Sunday, July 1, 2012

Richard Engel on Egyptian Looting: Does Video Match Reality?

Richard Engel of NBC News has produced  a piece that reflects the views of Egypt’s cultural bureaucracy under the old guard in the person of Zahi Hawass and his allies in the American archaeological community.

Yet, does Engel’s reporting really match the reality on the ground or just the propaganda of Egypt’s discredited cultural bureaucracy, which must be desperate to justify itself to Egypt’s new Islamic rulers?

The real issues are that there are no police to protect the sites, the people are desperately poor, and the Egyptian cultural bureaucracy wants to control more than they can or should (even what you find under your own house!).

One should also note for all the talk about criminal looters from Hawass (allegedly a crook on a much larger scale -- a subject Engel studiously avoided broaching) and an American archaeologist, all I saw were locals looking for stuff presumably to feed their impoverished families.

Perhaps in the complete absence of police American archaeologists should pay for local security guards to protect their sites. Their salaries can't cost all that much. I'm also mystified how looters can find a previously unknown tomb and loot it overnight on a site that has apparently been under archaeological investigation for years.  Perhaps now unemployed diggers for American archaeologists knew about the tomb for years, but did not to divulge it to them out of distrust of foreign archaeologists who would take these treasures from them.


Larry Rothfield said...

There is copious evidence that looting has spiked since the breakdown of law and order, as you should know and could easily determine by spending a few minutes googling "looting", "antiquities," and "Egypt". Richard Engel clearly did not wish to take his life into his hands by staking out a site to directly confront the organized looting gangs responsible for much of the digging, but he did take us into the active "excavation" being undertaken by an Egyptian who was not just digging in his own house but tunneling from his house onto a site, and who spoke honestly about what he was doing and why. Illicit excavation is a real, serious problem, and one that requires real, serious policing to be prevented. Real, serious policing requires police who patrol and arrest wrongdoers, not privately paid site guards who would only guard the tiny percentage of diggable sites that are already dug or being dug, though if real police are in short supply their efforts could and should be supplemented by auxiliary support from citizens and even private security. But those latter efforts in turn need money to be successful. The money put up by antiquities collectors to buy artifacts, looted or others, constitutes a powerful incentive; those same collectors and dealers ought to be taxed -- or should set up a foundation to contribute voluntarily to -- to help pay for the costs of policing that is needed to counter that incentive.

Cultural Property Observer said...

Your statement about criminal gangs is a bit speculative; UNESCO puts the obligation on the Egyptian Government (not US collectors) to protect its own archaeological sites. If anyone is going to be taxed, it should be archaeologists who work the site. They benefit the most professionally from the site. I find it mystifying that archaeologists abandon sites for 10or so months a year and then are shocked to learn locals might look for things in their absence.

Voz Earl said...

My impression is that the report does in fact match the reality on the ground. In the case of El Hibeh, the archaeologist in question was kept off the site by police because the security situation with the ongoing looting was deemed too dangerous. There are photos showing the holes excavated across the site and mummies torn apart and strewn over the ground. The fact that the police were unable or unwilling to stop the looters probably has more to do with the current upheaval and its attendant breakdown of law and order, than with any lack of funds.

Nicole Hansen said...

At a workshop of SCA staff held here in Cairo, the same proposal was made by an inspector. He pointed out, the foreign archaeologists come for a month or two a year, dig, and then leave the sites (which are now going to be more attractive to looters as they are now known archaeological sites) for the Egyptians to have to shell out the cash to protect. He suggested that the foreign expeditions pay for this guarding service.

I think another alternative is to remove foreign archaeologists as dig directors completely. Sites that are under excavation can be dug year round by Egyptians, with foreign experts coming in to contribute to exploring a portion of the site when time allows them. If people are working at sites every day, they are less likely to be looted.

As is, academic schedules and budgets of foreign expeditions mean they cannot put the time into getting a site excavated in a reasonable amount of time.