As a graduate student, my research focus has been on the interaction between local communities and cultural heritage in Upper Egypt. One of the things I am keen to understand is the unauthorized exploitation of archaeological sites, what we often hear referred to as looting. What are the socio-economic, cultural, and historical factors that stimulate such actions. Only by understanding this can we seek to address this issue on the ground.
This summer I spent a month in Aswan, Egypt. I chose Aswan because of the proximity of archaeological sites to local communities, particularly in the Nubian villages on the islands and west bank of the Nile. Much of my time was spent traveling to archaeological sites and visiting local communities, however, one day I was offered the opportunity to visit a heavily looted site on the west bank of the Nile. I have written term paper after term paper on looting, however, I had visited very few sites where looting had actually taken place.
Through local contacts I organized a guide, Hamad, to take me to the site. I got up before sunrise, around 5:30 am, in order to avoid the punishing heat of the midday sun (temperatures were often in excess of 120 degrees!). Hamad picked me up in his boat from my guesthouse on Elephantine Island and we made the short trip across the Nile to the west bank.
We landed at what was, during the tourist high point of the early-mid 2000s, a popular disembarkation point for tourists traveling up to St Simeon’s Monastery. Hamad informed me that there used to be a number of stalls selling Nubian crafts, as well as locals offering camel rides into the desert. After the popular revolution against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 the tourist industry in Egypt was decimated, with tourist numbers below half of what they were during the 2000s. Rather than a small bazaar tendering goods to lines of tourists, now there is only a large concrete platform, empty, covered in a thin layer of sand, a testament to what used to take place here.
The cemetery site was located on a prominent sandstone plateau, with the tombs cut into the rock. This is a similar technique to that found at the much older Tombs of the Nobles at Qubbet el Hawa, located a few kilometers north of this site. The site we were visiting, as far as I was aware, did not have a formal name, as very little archaeological work had taken place here. Local contacts had suggested to me before I visited that the site dated to the Graeco-Roman period, with one contact stressing the importance of this site. By the time I was done surveying the site I estimated that there must have been over 250 tombs in this cemetery, an enormous number, indicating how important this site should be.
We climbed the steep face of the rock, tracing the path that the looters may have taken from the abandoned dock, heading westwards. We soon reached the lowest band of tombs, having climbed approximately 100 feet up the rock. The first few tombs we entered were relatively unremarkable. They had been stripped of everything; no plaster on the walls, no artifacts in situ, no modern refuse. They were bare. We started at the leftmost tomb and worked our way to the right. The sun was rising across the river in the east, casting light across the ground. I began to notice flecks of white everywhere. Bright white. Bone. Human bone. Accompanying much of this was the unmistakable light brown of desiccated linen funerary wrappings. Mummified remains were strewn across the terrace in front of their open tombs. Heads with no bodies, limbs lay unattached to anything. Some of the remains were stacked into horrifying piles, like they were some sort of macabre pyre.
I found out later from a local Egyptian archaeologist called Omar, the reason for this dreadful display. Looters know that many of the mummies have amulets around their necks and the most expedient way of accessing them is to simply decapitate them. There are often small artifacts found in the torso of mummies, so once they are decapitated, they are then cut open to reveal any potential loot. Once that gruesome work is done, the mummies have no further value, so are simply discarded.
We continued up to the second band of tombs, where a very similar scene met us. Following the plateau around its northernmost point the landscape changed. The entire area was pockmarked with looting holes, the ‘lunar’ landscape often associated with looting.¹ At this point, Hamad, my guide, turned around and said that “the looters are like mice,” dipping in and out of the hillside.
It was after this point that I began noticing the ground beneath us had changed from being mostly rock and sand, to being almost entirely cracked ceramic and human bone. Every footstep crunched as pottery snapped under us. We continued through this open crypt, for over an hour coming across tomb after tomb, not all of which were actually looted. Some remained intact, perhaps in case of future disaster when this resource needs to be exploited again?
As with all graduate students, before I set out into the field this summer I had doubts about the type of research I wanted to carry out. Archaeological ethnography is not something widely practiced, however, by studying ethnographically the manifold communities that interact, conflict, and sometimes destroy cultural heritage sites offers an important avenue for us to understand and ultimately mitigate against the kind of devastation I witnessed this year.
- Parcak, Sarah, David Gathings, Chase Childs, Greg Mumford, and Eric Cline. “Satellite evidence of archaeological site looting in Egypt: 2002–2013.” Antiquity 90, no. 349 (2016): 188-205.