New satellite images reveal rape and pillage of Egyptian landscape

Egypt has long been aware of its problem with looters trying to get their hands on a slice of the riches that lie buried beneath the Sahara sand. But just how severe the problem is, was not fully realised until a series of satellite images revealed the extent of it, shocking government officials and archaeologists alike, according to a new report in National Geographic . Every little dark spot depicted in the featured image represents a place where looters have been digging in the hope of finding treasure, and since the political revolution of 2011, the problem has become much worse.

According to archaeologist Sara Parcak, looters will strip Egypt of most of its archaeological heritage within the next 25 years unless something is done to stop it. Her satellite survey project, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, has examined more than 4,000 archaeological sites in Egypt using Google Earth satellite imagery, and already tens of thousands of looting pits have been identified across the landscape.

Archaeologists survey damage caused by looters at Abu Sir el-Malaq, Egypt. Photo source .

The problem in Egypt has been exacerbated by bigger and bolder steps being taken by treasure hunters, who are now swapping spades and shovels for bulldozers and dynamite. The resulting landscape looks like a minefield (see above). Although Egypt employs about 1,200 guards at archaeological sites, most make only about $40 a week, leaving them tempted by generous bribes. Others may be scared off by armed gangs.

Looter pit at El Hibeh. Photo: Carol Redmount

The burgeoning demand for antiquities in the U.S. is believed to be fuelling the illicit digging in Egypt and Egyptologists are hoping that the U.S. will adopt new rules to empower customs officials to seize looted antiquities.
In 2013 alone, the U.S. imported some ten million dollars’ worth of Egyptian antiquities, according to experts such as Erin Thompson of City University of New York. Egypt is now calling for a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to impose import restrictions on certain categories of archaeological artifacts entering the US. The advisory committee considering the proposal is continuing to discuss the Egyptian request and will soon make a recommendation on the new law to the State Department.

Featured image: Satellite image depicting looting holes around South Dashur, Egypt. Credit: Sarah Parcak