Last month, archaeologists arriving at Jabal Maragha in eastern Sudan encountered five men who had used a pair of digging machines to create a 55-foot-deep, 65-foot-long trench in the desert landscape. The destructive act—part of an illegal search for gold—rendered the 2,000-year-old archaeological site unrecognizable, reports BBC News.
“They had only one goal in digging here—to find gold,” archaeologist Habab Idriss Ahmed, who excavated Jabal Maragha’s ruins in 1999, tells Sammy Ketz of Agence France-Presse (AFP). “They did something crazy; to save time, they used heavy machinery.”
Located some 170 miles north of Khartoum in the eastern Sahara Desert, Jabal Maragha served as a small settlement or checkpoint in the kingdom of Kush, which dominated the lands south of Egypt from 2500 B.C. to 300 A.D. The site itself was in use between roughly 350 B.C. and 350 A.D.
Hatem al-Nour, Sudan’s director of antiquities and museums, tells AFP that the ground at Jabal Maragha contains the metallic mineral pyrite, which may have triggered the gold seekers’ metal detectors and convinced them to start digging.
Prior to the treasure hunters’ arrival, Jabal Maragha “was a quiet and beautiful site, never touched by anyone,” says Idriss Ahmed to Africa News.
Al-Nour emphasized the scope of the loss, telling Africa News that the rare site “contained a lot of useful information for research on the history of Sudan.”
In recent years, a growing number of Sudan’s ancient heritage sites have been subjected to looting and destruction.
“Out of a thousand more or less well-known sites in Sudan, at least a hundred have been destroyed or damaged,” al-Nour tells AFP. “There is one policeman for 30 sites ... and he has no communication equipment or adequate means of transport.”
Gold mining—a $1.2 billion industry in Sudan—motivates and finances much of this destruction. According to Africa News, digging expeditions like the one discovered at Jabal Maragha are financed by businessmen hoping to strike it rich. Some local authorities also encourage “young and unemployed” residents to search cultural sites for treasure, per AFP.
Illegal gold diggers seldom stay incarcerated for long. According to AFP, a police escort accompanying the archaeologists detained the men, but they were freed within hours. Because authorities failed to press charges, the looters were even able to recover their digging machines.
“They should have been put in jail and their machines confiscated,” Mahmoud al-Tayeb, an expert formerly associated with the country’s antiquities department, tells AFP. “There are laws.”
Though the region’s archaeological wonders are relatively little known, the Kingdom of Kush actually built more pyramids than the Egyptians. As Isma’il Kushkush writes in Smithsonian magazine’s September cover story, more than 200 ancient pyramids remain standing across Sudan.
“While they are not as old or as large as the pyramids in Egypt, they are unique in that they are steeper, and they were not all dedicated to royals,” he explains. “[N]obles (at least those who could afford it) came to be buried in pyramids as well.”