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Archaeological Field Work in Egypt After the Revolution

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Looting hole at Tell el-Borg. Photo courtesy of James Hoffmeier.

By: James K. Hoffmeier, Trinity International University

 On January 25, 2011 the Egyptian revolution that toppled the thirty-year dictatorial reign of Hosni Mubarak began. On February 11th, Mubarak resigned. While the political news gripped much of the world, reports of some looting in the Cairo museum surprised everyone. Though limited in scope, security was quickly tightened and a human chair of volunteer guards locked arms around the historic museum. What happened to the museum seemed like a replay of the vandalism that occurred in Baghdad during the Iraq war of 2003, although the losses from the Cairo Museum were minimal. After only a brief interlude, the museum reopened.

Also like the war in Iraq, archaeological sites all over Egypt were plundered for their antiquities in the aftermath of the revolution. This remains an ongoing predicament. Even more distressing, many storehouses of the Supreme Council for Antiquities (now known as the Ministry of State for Antiquities, MSA) were plundered and hundreds of artifacts disappeared. This even happened at Saqqara. The MSA magazines in north Sinai, where the finds were stored from my excavations at Tell el-Borg, were likewise robbed. Pickup trucks drove up to the secure magazines, so the story goes, with well-armed Bedouin. The few guards and antiquities police were overwhelmed. The trucks were loaded up with boxes of stored artifacts and the thieves drove away. Also, in this storage facility were the thousands of sherds and artifacts from Israeli excavations in the Sinai during the occupation of 1967-1982; they were returned to Egypt in the 1990s. I was subsequently advised by an MSA official that the stolen material had been recovered, although I have not been able to verify this in person yet.

Pilfering antiquities in Egypt has long been big business. The harsh economic times and the breakdown in law and order with the revolution provided the perfect storm for pillaging sites. These conditions continue. In Egypt there are just too many sites to monitor. The Minister of State for Antiquities, Mohamed Ibrahim, admits that the there are not enough Tourism and Antiquities Police to protect every archaeological site[i]. What complicates the situation, Ibrahim adds, is that the robbers are armed and well organized.

As the revolution unfolded, some excavations stopped and foreign teams left the country. Betsy Bryan, director of the Johns Hopkins excavation of the Mut Temple at Karnak, opted to evacuate her team (in 2012 she and her team returned to Luxor and the work has continued ever since). On the other hand, some other projects went on unhindered through the revolution. Marcus Mueller, who works with the German Archaeological Institute’s excavations in Aswan, told me that they did not miss a day’s work! In distant Aswan, life went on as before.

But more than two years have now passed and people may be wondering how are things going in Egypt? Are things back to normal for archaeological work? The short answer is “no.” The main concern continues to be security as much of the police force disappeared after the revolution as it feared retribution for its long history of harsh treatment of Egypt’s citizens. The lack of security has resulted in general lawlessness and vigilante justice. As a consequence, archaeologists have cautiously returned to work, some encountering problems, while others have been able to operate rather normally.

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Looting hole at El-Hibeh. Photo courtesy of Carol Redmount.

Since 2001, Carol Redmount from Berkeley has been directing excavations at El-Hibeh, an important site from the 3rd Intermediate through Coptic periods. The site was and continues to be looted by a local mafia. Redmount returned recently to find countless robbery pits with human bones, mummy wrappings, and coffin fragments scattered around the holes. But the local mafia has been so intimidating that even the tourism and antiquities police would prefer to stay away, so Redmount and company were only able to gather some of the exposed material and have a study season. The future remains uncertain for work at El-Hibeh.

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Looting at El-Hibeh, showing the same area during excavations and after looting. Photo courtesy of Carol Redmount.

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Human remains from looted Coptic cemetery. Photo courtesy of Carol Redmount.

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Human remains. Photo courtesy of Carol Redmount

One colleague told me of a chilling incident that happened to him during a recent survey trip to a site in southern Egypt. As he approached a site, he was stopped by a man with a rifle who demanded to know who he was and why he was there. He told the vigilante of his mission and so he was permitted to continue. The unauthorized guard told my friend, however, that he had shot the last three men who had trespassed! Apparently some illicit activities were underway in the area that required a lookout. This episode seems consistent with what a European archaeologist told me in early May: “Everyone in Egypt now has an AK-47.”

A recent news article expands on the calamity befalling Dahshur, a UNESCO World heritage site. In the past four months, nearby villagers have illegally established a new cemetery made up of more than a thousand graves in the area south of Sneferu’s Red Pyramid, close to the decaying brick pyramid of Amenemhet II of the 12th Dynasty.[ii]

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Newly built cemetery at Dahshur. Photo courtesy of Monica Hanna.

