Egypt Looters Ransack Archaeological Sites

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Marco Werman: The sort of change Abdul and his fellow insurgents want for Syria is part of history now in other countries swept by the Arab Spring. In Egypt, the casualties of the revolution have included pieces of the country's history. Since President Hosni Mubarak's government fell last February, many of Egypt's museums were looted and the looting has gone beyond museums. Now criminals are digging up archeological sites and stealing their treasures. Carol Redmount is an archeologist with the University of California. She's been excavating an archeological site in El-Hibeh, about 200 miles from Cairo, but she's not the only one. The site is regularly being targeted by looters, so Redmount has launched a Facebook page, including photos of looters at work. Professor Redmount joins us from the dig house in El-Fascia, not far from the site. Tell us what you've seen, Professor Redmount.

Carol Redmount: As you approach the site there is a cemetery to its north. This cemetery has been thoroughly looted, body parts are strewn everywhere, pieces of mummies have been left out in the open. Bones are everywhere. Now they're are largely dis-articulated, sometimes you can see the packages of mummy cloths, jawbones, skulls, sometimes toes still with flesh attached. It's horrific. As you go through the north gate into the site you're met by mounds of dirt that's been dug up by the looters as they dig down through the site. There are hundreds, literally hundreds of holes in the site and there isn't a single area of the tell that hasn't been touched.

Werman: We've got pictures of some of the things you've seen at theworld.org. I've gotta say it really is heartbreaking. Who's doing the looting?

Redmount: My understanding is that it is the work of essentially a gang of criminals headed by a master criminal who escaped from jail after the revolution, at least this is what I've been told. He's running a mafia-like organization in the sense that it's a group of family members. They live in the village just to the north of the site. He has weapons and he controls this gang that's just going out and digging up the tell everyday.

Werman: What can you tell has been actually taken from the site and is it possible to estimate the value of what's been looted at this point?

Redmount: We honestly don't know. The only thing we can do is guess based on the material that has come out of the site before. There were portrait mummies that came out. Those were more popularly known as the Fayum Portraits…stone sarcophagi, beautiful painted wooden sarcophagi, painted cartenage sarcophagi, beaded nets, Coptic textiles. The site is also known for a lot of papyri that had come out of it, some quite important works of Egyptian literature. We are located in a very poor area of Egypt. So people usually loot for monetary reasons and for some of these people, even the price they would get for an ushabti, or a scarab or an amulet would make it worthwhile looting.

Werman: So you've launched this Facebook campaign. What do you hope it's going to do?

Redmount: We have really two goals for the Facebook campaign. One is just to raise awareness both within Egypt and internationally, and I'm very pleased to say that we have a large number of Egyptians on our site as well as people from all over the world. And we want to raise awareness of the looting problem, obviously specifically for El-Hibeh, but also for all of Egypt's cultural heritage because this is an ongoing problem all over Egypt. And secondly, we would really like to get the site protected. Even as I speak to you now looting is ongoing. There is no protection for this site and the thieves are just free to come and go at will. We drove past the site once on our way to the desert road to Cairo and we saw 10 people in broad daylight just looting the site. We actually got pictures of two of them, they'd go off on their motorcycles. And in fact, on one of our visits to the site a motorcycle came over the hill, took one look at us visiting the site and turned around and went in the other direction. And while we can't be sure, chances are this was one of our looters. So this really, really needs to stop.

Werman: Carol Redmount, an archeologist with the University of California, thanks very much indeed.

Redmount: You're very welcome, thank you.