Archaeologists Warn of Pillaged Egypt as U.S. Weighs Tougher Antiquities Laws

Officials and coin dealers debate proposed restrictions on antiquities.

Looters dig for artifacts at Antinopolis.

Looters will strip Egypt of most of its archaeological heritage within the next quarter century, an archaeologist warned at a U.S. State Department hearing this week.

"Wholesale looting is occurring all over Egypt, and we are seeing a big spike that came after the revolution," says archaeologist Sarah Parcak, who testified on Monday, opening a three-day hearing at the State Department. "If we don't do something to stop it, most sites in Egypt will be gone in 25 years."

Satellites, including some that are part of a program spearheaded by Parcak, have revealed that the illicit digging in Egypt is widespread. (Related: "Looters Shatter Museum.")

Looting of archaeological sites and thefts from museums have afflicted Egypt since the political upheaval of 2011. In March, Egypt requested that the U.S. adopt new rules that would empower U.S. Customs officials to seize looted antiquities from that country, the subject of this week's hearing.

World Heritage sites are among the looters' targets, said Parcak, of the University of Alabama-Birmingham, who is also a National Geographic fellow.

Her satellite survey project, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, examines more than 4,000 archaeological sites in Egypt using Google Earth satellite imagery. Although preliminary, the survey finds tens of thousands of looting pits dotting the landscape, Parcak says, many of them recent.

Home of fabled pyramids, tombs, and ancient treasures, Egypt harbors the ruins of one of the world's most storied civilizations, a cradle of mankind. At the hearing, antiquities experts faced off with coin dealers, largely over whether the import restrictions requested by Egypt will help halt the pillaging.

Even before it began, the hearing attracted hundreds of public comments from both sides, most of them from coin collectors calling for an exemption from the proposed restrictions.

Looting holes can be seen from space at a South Dashur, Egypt, archaeological site in 2011.

A satellite photo shows extensive looting at the same site just two years later.

U.S. Demand Fueling Antiquities Trade

Fueling the digging is burgeoning demand from the U.S., which in 2013 imported some ten million dollars' worth of Egyptian antiquities, according to experts such as Erin Thompson of City University of New York.

Papyrus fragments of interest to biblical scholars are already being sold online from looted sites, according to testimony at the hearing.

"We'll never stop looting. We can only slow it down," says Egyptian art expert David O'Connor of the American Research Center in Egypt, who also testified at the hearing. His group supports the import restrictions, which he called "a significant way of inhibiting the pillaging in Egypt."

Before 2011, Egyptian officials saw about 1,200 looting cases every year, according to government data. The number has since doubled, spurred in part by economic hard times. The tourism industry, which supported roughly 10 percent of the Egyptian economy, was particularly hard-hit after the revolution, making archaeological sites more attractive and vulnerable to looters.

Coin dealers such as Wayne Sayles of Gainesville, Missouri, who testified at Monday's hearing, argued for exemption from new import rules for coins. He noted that coins were meant to be traded and were already in wide circulation, and he said that the threat of U.S. Customs impoundments would hurt small businesses. "You are going to have a situation where small coin collectors are pushed out."

Pottery sherds litter the ground at the site of ancient Antinopolis, which is threatened by looting in Egypt.

From Shovels to Bulldozers

Ancient coins, fragments of papyrus, or broken jars often seem inconsequential compared to wares from royal tombs, said Brown University's Laurel Bestock. But experts must study antiquities in their original setting and groupings to gain any insights into the ancient world.

Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna testified at the hearing that organized looters are using bulldozers to pillage some sites. Egypt employs about 1,200 guards at archaeological sites, but most make only about $40 a week.

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 advisory committee considering the proposal, headed by DePaul University antiquities law expert Patty Gerstenblith, is scheduled to continue discussing the Egyptian request until Wednesday, when it will make a recommendation on the new law to the State Department.

Egyptian officials will testify about the request in closed sessions later this week.

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