Sunday 16 June 2013

Unchecked looting guts Egypt’s heritage

Shawn Baldwin/Tribune-Review
There is an interesting series of three very illuminating articles in the Tribune-Review written by their foreign correspondent, Betsy Hiel which seem worth highlighting here as part of the debate on artefact hunting and collecting. The first - with its photo gallery of upsetting images - sets the scene (Betsy Hiel, 'Unchecked looting guts Egypt’s heritage, with one ancient site ‘70% gone’ ...', Tribune-Review 15th June 2013).

The site to which she refers is one that was mentioned on this blog a few weeks ago, the ancient necropolis of Abu Sir al Malaq in Beni Suef governorate about 70 miles from Cairo. The site is now littered with scattered human bones from corpses that tomb raiders have ripped apart in search of artefacts to sell to collectors. According to the article, nearby villagers, asked for directions to the site, respond: “Antiquities? Do you want to buy antiquities?”: 
Police and local authorities insist they are overwhelmed by lawlessness and outgunned by criminal gangs with heavy weapons smuggled from Libya. Meanwhile, the threatened heritage is a low priority for many Egyptians beset by daily electrical outages, fuel shortages, higher food prices, rising street crime and political instability. For others, that heritage is a chance to cash in. Looted objects are sold in dirt-poor villages near sites such as Abu Sir al Malaq; others go to wealthy collectors, particularly in the United States, Europe, Japan and the Middle East, experts say. Last week, Egypt's new antiquities minister pledged to improve security “at all archaeological sites and museums.” But that appears to be too little too late for the sprawling cemetery complex, or necropolis, in the governorate of Bani Suef. Of three sites examined by the Trib – the others are Dahshour and El-Hibeh – it is the most extensively ravaged. 
Salima Ikram is also quoted: "It is a disgrace.”  “For almost 3,000 years, they [the bodies of the dead] have been left undisturbed. They were not meant to be left like this, to be eaten by dogs and foxes and jackals … broken apart by greedy people.” Ikram assesses that too many sites have been “plundered and tossed about so that, archaeologically, it is very difficult to reconstruct … a huge loss for mankind.” For Egyptians “who feel keenly about their past,” she adds, it is “a personal violation of the worst sort.”

Bani Suef's antiquities director, Nadia Ashour, says she is “heartbroken” that “sneak digging” is destroying such sites throughout Egypt.
Although Islam and Christianity forbid grave-robbing, she says, some Egyptians think their ancestors were pagans and, thus, are fair game to be robbed. She blames heavily armed criminal gangs that sprang up after the revolution. Police, she insists, now conduct more investigations, more spot-checks of sites; nine looted coffins were retrieved in recent months and 15 looters imprisoned. Ashour said she “cannot say for sure that antiquities have been taken out” because some villagers craft expert forgeries of artifacts. But she insists Abu Sir al Malaq “is like 80 percent stable,” although “from time to time, these attacks take place.” 
Monika Hanna who has surveyed the site repeatedly says. “The looting is pandemic, every night and even in the morning,” she says. Sighing, she adds: “I think 70 percent of the site is gone.” “The first time I saw this, I cried the whole way home,” she says. “I have been coming here for six weeks now and, each time I come, the site looks different — new pits are dug.”
A wispy-haired mummy's head, bleached skulls, and arm and leg bones are piled outside looted tombs. A mummified hand with leathery-skinned fingers pokes from the sand. Ancient burial wrappings from mummified bodies — torn apart to find priceless jewelry — unravel across the desert like brown ribbon, or tangle near broken bits of wooden coffins still brightly painted after nearly 3,000 years underground. With bones scattered everywhere, this 500-acre plot looks like the aftermath of a massacre rather than an ancient burial ground. “You see dogs playing with human bones, children scavenging for pottery,” says Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna, stepping cautiously around grisly remains and deep pits dug into tombs by looters.
Wisconsin collector, Gottahav Braghoard asks dealer Garry Grebkesh of Grebkesh and Runn: "how much is that?", his only question. 


Paul Barford said...

Gary Grebkesh says "we only deal in genuine artefacts"

Paul Barford said...

Another article in similar vein: "Experts heartbroken by raiding in Egyptian area near Nile

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