Looting in Egypt at a level not seen since Baghdad in 2003

The AP reported last week that the Malawi Antiquities Museum in a city called Minya had been ransacked. There really is no other word for it. Stolen objects included a 3,500 year-old statue, jewelry, and an estimated 1,000 other artifacts.

Most disturbing of all: the thieves and looters ransacked the building “for days”. From the AP report:

Among the stolen antiquities was a statue of the daughter of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled during the 18th dynasty. Archaeologist Monica Hanna described it as a “masterpiece.” Other looted items included gold and bronze Greco-Roman coins, pottery and bronze-detailed sculptures of animals sacred to Thoth, a deity often represented with the head of an ibis or a baboon.

Continue reading “Looting in Egypt at a level not seen since Baghdad in 2003”

Looting at Ebla in Syria

On Saturday CJ Chivers reported on looting in Syria, in particular at the ancient site of Ebla:

For decades Ebla has been celebrated for the insights it offers into early Syrian civilization. The scenes here today offer something else: a prime example of a peculiar phenomenon of Syria’s civil war — scores, if not hundreds, of archaeological sites, often built and inhabited millenniums ago because of their military value, now at risk as they are put to military use once more. Seen from afar, Ebla is a mound rising above the Idlib plain. It was first settled more than 5,000 years ago. It eventually became a fortified walled city whose residents worshiped multiple gods, and traded olive oil and beer across Mesopotamia. The city was destroyed around 2200 B.C., flourished anew several centuries later and then was destroyed again. The latest disruption came after war began in 2011. Once rebels pushed the army back and into nearby garrisons, the outcropping upon which Ebla rests presented a modern martial utility: it was ideal for spotting passing government military planes.

The piece also has a very good video report, showing the site: http://nyti.ms/XkR4EY

  1. C. J. Chivers, Syrian War Devastates Ancient Sites, The New York Times, April 6, 2013.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Challenges for Preservation in Dahshour, Egypt

This Pyramid at Dahshour is being threatened

In Egypt at the Dahshour necropolis, modern cemetery expansion and looting are putting the much older pharaonic necropolis at risk. The AP reports that the locals are building new tombs, police are unable to enforce regulations and secure the site. But worst of all the piece speculates that the new Islamist regime holds little respect for the ancient past. Here’s a flavor:

In the case of Dahshour, villagers say their cemeteries are full and authorities don’t give permits or land for new ones. So they took matters into their own hands and grabbed what they insist is empty desert to erect family tombs. “The dearest thing for us is burying our dead,” said Mohammed Abdel-Qader, a resident of nearby Manshiet Dahshour. “This land here is wide and flat, it’s a valley. Where are the antiquities they talk about? … We have no antiquities here.”
. . .
The cemetery expansion is the most dangerous encroachment yet because of how close it comes to the Dahshour monuments, which are on the UNESCO World Heritage site list, Younes said. Moreover, Dahshour is largely unexcavated, since the area was a closed military zone until 1996. What remains buried is believed to be a treasure trove shedding light on the largely unknown early dynasties. “When you build something over archaeological site, you change everything. We can’t dig in and know what is inside,” Younes told The Associated Press. “This is the only virgin site in all of Egypt.” 

 The story notes that the construction of new tombs, though illegal, may also be cover for looting. The piece paints a troubling picture. Consider the difficult time Egyptian officials must have had in protecting and preserving a site like this. They must weigh the concerns of angry local populations, be wary of the more dangerous antiquities looters, and also work to preserve the site.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Accounts of Looting at El-Hibeh in Egypt

“Looting is ongoing, there is no protection for the site”
 -Carol Redmount, archaeologist

Marco Werman of PRI talks with archaeologist Carol Redmount about ongoing looting at El-Hibeh in Egypt. In the interview which is embedded below Redmount notes that a criminal enterprise which has “mafia-like” characteristics is systematically looting the site. The leader of the operation is allegedly an escaped prisoner. No security is protecting the site.

I recommend clicking through to see a slideshow of discarded human remains and looted graves. Site protection is the first and probably most important step which can be taken here. Protections at Egypt’s points of export and importing checkpoints cannot undo the damage being done here. The looters themselves are motivated by a vulnerable resource and economic hardship. You can follow this site on a facebook site Redmount has created to track the situation and offer assistance.

The facebook page notes a first-hand account from Redmount:

When I returned to Cairo from our dig house last week and our van passed the site heading for the eastern desert highway, we saw about ten men openly looting the mound and desert behind (we have pictures of some of them), with conveniently parked motorcycles nearby. One of our drivers took the same road this past Friday and reported that again numerous men were busy with wholesale looting of the site in broad daylight. This is an on-going crisis. They are destroying the site. The SCA officials have tried everything they could to get the looting to stop. Nothing seems to be having any effect. This is something police and security seem to be ignoring, turning a blind eye to, or worse. We started the Save Hibeh facebook page because we are at our wits end as to what else to do . . .

