Firsthand Report of Looting in Saqqara

The step pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara

There are a number of conflicting reports emerging from Egypt, and as evacuated members of foreign archaeological missions arrive home, we are learning more about what took place in the chaos last weekend. Zahi Hawass is reporting on his website that sites are being protected and that reports of rumors of looting at places like Saqqara are not true. Yet Lee Rosenbaum has been forwarded a firsthand account from a French archaeologists that describes looting last weekend:

The French Archaeological Mission at Saqqara has just left Egypt yesterday and arrived safe today. As most of you are in lack of direct information concerning what happened there, I will try to tell you in brief what I saw. 
On Saturday, the taftish [on-site officer from Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities] asked us to stop the work, because the police were not in the capacity of protecting us anymore. In the afternoon, we could see that the police at the police station at the entrance of the resthouses was gone and had left us alone. That is when it all began: Robbers from Saqqara and Abusir became aware of this and they began to spread in the gebel [mountainous desert].
The first afternoon and night, they mainly attacked places which were secured with locks. They broke them and went inside. Most of the time, they destroyed what they saw and not robbed anything, trying to find “treasures.” These are not well organised robbers but, mainly, young people from 10 to 20, very probably looking for gold. That is why, when they saw blocks of stone, they most of the time left them, or destroyed them in order to find what was underneath.
I could see them with my eyes the day after, when we made a tour in the gebel with the army. Around 5 p.m., when the sun was still not down, at the muslim cemetery of Abusir, I counted more than 200 young men, excavating in front of us, ready to flee if the army would come down. A tank of the army was there, but they kept on digging. The soldiers were not numerous enough to do anything else than showing they were here. And when we went back, they probably came back in the highs. They were laughing and throwing stones at us. 
. . .

After three days, more and more soldiers arrived in Saqqara and secured more and more of the area. The worse days were Saturday and Sunday. It looks like the army is now securing most of the area, and they made clear that anyone taken would be taken to jail. Hope it works.

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Reports of Looting and Theft throughout Egypt

An Egyptian Soldier guarding the Cairo Museum

Like many of you I am following the reports from Egypt with great interest. There is a flood of information on the revolution generally, and also a lot of specific information about the destruction over the weekend at the Cairo Museum.

The situation at the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo seems to have stabilized, with soldiers arresting fifty men who have attempted to break in to the museum Monday. Yesterday Zahi Hawass faxed a report, which was posted on his blog.

 Now reports are emerging about damage and thefts at sites elsewhere in the country. Much of it, I am sorry to say, is disheartening. These reports are very early, and should be taken with a healthy dash of skepticism. Yet we all know that there are places where many of these objects will be bought and sold. The antiquities trade does not distinguish the licit from the illicit. Vast storehouses and sites are at risk. The United States will soon have to consider emergency import restrictions, and monitor the trade as best we can. Yet one can’t help but feel frustrated at the destruction which may be taking place.

The Egyptian newsblog Bikyamasr is reporting widespread looting of museums and antiquities thefts all over the country:

According to antiquities official Mohamed Megahed, “immense damages to Abusir and Saqqara” were reported. Looters allegedly have gone into tombs that had been sealed and destroyed much of the tombs and took artifacts.

“Only the Imhotep Museum and adjacent central areas were protected by the military. In Abusir, all tombs were opened; large gangs digging day and night,” he said.

According to Megahed, storage facilities in South Saqqara, just south of Cairo has also been looted. He did mention it was hard to ascertain what, and how much, was taken.

He said Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) officials “are only today [Sunday] able to check on the museums storage, but early reports suggest major looting.”

He called on the international archaeology community to issue a “high alert” statement on Old Kingdom remains and Egyptian antiquities in general, “and please spread the word to law enforcement officials worldwide.”

Looters of museums, “who may be encouraged by outside Egypt entities, may try to use general confusion to get things out of the country.”

His statement comes as Al Jazeera and other news networks reported extensively on the small looting at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in the past two days as police guarding the museum left their posts. Others allege that the police themselves are responsible for the looting.

