Friday, 1 April 2011

Another Antiquities Storeroom Looted by Armed Gang in Egypt

Nevine El-Aref, writing in Al-Ahram on Friday 1 Apr 2011:
Armed looters broke in to the Tel El-Dabaa antiquities warehouse on Thursday, stealing artefacts and breaking several pieces of the stored collection. Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud, head of the Central Administration of Antiquities of Alexandria and Lower Egypt, said the warehouse was used to store artifacts found at Tel El-Dabaa's archaelogical sites by Dutch and German excavation missions over the last 30 years. They include a collection of ancient Egyptian clay pots and amulets.

I find the use of the term "warehouse" highly annoying here. What are being robbed in Egypt today are not "antiquities warehouses". A warehouse is where items destined for sale are temporarily held by merchants. What was broken into here is a storeroom of material from an ongoing archaeological project being archived for future work and research, not selling off to collectors eager to get their hands on their own private little "pieces of the past". In stealing this material, robbers are hindering - or removing any possibility - of using that material to write a public past. The results of decades' work by groups of dedicated people is being trashed overnight by these raids.

Now I really do not accept what one British artefact collector and propagandist for the artefact trade recently suggested, that this looting is a "a cry of frustration from the poor and dispossessed" desperate acts "of the forgotten underclass" against their government. Forgotten underclasses do not carry guns and anaesthetics to render guards unconscious. Forgotten underclasses in most parts of rural Egypt can barely afford a donkey. What we see in Egypt before our very eyes is the early stages of the development of networks of illegal activity involving antiquities, due entirely to their value (real, or perceived) on the antiquities market. The current political instability in Egypt is allowing them becoming bolder and will lead to them becoming better organized into criminal networks. Then foreign collectors and dealers will be happy as there will be lots more ancient Egyptian antiquities on the no-questions-asked external markets, and they can all make a heavy profit from helping to finance these new organized criminal groups in their free-enterprise emptying of the fragile and finite archaeological record onto the commercial market.

We have seen this before, most notably in eastern Europe in the political instability caused by the collapse of the Soviet bloc. We have seen how the international antiquities market has profited, and continues to profit from the illegal activities of artefact hunters in southeastern Europe (Bulgaria in particular) and now - as that source dries up - in other regions of the former eastern bloc (such as northwestern Russia and the Baltic states). We saw the same thing in Afghanistan then Iraq. Dealers and collectors deny this process took place and deny their responsibility for helping fund it, let us observe now the same thing happening in post-Mubarak Egypt. I'd like to draw attention to the fact that none of the pro-market collectors blogs or forums open to public view have expressed any real concern about this looting, why should they when they are obviously silently waiting for the artefacts to start flowing onto a market near them?

For those who cannot place Tel El-Dabaa, this is the site of some really very interesting and modern excavations on what is thought to be Avaris, a central place in the Hyksos realm and in the story of the rise and functioning of the New Kingdom but also - some would argue - having its place in Biblical history as well. The dealers and collectors who will be handling the artefacts stolen from this storeroom in their efforts to pursue a vision of a "people's archaeology" (sic) through the collection of random decontextualised artefacts of specific type are not dismembering history stolen just from the Egyptian people, but from us all.

Photo: Tel El-Dabaa, the future site no doubt of criminal organizations' artefact mines to tap the ample resources offered no-questions-asked by the international antiquities market. History for all becomes a blank, a looted site and a handful of collectable geegaws in a Chicago suburban back room.

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