The evolution in the reporting of the looting at Saqqara has been considerable. For posterity, I have dumped off some stories here as they are superseded, rather than delete them entirely.
Text Relegated on 17th February
Following a site visit by National Geographic reporter Jeffrey Bartholet on 5th February, the Saqqara site report has been completely re-written. Bartholet’s report noted no specific signs of damage. He specifically asked to visit the tomb of Maya (the Treasurer) but was escorted instead to Maia (the Wet Nurse), which is bricked up. (It is unclear whether this wall was built before or after 28th January.) Bartholet returned on 8th February, to enter the tomb of Maya and reports, with photo, that it is safe, with reliefs shining golden in three chambers.
An earlier eye-witness report by a (unnamed) French Egyptologist presented on Lee Rosenbaum’s respected CultureGrrl blog present a different view of Saqqara:
The first afternoon and night, they mainly attacked places which were secured with locks. They broke them and went inside. Most of the time, they destroyed what they saw and not robbed anything, trying to find “treasures.” These are not well organised robbers but, mainly, young people from 10 to 20, very probably looking for gold. That is why, when they saw blocks of stone, they most of the time left them, or destroyed them in order to find what was underneath.
It is unclear whether the source of this report was Professor Philippe Collombert, Chair of Egyptology at the University of Geneve, who has given an interview to Tribune de Genève in which he reports that the police protecting the site withdrew en masse without a warning or farewell. (The same walk out has been reported across most Egyptian sites at approximately the same time.) He said:
C’est alors que j’ai vu une chose inouïe se produire: les pilleurs se sont précipités. Cent, deux cents jeunes gens de 10 à 15 ans, venus des villages de Saqqara et d’Aboussir tout proches, ont déferlé par groupes de dix. Certains étaient armés de pistolets et tiraient en l’air pour faire partir les ghafirs (les gardiens).
(Then I saw something incredible. The looters rushed. One hundred, two hundred young men, 10 – 15 years of age, from the villages of Saqqara and Aboussir, swarmed into groups of ten. Some were armed with pistols and fired into the air to scare away the guards.)
Mais il y a eu des dégâts. Les cadenas des magasins ont été forcés, des momies cassées, une tente contenant des poteries incendiée, des structures en brique brisées…
(But there was damage. The locks of magazines were forced; mummies were broken; a tent containing pottery was set on fire, brick structures were broken …)
Dr Hawass, on his blog also on 5th February, announced that the tombs of the Two Brothers, Mereruka and Tiye were also safe. Again, there is no verification of this from non-governmental sources. On 6th February, another SCA report via the Dutch team insisted that although digging was widespread, tombs were safe:
From January 29, a lot of people attacked the antiquities area, from Abusir North to Lisht. Although many tombs and magazines were opened, few things were stolen. Some destruction happened, but not too much, because the stupid robbers searched only for gold and precious things and were not interested in limestone blocks. There was a lot of pit digging in the whole area, but generally this caused no problems. The Dutch site is o.k., except that the magazines of pottery, small objects and bones in the tombs of Maya, Horemheb and Ptahemwia were opened. We closed them again, the wall reliefs are o.k, and nothing was stolen or plundered or damaged. We try to save the sites and do some protection, then later we shall arrange some committee to account for the magazines of Saqqara.
Numerous reports have noted widespread, but shallow opportunistic digging across much of the site. In most places it is unlikely that this was deep enough to reach undisturbed archaeology, but there is a suggestion that some of the would-be looters had been employed as diggers on archaeological concessions and might have targeted their digging on likely tombs. So far there are no reports that the illicit digging has unearthed anything previously undiscovered.
Earlier reports that some magazines were opened have not yet been verified.
The picture remains confusing but the photographs from within Maya are reassuring. It is just unfortunate that Bartholet didn’t visit the other key tombs and Unas to give full reassurance that the important reliefs in these are safe.
On 9th February, the journalist Alexander Weissink, reported on Twitter that he tried to visit Saqqara but was prevented by security. Saqqara.nl commented that locals are being allowed to enter the site although tourists and foreigners are kept out. There is also reportedly no army presence.
South Saqqara (no recent updates)
- Pyramids of Pepi I and Djedkare Isesi have been opened along with magazines in South Saqqara. (Links to Talking Pyramids for details of the site, but not of the damage which is presently unknown.)
