‘Space Archaeologists’ Show Spike in Looting at Egypt’s Ancient Sites


As economic and political instability rocked Egypt, looters increasingly plundered the country’s archaeological sites, leaving holes across the nation’s ancient landscapes. That’s the trend reported today in the journal Antiquity by archaeologists who used satellite images to monitor sites in Egypt from 2002 to 2013.

For the last several years, “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has pored over satellite images to discover lost pyramids, tombs and cities buried in Egypt. (She’s even detected the network of streets and houses of ancient Tanis, the city featured in the Indiana Jones movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”) In her latest study, Parcak didn’t analyze ancient features, but rather looked at modern ones in Egypt: the holes in the ground left by tomb robbers and antiquities thieves.

Parcak and her colleagues looked at satellite images for 1,100 archaeological sites in Egypt’s Nile Valley and Delta between 2002 and 2013. The researchers found that the first spike in looting actually came before the political uncertainty of the Arab Spring, the wave of uprisings that began the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. Looting levels at least doubled from 2009 to 2010, in connection with the global economic crisis, and then doubled again from 2011 to 2013, following the revolution that began in Egypt in January 2011.

If looting rates continue at their current rate, all 1,100 sites examined in the study will be looted by 2040, Parcak and her colleagues wrote in the new study.

“The number of looting pits dug during 2009 and 2010 is, in our opinion, simply staggering,” Parcak and her colleagues wrote. They counted 15,889 looting pits in their 2009 satellite data, and 18,634 in the 2010 data. For comparison, just 3,247 pits were visible in the satellite data from 2008.

Looting thengrew even worse after the onset of the Arab Spring. On average, the researchers counted 38,000 annual looting pits from 2011 to 2013. Nearly three-quarters of the total damage the archaeologists documented in the study took place during this three-year period.

This trend was borne out at individual sites, such as the area around the crumbling Middle Kingdom pyramid of Amenemhet III at Dahshur, south of Cairo. The site showed no signs of looting in 2009. But by May 2011, satellite images of the same area show a dozen or so looting pits. By September 2012, the site was pockmarked with holes, and by May 2013, the situation was even worse.

When Parcak and her colleagues went to examine the site on foot in December 2014, they saw the looting pits up close. Some of holes were up to 30 feet (10 meters) deep, the researchers said.