A non-Egyptian Egyptologist who is a regular reader of my CultureGrrl blog has forwarded to me an eyewitness account from a member of a French archaeological expedition in Egypt about the antiquities situation at Saqqara, an ancient burial ground. This on-the-ground description is from a reliable source and is currently circulating widely among Egyptologists.
Egyptian antiquities chief Zahi Hawass has repeatedly asserted that there has been no damage to the monuments at Saqqara during the current upheavals in Egypt. In a Feb. 5 post on his website, Hawass stated:
The tomb of Maia in Saqqara is safe. Reports that it, and other tombs such as those belonging to the Two Brothers, Mereruka and Tiye, had been damaged were proven inaccurate when I sent Dr. Sabri Abdel Aziz, the Head of the Pharaonic Sector of the Ministry of Antiquities, to check them. Dr. Sabri confirmed that the tomb of Maia has not suffered any type of damage, nor did any other tomb in Saqqara suffer any damage. I believe this is because the tombs are very dark at night, and the looters, who were likely looking for gold, were frightened and ran away without causing any destruction.
But the vivid, detailed firsthand account below tells another story. Hawass had also suggested to the Associated Press that no Tutankhamun artifacts had been compromised during last Friday's break-in at the Egyptian Museum. Photos of the damaged cases and objects proved otherwise.
The report from the French archaeologist is long but important, so I am posting it in full (with emphasis added, to highlight various descriptions of destruction):
The French Archaeological Mission at Saqqara has just left Egypt yesterday and arrived safe today. As most of you are in lack of direct information concerning what happened there, I will try to tell you in brief what I saw.
On Saturday, the taftish [on-site officer from Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities] asked us to stop the work, because the police were not in the capacity of protecting us anymore. In the afternoon, we could see that the police at the police station at the entrance of the resthouses were gone and had left us alone. That is when it all began: Robbers from Saqqara and Abusir became aware of this and they began to spread in the gebel [mountainous desert].
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.
I could see them with my eyes the day after, when we made a tour in the gebel with the army. Around 5 p.m., when the sun was still not down, at the Muslim cemetery of Abusir, I counted more than 200 young men, excavating in front of us, ready to flee if the army would come down. A tank of the army was there, but they kept on digging. The soldiers were not numerous enough to do anything else than showing they were here. And when we went back, they probably came back in the highs. They were laughing and throwing stones at us.
The taftish immediately locked all these places again, and, the day after, the lock was still there and the places were not entered anymore by the robbers: They had seen that there was nothing interesting for them here. Then, they began to excavate a little bit everywhere on the second day. You can see tens of small excavations everywhere, as if they worked for half an hour, and tried another place after. These were not "professional" robbers.
After three days, more and more soldiers arrived in Saqqara and secured more and more of the area. The worse days were Saturday and Sunday. It looks like the army is now securing most of the area, and they made clear that anyone taken would be taken to jail. Hope it works.
I mainly concentrated on the work of our mission, and could see they destroyed some parts of the walls with TP we found last year (trying to excavate under it), and made some holes in differents places, also destroying roofs of hidden magasines [storage structures] on the site, but not stealing anything, as far as we could see. They made big chaos in other places, in magasines containing coffins (always looking for treasures). They also robbed the modern material that looked interesting for them.
I know that Abusir has been very badly hit (Qar, etc.). I am not sure that the Maya rumor concerning destruction is real. (I haven't been there though.) What I can tell you is that they did not destroy exposed chapels of the New Kingdom excavated by the University of Cairo, which were at hand, but entered the magasines there (looking for something they never found). Once again, it looks like they were not interested by stones and reliefs. The Museum at Saqqara and the magasines there are safe; they were almost immediately protected by the army, on Sunday.
Looking at the places where they "worked," it is the conviction of some friends---excavators that were there with me, of most inspectors, of raïs, of the Director Kamal Waheed himself, and myself---that some of the robbers are workers that we employ. We will have to think about this.
I also want to stress the fact that Saqqara and Abusir owe a great deal to all the people of the taftish, who did the best to assure the security of the area. I have seen many ghaffirs, frightened by the crowd of robbers but still trying to do something, and securing the museum and the magasines, organising by themselves some kind of police when the police had disappeared.
I have seen Inspector Ragab hurrying to protect the magasines, arriving just when the police departed and the chaos began on Saturday afternoon. I have seen Ustaz Sabri Farag, Mohamed Youssef and Mohamed Antar, going from one place to another to prevent destruction, for three days and three nights without interruption and without sleeping, guiding the army, enjoining the army to stop the depredations, touring in the gebel all the night. And there are certainly more, that I did not see but who did a great job these days.