Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Archaeologists Hold Their Breaths on Status of Egyptian Antiquities

The current political upheaval in Egypt has put the country's famed antiquities, from its museums to archaeological sites, under siege.

On 29 January, a small band of looters entered Cairo's Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, slicing the heads from two mummies, smashing display cases, and damaging other artifacts, according to media reports and Zahi Hawass, the director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Hawass, who a source says has been promoted to the new position of Minister of Antiquities as part of a cabinet shakeup yesterday, faxed a colleague in Italy that 13 cases were destroyed. "My heart is broken and my blood is boiling," the U.S.-trained archaeologist lamented.

A human chain soon formed outside the museum to protect the institution, which holds some 120,000 artifacts from prehistoric to Roman times, including King Tutankhamen's gold death mask. By late Saturday, government tanks were in place around the building, which is located next to the burned and looted headquarters of President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party and close to Tahrir Square, which has been at the center of mass demonstrations against Mubarak's reign.

Hawass said that looters had attempted to enter the Coptic Museum, the Royal Jewelry Museum in Alexandria, and the Alexandria National Museum. They were unsuccessful, according to Egyptologist Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, who is monitoring the situation via Facebook. * In Alexandria, the modern library was protected by a chain of people. But more exposed sites in the south, such as the cemetery of Saqqara and Abusir, were reported to have suffered extensively from looting. "The magazines and stores of Abusir were opened, and I could not find anyone to protect the antiquities at the site," Hawass added. "At this time, I still do not know what has happened at Saqqara."

A source close to Hawass says that he learned on Monday that Saqqara is safe. Several sources, however, said that there was damage at the pyramid builder's town in Giza on a project directed by Mark Lehner, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based archaeologist. Lehner could not be reached for comment, but the pyramids are currently secured by military forces.

Parcak says that archaeological work in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor was halted temporarily but the area could be reopened in the next few days. "Archaeologists are hoping to be back at work soon; the situation in Luxor is now normal," she says. However, she adds that a British group excavating at Tell Amarna had been asked to leave the site. "We are trying to separate fact from rumor," says Parcak. "We simply don't know the extent of the looting yet."

The dearth of information comes in part from a government shutdown of the Internet and limitations on cell phone use. But Parcak is cautiously hopeful. "The story we keep hearing is how much the people of Egypt have done to protect the sites," she says.

* The Facebook page is "Restore + Save the Egyptian Museum"

Andrew Lawler

Andrew Lawler

Contributing Correspondent Andrew Lawler is based in Asheville, North Carolina. His most recent book is The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke.