Abstract: Fear and Looting at El Hibeh: Unintended Consequences of the Egyptian Revolution
As horrifying as the looting of a museum is, to an archaeologist, it’s the systematic illicit digging of previously unexcavated areas at ancient sites that is the more serious threat to archaeological heritage. In a country like Egypt, where much of the history is still hidden under the sand waiting to be discovered, looting in unspoiled archaeological areas often result in an irrevocable and devastating loss of knowledge and information. Since the Arab Spring, which in Egypt led to the toppling of longtime president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and continuing political turmoil when the next democratically elected president was deposed by the military amid growing discontent and mass protests, many archaeological sites were left unprotected, and antiquities’ looting has exploded as a result. The site of El Hibeh in Middle Egypt is a case in point.
El Hibeh, ancient Teudjoi, is located approximately 55 km south of Beni Suef, on the east bank of the Nile. The site itself consists of a massive tell, surrounded by desert cemeteries to the north, east and southeast and has been under excavation by a UC Berkeley team, directed by Dr. Carol Redmount, since 2001. It rose to prominence during the early Third Intermediate Period, when it was essentially a frontier town, located at the junction of the areas controlled by the High Priests of Amun at Thebes and the kings of Egypt at Tanis. Thus, it is particularly important because of the insights it can provide into this little known period, specifically in terms of the development and character of a Third Intermediate Period provincial settlement.
Since El Hibeh is in an area of Egypt that sees little to no tourism, the archaeological site was under threat even before the revolution, not only from intermittent looting, but also because of the rising groundwater levels and encroaching agricultural areas. However, in the three years since the Arab Spring, the situation has become increasingly dire. Though Egyptian antiquities’ officials have done everything in their power to protect the site, the decreased security and police presence since the revolution has meant unfettered access to the site for local gangs, who are now looting the site non-stop on a massive scale, even in broad daylight. This is particularly disconcerting as El Hibeh used to be one of the least disturbed city mounds of the Third Intermediate Period, with continuous occupation from about 1070 BCE through the early Islamic period, thus including not only Pharaonic and Islamic remains, but also Ptolemaic, Roman and Coptic phases of occupation.
This lecture will give a short historical overview of the site, and briefly present recent research undertaken by the UC Berkeley team, before turning to the current situation at the site, the implications of the ongoing wholesale looting, and what has been and can be done to prevent further damage to this important archaeological resource.
Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:
Grenfell, B. P., and A. S. Hunt, 1906 The Hibeh papyri, Part I. London: Egypt Exploration Fund
Kitchen, K. A., 2009 The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt (1100-650 BC). Oxford: Aris & Phillips
Redmount, Carol A., 2007 “El Hibeh: A Brief Overview” in The Archaeology and Art of Ancient Egypt: Essays in Honor of David B. O'Connor. Z. Hawass and J. Richards, eds. Pp. 303-311. Annales du Service des Antiquites de l'Egypte, Vol. II. Le Caire: Conseil Supreme des Antiquites de L'Egypte (SCA)