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Experts heartbroken by raiding in Egyptian area near Nile

| Sunday, June 16, 2013, 11:08 p.m.
Human bones lie scattered with broken ancient mud bricks at the antiquities settlement site of El-Hibeh. Criminals have wreaked havoc on antiquities sites in Egypt, freely looting for more than two years. 'Those who are digging are armed with machine guns, the guards might only have a pistol,' says Nadia Ashour, the general director of antiquities in the Bani Suef governorate.
BETSY HIEL | TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Human bones lie scattered with broken ancient mud bricks at the antiquities settlement site of El-Hibeh. Criminals have wreaked havoc on antiquities sites in Egypt, freely looting for more than two years. 'Those who are digging are armed with machine guns, the guards might only have a pistol,' says Nadia Ashour, the general director of antiquities in the Bani Suef governorate.

EL-HIBEH, Egypt ­— From 1070 B.C. until A.D. 600, this was a provincial town and cemetery. Today, from its ancient mud-brick walls, you can watch farmers tend wheat fields along the Nile.

Within those walls, you can see how looters dig deep holes, searching for invaluable artifacts.

A broken limestone sarcophagus is near one pit; mummy fragments and broken pottery are jumbled with old bricks.

“We don't have much in the way of towns that date to that period that were reasonably preserved,” said Carole Redmount, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of California at Berkeley.

The destructive thievery “breaks my heart,” said Redmount, who has excavated here for nine of the past 13 years.

She sounded an alarm about looting in 2012: “It was just obscene, the way all the body parts were littered all over the place.” Her team reburied some of them.

Salima Ikram, who heads the Egyptology unit at American University in Cairo, examined Tribune-Review photographs of the site.

“This is really horrible because not only have they ripped the bodies apart, but if there was any part of the structure left, they have wrecked that, too,” she said.

Much of the damage appeared to be recent, Ikram said.

Egyptian archaeologist Heidi Saleh, who worked on an excavation here in 2004, said the site is historically significant because ancient Libyans once ruled here and brought “a lot of experimentation in the arts.”

“We see a lot of change in the way women are shown in painting and sculpture (at the site),” said Saleh, an art history professor in Santa Rosa, Calif.

The site was “pretty thoroughly looted by an antiquities dealer” in 1995, according to Redmount. New tomb raiders “are finding enough that keeps them coming back,” Saleh said.

Nadia Ashour, general director for antiquities in the region, said the worst looting occurred immediately after the 2011 revolution. An escaped convict was largely responsible until police killed him 2012, she said, and now “the situation is stable.”

Ashour insisted that she is trying to educate residents about protecting antiquities: “In the villages, we spread awareness with the elders, who in turn spread awareness to the people.”

Saleh countered that as long as a private market exists for antiquities, “there is going to be continued looting. The political and economical state of the country is such that antiquities have become a low priority for the average Egyptian.”

Sites such as El-Hibeh are “where we learn how ancient people lived, how history took place,” Redmount said. “It brings it all to life” — unless it's destroyed or lost.

She hopes to return to El-Hibeh this year, but because of looting, “it will be rescue archaeology at that point.”

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