The Egyptian Museum is home to some 120,000 items and thousands more in storage in the basement.

 What a sad development if museum security really were involved in the looting. Already it is worth asking the difficult question: what could be done to prevent this in the future, and also thinking about answers. One answer might lie with how the guards were treated. Hyperallergic has translated an interview with the former director of the Egyptian Museum Wafaa el-Saddik, published in the German publication Zeit Online, reporting that the Museum in Memphis has been robbed. The thieves may have been Egyptian security guards, who earn as little as 35 Euros per month.

Good sources of information include:

After the jump, a collection of videos of the situation in Cairo (via)

Al Jazeera report of Friday’s looting at the Cairo Museum on Friday:

AP video of the army securing the museum:

Zahi Hawass commenting on Saturday:

(cross-posted)

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Hawass says Egyptian Museum "Raided"

Zahi Hawass claimed that two mummies have been destroyed, and the museum was “raided”, in an appearance on Egyptian state television:

CAIRO Jan 29 (Reuters) – Looters broke into the Egyptian Museum during anti-government protests late on Friday and destroyed two Pharaonic mummies, Egypt’s top archaeologist told state television.

The museum in central Cairo, which has the world’s biggest collection of Pharaonic antiquities, is adjacent to the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party that protesters had earlier set ablaze. Flames were seen still pouring out of the party headquarters early on Saturday.

“I felt deeply sorry today when I came this morning to the Egyptian Museum and found that some had tried to raid the museum by force last night,” Zahi Hawass, chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said on Saturday.

“Egyptian citizens tried to prevent them and were joined by the tourism police, but some (looters) managed to enter from above and they destroyed two of the mummies,” he said.

He added looters had also ransacked the ticket office.

The two-storey museum, built in 1902, houses tens of thousands of objects in its galleries and storerooms, including most of the King Tutankhamen collection. (Reporting by Yasmine Saleh, Writing by Patrick Werr)

Looters destroy mummies in Egyptian Museum-official | News by Country | Reuters

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Superindictments and their Consequences

Yesterday there was a series of over 120 arrests of alleged mafia members. Though it is not quite on the same scale, it bears at least a few similarities to the indictments handed down in the Southwest as a part of  operation ‘cerberus’, or even the searches of California Museums in early 2007. Christopher Beam writes that these large investigations are ‘superindictments’:

Why one huge arrest, rather than a bunch of smaller ones? “It’s a statement,” says Jim Wedick, a former FBI agent. “They wanted to say, ‘You know what? We are back in town.’ ” Since 2001, the FBI has shifted its resources away from traditional crime-fighting toward counterterrorism. Thursday’s bust is a message from the Department of Justice to organized crime: We haven’t forgotten about you.

A message certainly was sent yesterday. By using this large-scale investigation Beam writes that you can encourage individuals to cooperate, informants are almost assured if you arrest a large enough group, and a powerful message is sent. Yet the events in the wake of the Cerberus investigation are sobering. Do law enforcement officials need to weigh the severity of their actions? Or do individuals who break the law earn the hardships which can sometimes emerge.

Cerberus was the frightening three-headed dog that guarded the underworld. The beast prevented souls from crossing into or out of the Hades’ dominion. A sad irony then that three suicides emerged from the investigation. The undercover informant who set much of the investigation into motion, and two of the individuals indicted. Antiquities looters have almost certainly changed their behavior. Whether the investigation drove them further underground or caused them to cease the looting remains to be seen. One hopes they have ceased looting of sites, but until the demand for black market antiquities is erased, there will sadly be people willing to risk arrest. Investigators worked very hard to make this case, and agents work tirelessly to police these sites, yet until the demand is eliminated, will these investigations continue?

  1. Christopher Beam, FBI Mafia Arrests: The rise of the superindictment. Slate (2011), http://www.slate.com/id/2281894/?from=rss (last visited Jan 21, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Looted Statute (maybe Caligula) Seized Near Rome

A Bust of Caligula at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Italian police have arrested a tombarolo with an 8-foot ancient statue not far from Rome. The statue may be worth €1 million. They believe the statue may be of Caligula, and may even have been looted from Caligula’s tomb, which has not been discovered. We surely won’t know if this tomb or the site was the actual tomb, but if looting is destroying the archaeological record, we are losing information.

