In Egypt, Antiquities Looters Use Bulldozers

Three years after the revolution, technology and diplomacy are being used to combat looters

Stolen Artifacts Returned
These artifacts were stolen from the Egyptian Museum in 2011 and were recovered this April. but many looted artifacts leave the country, never to return. STR/epa/Corbis

In Egypt, political turmoil and small numbers of underpaid guards have left the country's cultural heritage vulnerable to looting. Teams of looters sometimes use bulldozers to uncover hidden treasures, and archaeologist Sarah Parcak has started tracking the damage using satellites. The satellite evidence shows holes made by looters marring the Egyptian landscape and multiplying like mushrooms. 

From the Washington Post

“It was really hard before this technology to get a full sense of site damage from looting all over the world,” Parcak said. “It was one thing to see the pits, but it was really hard to systematically count them. The satellite imagery allows us to track extent of damage at site—not only get a sense of numbers, but also track change to a site over time.” 

Pinpointing the exact location of looting could also alert authorities and art dealers as to what kinds of stolen goods they should be on the lookout for, Parcak told the Post. 

Just this week, the images collected by Parcak were used in her testimony before the State Department, where she warned that if nothing was done, “most sites in Egypt will be gone in 25 years." 

For the past three days, the State Department has been holding hearings on the possibility of imposing import restrictions on artifacts coming from Egypt—giving Customs a better chance of seizing any illegal artifacts. Egypt is requesting the restrictions in an effort to limit the market where looters could potentially offload their ill-gotten goods. 

It might seem to be a no-brainer request—but there is some debate as to whether or not the import restrictions should be put in place. As Dan Veragno at National Geographic explains, some coin dealers are asking for a coin exemption, saying the restrictions could hurt their business. National Geographic

The committee asked coin and art dealers at the hearing what prevented them from better documenting their wares to prove they are legal, a sticking point often raised about the proposed import restrictions.

At the same time, archaeologists were questioned sharply about the true extent of the damage, whether Egypt is doing enough to halt the looting, and whether the proposed restrictions would actually affect the market for looted antiquities.

The committee overseeing the hearing is expected to make its recommendation on the request to the State Department today. 

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