Some MSA officials think that placing the cemetery at Dahshur is actually a pretext for illicit searches for antiquities by “innocently” digging for modern burials! In response to this staggering development that threatens this genuinely significant archaeological site, a group about 100 MSA inspectors from the area, faculty and students from the University of Cairo, and students from the American University of Cairo held a protest at Dahshur in late April 2013 to draw attention to the plight of the Dahshur necropolis.[iii] This demonstration shows that our Egyptian colleagues care deeply about their own cultural heritage.

No doubt the fear of losing sites motivates archaeologists to return despite many personal risks. Sites in the Delta have been threatened for decades due to digging up sites for agriculture purposes (i.e. the work of sebakhim and farmers remove mounds to create flat space to farm) and urbanization. Indeed, Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna reports that sites such as Ancient Heliopolis and Tell el-Yahudiya have been recently damaged, along with Abu Sir el-Maleq, near the Fayyum. It is not surprising then that nearly every project that was working in Egypt before the revolution has either continued unabated or returned to the field after a short hiatus. The only area where work has been completely curtailed is the Sinai. Kidnapping of western tourists, gun running across north Sinai, and terrorist attacks from Egyptian territory on Israel are among the reasons that have created the ongoing security nightmare there. Consequently, the military has refused security clearance for foreign missions to work in the Sinai. In 2011 and parts of 2012, even Egyptian projects were unable to work, although in recent months, Mohamed Abd el-Maksoud’s work at Tell Hebua has reconvened. On the other hand, Dominique Valbelle of the Sorbonne, who has worked at Tell el-Herr for thirty years, has had her work suspended by security officials. The Argentines excavated Tell Ghaba between 1995 and 1999 and renewed their work in 2010, but have not been granted permission since the revolution.

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Newly built cemetery at Dahshur, with Black Pyramimd in background. Photo courtesy of Monica Hanna.

At the recent annual meetings of the American Research Center in Egypt (ASOR’s counterpart in Egypt) held in Cincinnati on April 18-20, a session was held for directors of field projects in Egypt. More than twenty projects were represented and all but the above-mentioned El-Hibeh project had worked in 2012 with only minimal distractions. Several teams working at Abydos spoke of illegal digging that was wreaking havoc, but work continued. One surprising concern was that with the hard cash shortage in Egypt, there were fears that project directors might have difficulty obtaining funds wired from their U.S. banks. This in turn would make it impossible to operate. This problem has not to my knowledge materialized yet.

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Looting pit at Dahshur with Black Pyramid in background. Photo courtesy of Monica Hanna.

At the end of April, I participated in a conference at the Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw on recent excavations in the Delta and the Sinai. All the participants were European except me. While the excavators shared some of the same apprehensions as American archaeologists, they were all nevertheless in the field in 2012 and plan to be there this year too. The French will be back at Tanis in 2013 under a new director, François Leclere. A Polish and Slovak team will return to Tell el-Rebabeh where they have been mapping and excavating since 2007, including 2011 and 2012. One crisis they have had to deal with is that the road running through the site was widened several months ago in their absence. In the process 16 Hyksos period tombs were salvaged by the MSA inspector. Slavomir Rjepka and Jozef Hudec plan to be back at Retabeh during the fall months of 2013.

Other Delta sites continue to be investigated. Penelope Wilson will be back at Sais, Joanne Rowland at Tell Quesna and the Minufiya survey, Eva Lange at Buto, a Polish team at Tell Farakha, and two projects at Tell el-Daba‘ (Manfred Bietak is finishing the excavation of the Hyksos palace, while his successor Irene Forstner-Müller works elsewhere on the site). After some years out of the field, Edgar Pusch plans to return to fieldwork at Qantir/Pi-Ramesses. Without mentioning every Delta project or those elsewhere in Egypt, it is clear that despite the challenges and problems for archaeologists, nearly all of the projects that had been excavating before January 2011 are still at work or are back after a brief hiatus. Given the ongoing plundering of sites and theft of antiquities, it is imperative the Egyptologists soldier on, and they are.


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[i] Nevine el-Aref, “Egypt’s Dahshur ancient heritage under immediate threat”, available at: http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/9/40/62323/Heritage/Ancient-Egypt/Egypts-Dahshur-ancient-heritage-under-immediate-th.aspx

[ii] Patrick Kingsley, The Observer, “Egyptians seize pyramid site for cemeteries,” http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/04/27/egyptians-seize-pyramid-sites-for-use-as-cemeteries/

[iii] Luis Sanchez, “Archaeologists hold protest in Dahshur,” http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/04/29/archaeologists-hold-protest-in-dahshur/

 

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