Looters of Egyptian Artifacts Try to Recruit Egyptologists for Help

A child walks between looting pits dug at the ancient Egyptian site of Abusir el-Malek.
A child walks between looting pits dug at the ancient Egyptian site of Abusir el-Malek. (Image credit: Photo courtesy of Egypt Heritage Taskforce)

Looters of Egypt's antiquities are using social media to seek out professional Egyptologists, and others with knowledge of Egypt's past, to better loot archaeological sites and sell antiquities.

Looting of archaeological sites has increased rapidly in the country since the 2011 Egyptian revolution, sometimes resulting in the death of children who are forced to work in narrow tunnels.

In the past few weeks, five people have died while trying to dig tunnels beneath houses; one of those killed was an 11-year-old boy, Egyptian media reports say. [Reclaimed History: 9 Repatriated Egyptian Antiquities]

One reason looting may be more compelling is that inflation in Egypt is at more than 30 percent, making it difficult for Egyptians to buy food and medicine, several experts said. Inflation increased rapidly after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said that in exchange for a loan the Egyptian government would have to float the Egyptian pound (the country’s currency) on the free market, rather than having the government set its value. The IMF believes that in the long term, floating the Egyptian pound will boost Egypt's exports and grow Egypt's economy, Chris Jarvis, the IMF mission chief for Egypt, said in a news briefing about the loan terms.

A looter's tale

This reporter was contacted by one self-confessed looter who went by the name "Adam Ali Houssien," unsolicited, on Facebook, seeking my help in selling artifacts from an archaeological site he claims was found 20 feet (6 meters) beneath his family's house in Luxor. "Of course I know that it is illegal," Houssien said.

Houssien sent unsolicited videos of the site to me. The videos show an underground site with dusty and damaged walls that are covered with hieroglyphic writing and images of what appear to be ancient Egyptian gods and people. "I want [to] know if in this site any statues small size can i sell it?" Houssien asked in broken English. He also asked for help with satellite information. "Satellite can show me what can be in my site?" he asked.

One of the works of art on the walls of the archaeological site that looters claim to be robbing. This is a still from a video sent, unsolicited. Video from Adam Ali Houssien (Image credit: Owen Jarus/Original video from Adam Ali Houssien)

I refused to assist him. I am not a professional Egyptologist but, when told this, Houssien was undeterred believing I could still help him sell artifacts and understand satellite information. [In Photos: Amazing Egyptian Artifacts]

"I will [continue] searching until find buyer. Not big different (sic) between the life in jail and outside," Houssien said. Houssien told me that he is 35 years old and unemployed, and that while he has food he needs money in order to marry. He said that the economy in Luxor depends heavily on tourists who are no longer coming in large numbers after the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Live Science was unable to verify the details Houssien gave about his life.

Live Science talked to several Egyptologists about their experiences. All the Egyptologists said it is against professional standards to assist or help looters in any form.

Encounters with looters selling antiquities are common among Egyptologists who are on social media, said Monica Hanna, an Egyptologist who conducts research on the looting and trafficking of Egypt's antiquities extensively. Looters usually contact Egyptologists using social media or email, Hanna told Live Science.

Hanna said that she is aware of a few cases where professional archaeologists decided to breach ethics and assist looters.

"I know of several incidents that archaeologists helped looters or worked for collectors to value and authenticate objects," Hanna said.

Market for looters

While Egypt's government has taken steps to deter looting, including reaching an agreement in which the United States will restrict the import of Egyptian artifacts, it is difficult to prevent looting given the economic conditions in Egypt and the fact that there are collectors willing to buy looted artifacts – and middlemen willing to help them. 

"Frankly speaking, I don't blame the looters fully. It is the market for the antiquities and the middlemen that encourage the looting," said Sarah Parcak, an anthropology professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has also conducted research on the looting of antiquities. "We need to work harder to provide more economic opportunities for communities near sites to stop the looting." 

Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptian art and architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that she knows of no Egyptologist who has agreed to help looters.

"I'm sure they [the looters] find someone, who then pays them far less than they [the artifacts] are worth, but that's what middlemen do," Cooney told Live Science.

Houssien was undeterred by my refusal to help him.

"I understand that. I really thank you very much. But really I don’t have another [choice]," he said, sending the reporter a video containing part of a hip-hop song by the group Mobb Deep. Part of" the song sent to the Live Science reporter says:

"Live from the belly, they got me behind the fence."

Originally published on Live Science.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.