence has been worse in Alexandria, and there have been few police reports there."
The Memphis museum (opposite Saqqara) was also looted. Here is former cairo Museum director Wafaa El-Saddik speaking from Germany:
The Museum in Memphis and its storerooms were completely robbed on Saturday morning. The leaders there called me in desperation and prayed: “Save us, do something.” I first called the police, but did not respond. I alerted an Army General, I know. But it was too late.
The museum at Memphis most displayed sculpture, so it is not clear at this stage what "completely robbed' actually means, though the storerooms would presumably have contained smaller "portable antiquities".

I bet that collectors and dealers will presumably react that this is "what happens when we leave stuff in their source countries" or some such nonsense. Already there are two examples:

- Candice Jarman 'A foretaste of what is to come? The folly of repatriation' (sic),
- Alfredo De La Fe: ' Uprising in Egypt Underscores Need for Debate on Pro-Nationalism, Antiquities and Museums

[Of course Mr Jarman should note that the Tutankhamun and the Deir Cache mummies (if that is indeed what was involved here) were not "repatriated", but I bet the looters were jolly well intent on sending them outside the country to could-not-care-less collectors and dealers. People who use arguments like those of Jarman and de La Fe do not seem to be adverse to helping scatter them - for "safety" we are to understand].

These individuals with their colonialist attitudes forget the reason for looters taking old bits of coloured stone and wood is to sell them to those who will pay largish sums of money for them no-questions-asked. Could the three wooden statues from Tutankamun's tomb have been sold to an ethical dealer or collector? Or the mummy heads? Without a market for these things, the looters would stick to looking for computers, office chairs and canned food.


Alfredo De La Fe said...

Paul, you apparently are not the brightest bulb on the string. I do not know of a single dealer, including those that would throw in their own mothers (thinking of the few crooks we read about on the news groups) to sweeten a deal, that would touch such a hot item. These specific items were well photographed and documented.

Part of the argument against additional import/export restrictions is that enough is not being done to photograph, document, study and care for existing holdings!

Paul Barford said...

Antiquities Dealer Alfredo De La Fe suggests:
"you apparently are not the brightest bulb on the string"

I'm just doing my best to put together pieces of information to try and understand things...

If the mere fact that something was documented stopped them being stolen, we'd not still be looking for the paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Duke of Buccleuch would not have lost the Leonardo 'Madonna of the Yarnwinder'. There is a whole lot of artworks and antiquities going missing each year that are stolen despite being fully documented and recognisable. They just disappear because the "art" market is not as transparent as it needs to be to combat this type of crime. Sellers and buyers of course defend this lack of transparency because it prevents them coming under scrutiny.

"Part of the argument against additional import/export restrictions is that enough is not being done to photograph, document, study and care for existing holdings!"

I am sure a lot more could be done. Maybe those who care about the past - instead of just pointing the finger - could set up a fund to help cash-strapped institutions bring their recording systems up to scratch if that is what they think is so important. I know the Cairo Museum is currently actively engaged in digitalising the old paper documentation of the collections.

But that is not the point, your duff CCPIA is intended to address the problem of ongoing looting (Act 9 of the 1970 Convention) I am not sure how US dealers and collectors think one can go about "photographing, documenting, studying and caring for" the archaeological heritage that is being clandestinely excavated, and secretly and illegally taken out of the country to be sold in the US.
This is the Witschonke argument which I have discussed here and consider to have no basis in US legislation (what the Act actually says, and not what antiquity dealers and others "want" it to say).

Alfredo De La Fe said...

People that move stolen art are generally referred to as fences, not dealers. It is a dangerous, ugly business and I do not know of a single reputable dealer that would knowingly buy stolen goods. Quite the opposite- I have seen cases where stolen coins were offered to a dealer at a numismatic bourse and the dealer refused to return them and called for security.

As for photographing and cataloguing museum holdings, again this proves how blissfully naive you are. I know of several numismatists (myself included) that offered to photograph and catalogue museum collections for free. Offers were outright refused for a variety of reasons that had to do with them not wanting to share their data or be embarassed by someone "correcting" any errors in their cataloguing. I will anticipate your response along the lines of "well who are you or they that they should accept such an offer?" and state that this offer has been made by some well renowned specialists with all of the credentials.

Mind you, most numismatic cabinets that matter are managed responsibly and work quite well with the public and numismatic researchers and scholars.

Paul Barford said...

No, of course no dealer ever sold an illegally excavated artefact, the photos from a Geneva showroom of objects with the mud still on them are fake, as was the correspondence between Schultz and Tokely-Parry just to mention two. Come on Alfredo why not be honest with the people bothering to read a coin-dealer's comments?

You do not answer my point about "There is a whole lot of artworks and antiquities going missing each year that are stolen despite being fully documented and recognisable. Nor that freshly clandestinely-excavated stuff cannot be documented as such because most thieves do not document what they do. Instead you attempt to answer the point I made about why collectors do not help institutions finance the better inventorisation of their holdings if they think it is so important. You miss the point and talk instead about collectors volunteering to do it. That's all very nice, but ignores the practicalities.

I myself worked on a coin assemblage where in the past (1960s) the museum had been unwise enough to allow a coin collector (now dead - a retired military officer with all the 'credentials') to catalogue part of the holdings. The coins mentioned in 1947 records and photos were not there, but there were other less interesting ones in their place. I think that is the problem, it was the museum that was wholly naive - try explaining that to the insurance company.

Case like this are not uncommon even in your own country - the thefts from the Mazal holocaust collection being one example that comes to mind that was in the news, allegedly (let's see) carried out by a volunteer cataloguer

Then there's the bloke who (rather amateurishly) altered the date on an Abraham Lincoln document in the US National Archives. How can you keep an eye on people handling material?

But now we are getting a long way away from the original point of the post

"Egypt: Archaeological Looting Already Under Way". There are other posts here dealing stolen artefacts and museum documentation. This post is about reports of looting underway on Sunday, 30 January 2011. If we could keep to topic please, Thanks.

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