Sunday 13 February 2011

Egypt Looting: Are we Seeing the Beginning of Phase Two?

News from Egypt suggests the country is entering a period of political uncertainty, confusion and inertia quite different I suspect from that envisaged by the enthusiasts both in Egypt and the outside world of the overnight dismantling of the existing regime. How long it will last, and what - in reality - will follow it is anyone's guess. This however is an archaeology blog, and on its pages an issue of importance is what this means for Egypt's sites and monuments and the illegal trade in antiquities.

Two weeks ago it seems decisions were taken to withdraw civilian security from the streets and locations all over the country. The consequent breakdown in law and order over that weekend (28th - 30th Jan) led to the break-ins in the Cairo Egyptological Museum and museum storerooms over a large area of the country (apparently mainly in Lower Egypt in the region most affected by the unrest) and clandestine opportunistic digging on a number of sites and possibly also the removal of elements from some monuments. This was reportedly quelled by the stationing of army personnel on the sites affected (though they cannot have been stationed on every site in the country). The correlation between political chaos and this opportunistic looting was clear.

Mubarak unexpectedly stepped down on Friday and a day after this Zahi Hawass announced that museum stores at Dashur had been broken into, reportedly on the previous night. On Sunday (unconfirmed) reports were posted by Kate Phizackerley on her blog which indicate clandestine digging at Abydos - according to this report "there are no SCA staff present on site": Looting of antiquities continues unopposed here in Abydos. Everyday I walk across the desert plain to my land beyond and every day I see evidence of illegal digging. The remains of mummies now litter the plain. 3/4 days ago 10 armed raiders entered the American mission house in Abydos and looted it. Police were frightened off by gun fire from the raiders. What the looters made off with is unknown and it is also unknown whether they gain access to the newly built restoration/storage rooms.

I suspect that in the confused days to come, unless strong measures are taken to prevent this, both within Egypt and by the antiquities trade outside, given the value of these items on the market this is a phenomenon that can only spread. We saw this most infamously in the case of Iraq, but also all across eastern Europe with the collapse of the existing regimes - leading to the massive looting of sites on an industrial scale in regions like Bulgaria, Crimea and now the Early Medieval burial sites of the forests of Northern Russia. The only people to benefit from the survival of these sites into our times are the no-questions-asked collectors and dealers who fund those that despoil them to obtain saleable collectables.

UPDATE 14/2/11:
According to CNN, "On Sunday, thieves also attacked the Dashour storage area near Saqqara, Egypt, for the second time in two days after handcuffing guards at the site, according to Hawass. Antiquities officials were working to determine what, if anything was stolen, Hawass said". On the same day and presumably drawing on the same source, Al Ahram has a different version: "Minister of State for Antiquities Zahi Hawass announced that an inventory carried out at Darshour storage gallery, known as De-Morgans, by the site inspectors, reveals that there are eight missing amulets. A huge iron gate is to be erected around the gallery in an attempt to tighten security". I suspect the latter information refers to an earlier raid. Eight amulets seem just the sort of thing that one could easily hide somewhere and bring out to sell to tourists when they come back, let them worry about getting them out of the country. But where would poor downtrodden peasant farmers (who some antiquity collectors claim on forums and blogs are behind this looting) get handcuffs from?

Vignette: digging (Author)

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