As Egypt prepares to welcome its new president-elect, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, many people are hopeful this will usher in a new era of stability and calm for the country.
Not only ordinary Egyptian citizens, but those charged with taking care of Egypt’s ancient heritage are trusting that things will improve and with the aid of the military, the looting of ancient sites will end.
The Minister of Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim has spoken of how it is easier to track objects stolen from museums because they are registered and can be identified and returned, but it is the illicit digging by individual looters and organised gangs that is the main cause for concern.
Of course, looting of antiquities in Egypt has been going on for millennia, but since the January revolution in 2011 things have escalated with the lack of security and protection enabling villagers who live near historic sites, and who are struggling to survive after the dramatic increase in the cost of living, the opportunity to grab what they can. They believe that objects are just lying there and there is no reason not to put them to use. While others with more reprehensible intentions, such as tomb robbers and organised mafias, have been plundering from storage facilities and illegal excavations.
Skeletons lay around after looting
There is a small team of government employees who search the internet for stolen treasures that have been put up for sale, but these objects are registered, and it is the objects that have been illegally excavated by criminals that is the problem.
Archaeologists from the University of Alabama in Birmingham US, are using imagery from DigitalGlobe, a satellite company and Google Earth to identify ‘hot spots’ and tracking regions where looting occurs and can help officials to locate the sites and track the extent of the damage and changes at sites.
This will help auction houses and traders scrutinise objects up for sale more closely. Since many objects are known to be from particular regions or eras of history, activity in an archaeological site could raise the alarm before sales even happen. Often, looters falsify the origin of an item, sometimes fooling major auction houses or putting items on sites such as eBay, as was the case last year, when eBay removed 125 ancient Egyptian artefacts up for auction.
A looter is busy looking for treasures
Scene of looting
Prior to 2011 the ‘artefacts mafia’ were using tools and specialised techniques that didn’t cause damage or destruction, because they knew the value of the artefacts. But now the ‘mafia’ are employing villagers to dig at the sites and bring them objects to purchase, with the result that small-scale looters are encouraged.
The full return of the security forces would go a long way towards controlling the problem of looting and such security must be provided by the government.
Laws that have been in place to protect antiquities since the 19th century and the laws that bar exporting rare objects also need to be enforced visibly and publicly. Another possible solution is to educate customs officials and increase the policing of dealers and auctions to curb the illegal sale of antiquities.
With celebrations taking place all over Egypt as the new president begins his term of office, we hope that the priceless treasures of ancient Egypt can be protected and saved for the benefit of the people of Egypt and the world.