Might the record have given us information on Caligula, who may have received a bad rap from the sources which have survived antiquity? Contemporaries describe the emperor as insane, saying he appointed a horse as consul, slept with his sisters, and killed often. But these might have been claims made by his political enemies in the senate and elsewhere—perhaps not too different from today’s politics. After all, how could the son of Germanicus (my favorite Roman) have been such a bad guy. Caligula only ruled from AD 37-41, before he was assassinated.

I wonder where this statue was going to be sold? The United States, the middle-East, Asia? Excavations will start to reveal the archaeology of the site where the tomb raider unearthed the massive statue.

  1. Tom Kington, Caligula’s tomb found after police arrest man trying to smuggle statue, The Guardian, January 17, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/17/caligula-tomb-found-police-statue (last visited Jan 18, 2011).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Craig Childs on Archaeology

Craig Childs talks to NPR about his new book “Finders Keepers“:

Author Craig Childs’ new book, Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession, reads almost like a thriller, chock-full of vendettas, suicides and large-scale criminal enterprises dedicated to the multimillion-dollar trade in antiquities.

Childs tells NPR’s Audie Cornish that emotions run high in the world of antiquities. “There’s such an attachment to what is the right and wrong thing to do with these objects,” he says. “What is legal? What is illegal? It really rises to the surface to where I know some archaeologists who want pot hunters dead, and I know pot hunters who want archaeologists dead.” His book follows several families of pot hunters who ran afoul of the government after digging up relics on public land.

And many objects now in museums may not be legal, Childs says. For example, the famous Euphronios krater, an ancient Greek vessel for mixing wine and water, stood in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for almost 40 years. “You’d go into the Met and there it was, in its own display case,” Childs says. “Just beautiful paintings of warriors and gods all around it, one of the finest Greek vessels ever found, and it was sold with paperwork that said, you know, this thing is legal.” But an extensive investigation proved that the krater had been looted from an Etruscan tomb in Italy, and in 2008 the Met returned it to the Italian government.

Audio after the jump

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Ancient Underground Tomb Discovered in Looting Raid

AP Photo:  Turkish Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay

 Authorities in Turkey have discovered an “important archaeological site” while searching for looted antiquities, reports the Associated Press.  The discovery was made near Milas, in western Turkey.  This sarcophagus may have contained artifacts, but they have disappeared, likely lost in the illicit trade.  The piece describes the tunnels:

[T]he suspects had dug two tunnels — 6 and 8 meters (yards) long, from the house and an adjacent barn, leading to the tomb that is buried some 10 meters (yards) deep.
They used sophisticated equipment to drill through the thick marble walls of the tomb and were working to remove the coffin from the underground chamber when they were detained, according to the Culture Ministry.
“I would have wished that this (archaeological find) had been discovered through our digs and not through digs conducted by a band of treasure hunters,” Anatolia quoted Gunay as saying.
“This is not an ordinary treasure hunt. It is very organized and it is obvious that they received economic and scientific help,” Gunay said, adding that Turkey also would investigate the suspects possible overseas links.

  1. Turkey Discovers Ancient Underground Tomb : NPR, , http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129174682 (last visited Aug 13, 2010).
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Paracas Textiles

nullJudith Dobrzynski tries to track the disposition of Paracas Textiles currently ‘owned’ by the city of Gothenburg Sweden.  There are some reports that the objects may be returned, but the interesting aspect is how the objects are being displayed in Sweden, in a way which throws the doors open to the perils of the antiquities trade and the destruction looting can cause. 

First, Dobrzynski notes the city council was supposed to vote on April 26th on whether the textiles would be returned:

It’s possible that the decision was indeed made, but the announcement was put off until fall, when an exhibition on the textiles at the Museum of World Culture — called “A Stolen World” — closes. The show states its position pretty baldly: “This is the story of how an unscrupulous policy, the illegal commerce and hunting for antiques strip some cultures of their identity.”

