Travesty in Egypt

As published by Popular Archaeology September, 2013. Co-written with Dan McLerran

No archaeological site is an island. With that in mind, no site can be removed from the affairs and events surrounding archaeology within Egypt. With a country in turbulence, the pitch and yaw of daily events make it almost inevitable that archaeological excavations will follow a similar pattern of uncertainty.

Ever since the January 25th Revolution that toppled the former president, Egypt has witnessed an accelerated exodus of prized historical objects. Egyptian, British, French and American authorities have seized millions of dollars worth of stolen goods. These items, while sometimes destined for the auction blocks of Christie's and Sotheby's, were more often likely to end up in the hands of private collectors before they even get to the auction houses. 

Compounding the problem of the involuntary flight of antiquities is an endemic lack of security at the dig sites throughout the country. In the past, excavators could rely on safety provided by the state. However, in the power vacuum that has emerged in the last two years, armed groups have now taken over key dig sites. Looting of graves and other sites has become increasingly problematic, with machine-gun toting thieves becoming increasingly brazen when choosing targets.

El Hibeh

The site of El Hibeh is a classic example of what is happening.  Beginning in 2001, Professor Carol Redmount of U.C. Berkeley, an archaeologist who has done extensive excavations and research in Egypt, conducted excavations at this ancient site, about 180 miles south of Cairo. It had evidenced occupation from Pharaonic times through the early Islamic periods. Her team's last season was completed in 2009, and for a variety of reasons they were not able to return. Now, there were concerns about the state of the archaeological remains at the El Hibeh site: She had been informed that there was extensive looting, and that the situation there was "very bad".

"Very bad" may have been an understatement. When she and a team finally returned to begin work at the site again in February, 2012, the scene was more than disheartening. They found hundreds of looters' pits, exposed tombs, destroyed walls, and even human remains, including remnants of dismembered mummies and strewn mummy wraps, littering the site like trash.

"The day before we were supposed to start work I received a phone call telling me that local Beni Suef security had yanked our permission to work", wrote Redmount in her Facebook account. "The upshot was that a local "gangster", whose name is known, from El Ogra, the village north of the site, had formed a sort of mafia focused on looting the site. This "criminal" is evidently a murderer who got out of prison after the revolution. His "gang" is looting the site non-stop, on a massive scale. When I returned to Cairo from our dig house........our van passed the site heading for the eastern desert highway, [and] we saw about ten men openly looting the mound and desert behind (we have pictures of some of them), with conveniently parked motorcycles nearby." 

Needless to say, El Hibeh is not the only site in Egypt that has been subjected to looting and destruction during and since the revolution. But El Hibeh is especially significant because it is one of the least disturbed sites of the Third Intermediate Period. It was built about 1070 BCE by the High Priests of Amun at Luxor/Thebes and was occupied for over 1,700 years through the Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman, Coptic, and early Islamic periods.

“The damage was so severe to the site, and so ongoing, that I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try and do something,” she told NBC in an interview .  “I just felt that if I didn’t come forward, there wasn’t going to be anything left.”

And come forward she did. Her interview was aired on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams, and she has established a Facebook page dedicated to getting the word out about El Hibeh's plight, as well as the plight of many other sites in Egypt facing the same threat. More than 1,700 people have joined the group, where Redmount and others have also posted hundreds of photographs illustrating the destruction and news about other threatened sites in Egypt and across the Middle East. 

"We started the "Save Hibeh Egypt" facebook page because we are at our wits end as to what else to do........We are posting here pictures of the site, of looting, of articles regarding this issue........We must take action to save El Hibeh and hundreds of other sites like it that have been severely damaged as a result of [only] limited police protection since January 28, 2011."

But it is a massive challenge.

"It is impossible to quantify the amount of destruction over the past two and a half years,” says historian and archaeologist Andy Dailey, who has worked in Egypt since 1998. “This is for many reasons: looters often fill in their excavations with dirt and debris from their newer excavations, so the evidence is somewhat erased. Much of the looting has occurred in broad daylight at prominent sites, but much of it has been done in the countryside or in the desert where journalists and concerned archaeologists, as well as government officials, have not been able to visit or examine."

History Lost

The plundering of historical sites is nothing new. Graves, tombs and monuments have been the target of thieves for hundreds, if not thousands of years. What is new, however, is the frequency and scope in which the raiding is happening.

The theft has obviously sent pangs of concern throughout the archaeological community. 

"Destroying a site is not just physical destruction. It also leaves us, the archaeologists, with little to use to further investigate, date and research a site," explains archaeologist Jan Summers. Summers is an Egyptologist and curator, working with the College of Idaho-O.J. Smith Museum of Natural History. 

In some areas, the presence of organized gangs have proven to be so intimidating and dangerous, that neither tourism nor antiquities police maintain much of a presence. Even popular tourist areas, such as the Pyramids, have been experiencing security issues.

"The Pyramids have many vendors who rely on it, so it is well-protected during the day in terms of looting,” remarks Dailey.  “Recently, however, a Russian team of photographers was able to enter the site and climb the Great Pyramid to take a series of impressive photographs of Cairo from its apex. The fact that they were able to not only enter the archaeological zone but also scale the top over a period of hours and then descend is a clear indication that security measures need to be enhanced.”

Given also that Khufu's second solar boat is being excavated in this area, it is cause for concern among archaeologists. Conversely, archaeologists working at the site do note that given the high profile nature of the boat’s recovery, it has enjoyed much more security than other, less iconic dig sites around the country.

The exact number of antiquities being bought and sold on the black market remains unknown, though experts are certain that the collective value is in the high millions. Even though sites like the Khufu boat excavation have managed to weather the storm, Dailey admits the path ahead does not look promising.

"What is clear... is that destruction of archaeological sites has significantly increased. While we have many examples of that from observations at El Hibeh, Giza, Saqqara, Dashur and more by archaeologists, we also have the Ministry of State for Antiquities stating the same thing and satellite imagery confirms this as well.”

But the real loss, say archaeologists, is not in the treasured artifacts themselves. It is in the priceless history that goes with it.

"In short, we may never know the [true] level of destruction," adds Dailey. "Many sites in Egypt have not been scientifically studied or are in the process of being studied, so we have no idea what has been lost."

And what more will yet be lost…