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Tomb Raiding Is a Growing Problem in the Middle East

A year after VICE's report on looting in Egypt, we look back on what started it, who's fighting the black market trade, and where we stand now.
January 21, 2016, 5:13pm

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In season three of VICE on HBO, reporter Gianna Toboni and producer Alex Waterfield traveled to Egypt to report on the nation's resurgent tomb raiders. Although antiquities looting has long been a problem in Egypt, since the social upheaval of the Arab Spring movement in 2011 a widening circle of illegal excavators have spirited over $3 billion worth of artifacts out of the country. Traveling to famous archaeological sites and unexplored yet now-desecrated necropolises, the team met with archaeologists and looters to unravel the market behind this trend.


To some the team's focus on Egypt may seem odd, given that the Islamic State's looting pits in Syria and Iraq have for much of the past year been portrayed as the face and epicenter of the black market in antiquities. But by refocusing away from the Islamic State, Toboni and Wakefield show that looting is much more than just an Islamic State problem and bring attention to the oft-neglected root of most of the world's tomb raiding: socio-economic unrest.

Waterfield says archaeologists like to emphasize that antiquities looting is as old as antiquities themselves. Amr al-Azm, a Shawnee State University archaeologist and expert on looting in Syria, points out that in archaeologically rich regions entire families or clans are known as looting specialists. These specialists became the dig teams for early archaeologists and still serve as major guides leading archaeologists to new sites for academic study.

But whenever societies get turned upside down, wrecking the economy and sapping the resources to post guards at archaeological sites, a rise in looting occurs—especially in countries with a history of plundering. Much of it's small-scale subsistence looting; some of it's criminally industrial. That's why, as a recent paper by Dartmouth's associate professor of anthropology Jesse Casana points out, we've seen widespread looting not just in Islamic State territory but arguably more so in Kurdish and opposition territory as well. It's why Iraq saw an earlier spate of looting during our sanctions against them in the 1990s. And it's why, Toboni and Wakefield explain, many countries in the Middle East saw a wave of looting of museums and historical sites in 2011.


In Egypt, the team says, looting started soon after the first protests in Tahrir Square. As protests evolved and grew violent, the country's woes got worse—$5 billion in annual tourist revenues have vanished due to visitors' fears of violence. The mass unemployment, richness of artifacts in Egypt, and collapse of archaeological protection units led to a frenzy of looting starkly demonstrated in the HBO segment via before-and-after satellite photos of cultural heritage sites.

These photos were what first drew Waterfield to the story. "These sites, they just look like Swiss cheese now," he says. "It's very clear that the Arab Spring was the thing that changed [them]."

Egypt's looting doesn't go hand-in-hand with the ideological destruction of heritage sites like the Islamic State's, nor is it as public and potentially inspiring to would-be looters worldwide. But its scale is in many ways similar: Whereas the Islamic State has moved about $300 million in antiquities over the past couple of years, Egyptian looters have moved perhaps ten times that in the past four. (Al-Azm begrudgingly acknowledges that the Islamic State may actually have curbed looting in Syria somewhat in 2015 thanks to its monopolization of the field and imposition of harsh 20 percent taxes on anyone excavating in their territory.) The scale of destruction this leads to is apparent as Toboni walks through fields of hundreds or thousands of skeletons ripped apart in a burial field, destroyed by looters searching for jewelry. The two regions both make up a huge chunk of the murky $2 to $6 billion yearly antiquities black market.


Heavy coverage on Syrian and Iraqi looting over the past year has led to some general pushes to combat the illicit antiquities trade from governments, international bodies, and NGOs. But as Casana points out, the focus on the Islamic State can and probably has distorted responses to the wider issue. And according to al-Azm and Professor Donna Yates of the University of Glasgow's Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime course, there's not much evidence that these moves have made a dent amongst actual looters, who still need to make a living somehow.

More depressing than the continuation of looting despite a year of coverage, the trend seems to be spreading. Last summer a spate of it was reported in Greece following the economic tensions and failure of officials to pay archaeological guardians there. Aiding that growth, according to Yates, is the belief that many buyers who are only familiar with the Islamic State's looting in Iraq and Syria don't think twice before buying an item of iffy provenance from Egypt or Greece.

This highlights an element of the problem in Egypt Toboni points to at the end of the segment: the role of foreign demand in looting. It's almost impossible to stress how little scrutiny or regulation there appears to be on antiquities dealers, auction houses, and buyers, who often obscure or turn a blind eye toward the provenance of artifacts. What's more, the laws that do exist vary from nation to nation, and it's incredibly difficult to monitor for often small artifacts like coins at busy borders. Even if there's been some attention to looting at large, Yates feels that we've made almost no progress in recent years on reforming this side of the market.

It's easy to feel depressed about the scale of looting in Egypt and limited scope of efforts to remedy it—even more so when you look back at the VICE report a year later and think about how relevant it remains. Folks like al-Azm and Casana have thoughts about how to overcome the systemic problems the team explores. They talk about creating a solid list of legitimate artifacts to compare against auction house or dealers' stocks, paying local families to guard sites rather than loot them, and the importance of restoring order in unstable areas. (Just destroying the Islamic State wouldn't be enough; al-Azm fears the power vacuum that would create could increase looting, and it wouldn't touch the other nations like Egypt with their own looting problems.) But so long as the world fixates on the story of the Islamic State's looting and largely ignores the wider problems highlighted in the HBO piece, it's likely that the issue will perpetuate itself. Maybe it'll wane naturally in Egypt as order is restored. But, says Yates, a similar story will just pop up elsewhere.

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