It’s also possible that exactly how to return them is an issue. According to a short item last January on the website of the Museum Security Network (here), “the delicate nature of Paracas textiles makes them extremely sensitive to the environment such as light and vibrations. And to move them could mean damage beyond repair.”

As with many issues of cultural patrimony, there’s no easy answer.

Note the description of the exhibition below.  Could we imagine similar objects in the United States on display with such language?  The museum of world culture describes these textiles which are currently on display there:

null

Large quantities of Paracas textiles were smuggled out of Peru and illegally exported to museums and private collections all over the world around 1930. About a hundred of them were smuggled to Sweden and donated to the Ethnographic Department of Göteborg Museum. The accumulation of them used to be a prestigious task, and so, apart from Peru itself, there are Paracas textiles in art museums and private collections all over the world and in many western museums of ethnography. Today textiles from Paracas are among the most sought-after heritage objects in the illegal market.

More is known today concerning the problems associated with looted and smuggled artefacts, and discussions are in progress concerning the line which museums should take regarding dubious items in their collections. How should we relate to this part of history?

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On Looting in Lebanon

 It should not really come as a surprise that Lebanon has experienced problems with looting given its rich ancient past, troubled recent past, and location at the crossroads of commerce in the Mediterranean.  It also has a connection with the Sevso Treasure—a forged Lebanese export permit meant that Lebanon intervened in the legal dispute with the Marquess of Northampton,  Croatia, and Hungary.  The Marquess’ Trust retained possession of course, and Lebanon withdrew from the action when the export permit was revealed to be a forgery.

But it also has a rich material heritage.  An anonymous looter tells Rana Moussaoui that:

“I know that these are historical artifacts, but much of the time I don’t know their exact value,” Abu Nayef admitted to AFP in his garden in Baalbeck.

“Sometimes we even move from one piece of land to another through tunnels, if we think we can find new vestiges,” he added.  . . .

“I have a wife and six children to support, and I do so through this business,” he explained.

This problem plagues a number of nations, but Lebanon has had particular difficulty.  Looting became widespread during the civil war between 1975-1990.  Funding for heritage preservation and policing is lacking, and there are a number of important sites.  In what is an otherwise sound article, Moussaoui criticizes the National Museum in Beirut for “showcasing 2,000 archaeological relics” while “hundreds of thousands of other pieces are gathering dust in storage”.  That ratio could probably be found in just about any museum; what goes on display is only the tip of the iceberg.  It may not be fair to criticize Lebanon for what is a common situation all over the World.

Rana Moussaoui, Lebanon’s archaeological sites a pillager’s paradise, AFP Mar.25, 2010.

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History and Looting in Costa Rica

guayabofromabove.jpgMaggie Koerth-Baker has a terrific two-part series on the ancient Chibchan culture in Costa Rica at BoingBoing.  The ancient CAribbean shares many characteristics with the ancient Mediterranean, in which a number of cultures traded and impacted each other.  Yet Costa Rica receives relatively little attention:

Despite a scarcity of giant tourist-attracting monuments, ancient Costa Rica was a pretty hopping place—a nexus of trade where the cultures of Mexico and Central America met those of northern South America, and elements of both were incorporated into the unique and diverse Chibchan culture. Gold ornaments, jade carvings and pottery are literally just below the surface, uncovered by modern construction—or even just poking around in the backyard. So why the low profile? Blame the combined forces of local climate, indigenous tragedy and looting as national pastime.

She talks with Michael Snarskis, an archaeologist examining ancient Costa Rican cultures.  The series does a terrific job documenting the damage done by looting, something archaeologists must account for in nearly every excavation in Costa Rica and elsewhere.  Are there any archaeological sites not at risk from looters?

Ancient Costa Rica Part I: Lost history in the land of the crossroads
Ancient Costa Rica Part II: The narrow road to Guayabo

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