- The SCA magazine at South Saqqara has been raided.
Saqqara Page from 4th February Archive
The Step Pyramid and Imhotep Museum are presently reported as secure (one report claims that the Step Pyramid was entered but this is unverified) and are now under army protection. Steel doors have been welded shut.
More perhaps than any other sites, the situation at Saqqara is unclear
Dr Salima reported on the morning of 3rd Febuary via Peter Allingham on Facebook.
Just spoke to inspectors at Saqqara. The army has been present at the site for 4 days. For the most part the tombs had their door locks broken, but they do not appear to have been damaged. Some of the storerooms, however, have been, breached. Tombs that are further away from the main drag have probably been damaged, particularly those on the south side of the Unas Causeway. Inspectors have been trying to assess the damage, but it is difficult as the site is still not safe. Inspectors are going into one magazine at a time, with the army, in order to evaluate the extent of looting. The general public cannot go to the site as the army forbids it.
This seems to have been corroborated by a report from CultureGrrl on 4th February from an un-namedFrench archaeologist. Since the source is un-named, some caution is required. The report is relatively long and is best read in entirety. In summary, it suggests that tombs were opened and entered on Saturday. The looters were after treasure and probably did not loot reliefs, but may have damaged them. Tombs have been secure since Sunday. Some magazines were also opened and turned over in the hunt for valuables (gold): some damage is inevitable. There has been widespread digging, but mostly this has been shallow. However, the location of digging suggests that some of the diggers had detailed site knowledge. Overall the impression is of opportunistic looters rather than “professional” antiquities smugglers.
In all these reports, the biggest concern remaining is the fate of tombs like those of Horemheb and Maya that are sited far away from the Step Pyramid, particularly those south of the Unas Causeway (and of Unas itself), although Ancient World Tours have reported on FaceBook (3rd February) that Unas Causeway tombs (Brothers, Butchers, Nefer &c) are safe. Their source is not specified.
On 2nd February, Dr Hawass said, “The sites of Giza and Saqqara are also safe. Outlaws only broke the padlocks that secure the tombs of Saqqara, and when we went inside to check them we were happy to see that no damage had been done.” He expanded on 3rd February, “The Gezira television station has reported that the monuments of Saqqara have been damaged and items were stolen- this is not true. The army is in charge of guarding the site; I called the general there 5 minutes ago (it is now 10:30 am on February 3, 2011), and he informed me that Saqqara is safe and all the monuments are fine; nothing is damaged or stolen.”
Maarten Raven, in a comment on this page on 2nd February, also stresses that although there are reports that his concession might have been looted, they have themselves been unable as yet to verify any of the reports from Saqqara. Since the situation has been so unclear, a range of hsitoric unverified reports is presented on the reporting history sub-page.
- The local musem at Saqqara is known to have been looted but few details are available
- Gangs have apparently been digging day and night attempting to find unopened tombs
- Many (all?) sealed tombs have been opened, including the tombs of dignitaries right by the Step Pyramid.
- The tomb of Maia / Maya (reports are unclear) has apparently been stripped of all reliefs and there is mass digging around Unas.
- Dr Hawass said on 31st January that reliefs have been cut from some tombs but which tombs / pyramids have been vandalised is unknown; however he is later quoted by CNN as saying that although padlocks have been removed and tombs entered, there seems to be little damage done. On 1st February, he said that although tombs had been entered, none had been damaged.
- The Site Director, Kamal Wahid, insists the site is secure.
An alternative view has appeared on Facebook from Dr Sarah Parcak, although I haven’t myself managed to fnd the orginal post (repeated here):
“Very bad news folks: Saqqara being majorly looted. Reports from ground contacts (verified and trusted+ witnesses )are that numerous people (I was told “thousands”) digging day and night. Maia seems to be fine(?)—Serapeum broken into and partially set on fire, lots of Ibis mummies taken. Every tomb there was broken into. The army can chase them away during the day, but the night is different. I need *another* ground confirmation/witness. Can anyone get close enough to take photos? Can someone please contradict this?”
That needs confirmation as Sarah says. Since on ground reports are so difficult, she has said on Facebook that she is investigatong whether it might be possible to get satellite images taken.