The solution is for Egypt’s authorities to raise the level of security at this site and sites like it, or to enlist the assistance of other agencies from UNESCO or Italy’s Carabinieri. We can all collectively pressure Egypt from afar to take these steps, but a nation controls the protection of its own heritage.

Our next-best option is to stop buying the shabtis and kinds of salable objects that come from sites like this without complete histories, adequately documented.

  1. Andrea Crossan, Egypt Looters Ransack Archaeological Sites PRI’s The World (2012), http://www.theworld.org/2012/03/egypt-looters-ransack-sites/ (last visited Mar 28, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Cambodia Disputing a Koh Ker statue up for auction at Sotheby’s

The disputed limestone Koh Ker statue

Cambodia is asking for assistance from the U.S. government in repatriating a limestone statue which was likely looted during the Vietnam War/Khmer Rouge era. Jane Levine, compliance director for Sotheby’s argues that “there are widely divergent views on how to resolve conflicts involving cultural heritage objects”. Here is mine.

The statue has considerable value, its pre-sale auction price was estimated at between $2-3 million. That estimate will likely be considerably less after the report in the New York times, detailing the dubious history of the object. Sotheby’s claims the object was acquired by a “noble European lady” in 1975. Hardly a complete history of the object, and hardly enough to invoke the protections of good faith. The absence of information should not confer the benefits of a good faith purchase. Sotheby’s argues the burden should be placed on Cambodia. I wonder though if the blunt reality of two feet without a body might lead a thinking person to a different conclusion. No museum can ethically acquire this object. Though the Norton Simon has a similar statue, also without feet, no word yet on whether Cambodia may seek the repatriation of that statue as well.

I would expect if a resolution between Sotheby’s and Cambodia cannot be reached that the government consider using its forfeiture powers on the grounds the statue was under the ownership of Cambodia after a 1925 French colonial law declaring objects in Cambodia to be the exclusive property of the state.

Should the forfeiture proceeding be declined, I would urge Cambodia or its lawyers to consider using a civil action using as a precedent the English case, Bumper Development Corp. v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis [1991] 1 WLR 1362. That case successfully achieved the repatriation of an object taken from an Indian temple, but it was the temple itself was given legal rights as a party. Perhaps there is a legal personality in Cambodia which might offer a similar connection to this statue.

    A Pedestal in Cambodia, which might be the base
  1. Tom Mashberg & Ralph Blumenthal, Sotheby’s Caught in Dispute Over Prized Cambodian Statue, The New York Times, February 28, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/29/arts/design/sothebys-caught-in-dispute-over-prized-cambodian-statue.html (last visited Feb 28, 2012).

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Looting with Dynamite in Greece

This is the first I’ve head of using dynamite like this to loot sites: six looters in northern Greece have been arrested for using dynamite at an archaeological site to search for gold:

Authorities said Thursday that the four Greek and two Albanian men were arrested Wednesday after police discovered a 12-meter (40-foot) tunnel blasted into the side of a mountain near the city of Kavala, 700 kilometres (435 miles) north of Athens. 
The tunnel, with support columns and a construction track, was first started in 2008, according to local police, who said the suspects would be charged with illegal excavation, illegal use and possession of explosives, and violating archaeological protection laws. 
Archaeological services would not comment on whether they believed there was buried gold in the area.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Protecting Giza from Looters

Giza

“We are paying the price for a greedy, insatiable and unregulated market.”

So argues Sarah Marei, an antiquities inspector in Egypt. She describes firsthand the attempts to protect sites in   Egypt:

Under normal circumstances the tourist police are responsible for guarding Egypt’s rich ancient history, from monasteries to temples, synagogues to mosques. But the police presence vanished in the revolution and has yet to return to the sites. The individual initiatives on the part of site inspectors and the townspeople from the remote areas is often the only current protection afforded to some of the world’s most unique and magnificent monuments. 

We continue to work everyday on the makeshift salvage operation in Giza. Volunteers regularly turn up and, as we work, stories are exchanged about the looting where gangs of armed men attacked and shot the guards and plundered the site. 

The work we are conducting is not only physically draining but also emotionally exhausting. My anger is initially directed at the looters and my thoughts keep returning to the same question: why are these criminals, who are Egyptians, looting their own history and their nation’s pride in order to sell it? Only if they stand to gain substantially would they go as far, feeding a market that is standing ready and prepared to amply reward them for their troubles; the better the object, the bigger the reward. 

No indication of the market for antiquities is clearer than in the selection of the sites targeted by the looters in the past few months in Egypt. The overwhelming majority is Pharaonic, followed by Islamic, with Coptic and Jewish so far remaining untouched. We are struggling to protect our sites, facing armed men while we have nothing but sticks, because of a demand from personal collections (both inside and outside Egypt) and from rival institutions seeking a competitive edge.

There’s justifiable anger and frustration in the account, and familiar groups to blame: the looters and an unregulated market.

  1. Sarah Marei, Tales from the Egyptian revolution | The Art Newspaper, The Art Newspaper, March 24, 2011, http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Tales+from+the+Egyptian+revolution/23394 (last visited Mar 24, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com