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April 4, 2011

George Washington University Capitol Archaeological Institute’s Initiative To Protect Egyptian Antiquities Institute Called on Government and Law Enforcement to Act

Rahotepova tomb/Photo by Martin Frouz, FF UK (
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

Two weeks ago, the George Washington University Capitol Archaeological Institute launched an initiative to protect Egyptian antiquities from illicit trade around the world, the institute announced in a press release. The institute identified specific actions that the U.S. government and international law enforcement authorities should take to help prevent the illegal trade of Egyptian antiquities. To view the call for action, and the initial signatories, please visit

“As an Institute located in the heart of our nation’s capital, we have a special responsibility to help ensure that issues and solutions are highlighted for policy and law makers,” said Eric Cline, director of GW’s Capitol Archaeological Institute and associate professor and chair of GW’s Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

Dr. Cline cited international reports of more than 50 antiquities stolen from the Cairo Museum alone since the political uprisings have occurred, including artifacts originally from the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun.

The GW Capitol Archaeological Institute’s calls are consistent with U.S. obligations under the 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. On March 15, 2011, UNESCO called for international mobilization to block cultural artifacts stolen from Egypt. The institute has posted the call to action on its web page and encourages US readers to sign the online version of the petition, which can be found at In brief, the GW Capitol Archaeological Institute urges the president and U.S. Congress to:
• Direct the Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies to use their authority to prevent illegal trade in Egyptian cultural objects;
• Direct the Department of State and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency to implement import restrictions on undocumented artifacts from Egypt;
• Direct the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations to coordinate with foreign counterparts to initiate targeted law enforcement operations to seize stolen cultural property, arrest criminals and seize and confiscate proceeds; and
• Direct the U.S. Agency for International Development to grant additional funds for protection at archaeological sites. 
In addition, the Institute encourages the: 
• International Criminal Police Organization to use its telecommunications system with respect to possible crimes involving Egyptian cultural property and to identify suspicious financial transactions which can lead to the freezing and confiscation of proceeds; and
• U.S. Congress to designate funds for the protection of Egyptian antiquities as part of its economic aid package.
The mission of the GW Capitol Archaeological Institute includes advancing archaeological research initiatives and cultural heritage development both on land and underwater.
ARCA Blog: Via email, Dr. Cline answered a few questions for this blog. Do you believe today that archaeological sites across Egypt are still largely unprotected? We’ve all seen reports that some of the storerooms with artifacts from these sites have been broken into in the last month with priceless objects stolen.
Dr. Cline: There is no question that it has been a challenge guarding archaeological sites during the events of the last three months. We are hearted by the response of many of the Egyptian people who, on several occasions, have even risked their lives to protect these antiquities. That said, until the regular police returns in full force, combined with strong, armed tourist policy, we expect to see the looting continue.

We continue to receive information about break-ins and attacks. For example, there are reports that armed groups have been digging for ancient artifacts at the Garza archeological site in Fayoum and have broken into a storeroom at the site of Tell ed-Daba’a in the Delta as recently as this week. Here are some links, with pictures:
ARCA Blog: Two weeks ago in Paris UNESCO met to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1970 Convention. How effective do you think UNESCO can be in a situation of civil unrest as in Egypt?
Dr. Cline: UNESCO has a very important role in bringing world attention to the looting not only in Egypt, but around the Middle East in this time of unrest. We look to them to play a leadership role in bringing to bear the various financial and law enforcement tools available worldwide to not only halt the looting, but strike at those willing to cooperate with the looters. 
The challenge is that we are facing an emergency situation in Egypt which requires swift and immediate action. We praise the UNESCO for sending out a delegation to examine the situation, but hope that it will bring about real results in the near term. The looting is detrimental to our common cultural heritage, but also harmful to Egypt’s largest source of revenue -- tourism.
ARCA Blog: What has been the response to your initiative from archaeologists and the government agencies named such as Homeland Security and the Department of State?
Dr. Cline: We launched our call to action to try to bring together the various parties who have an ability to halt the looting, and strike at those who might cooperate with the looters. The response from archaeologists, especially the Egyptologists to whom we have reached out, has been overwhelmingly positive. In addition, the US government has been supportive. While they are willing to work cooperatively with the Egyptian government and the archaeologists on this pressing issue, the State Department’s cultural heritage bureau can take official action only after a request from the Egyptian government. Once this occurs, which we hope will take place in the very near term, the State Department will be able to work with Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies to introduce emergency import restrictions against undocumented artifacts from Egypt.
ARCA Blog: What would you like to see happen in the next few months to secure the archaeological sites in Egypt and to stop the looting of antiquities?
Dr. Cline: Steps need to be taken to secure the archaeological sites and storerooms, and to stop the looting of antiquities as well as to prevent their subsequent sale. We believe that the Egyptian government will make protection of these sites a top priority, even during this time of transition, as it is not only a question of protecting our common heritage, but protecting Egypt’s main source of revenue -- tourism. In addition, we hope that governments around the world will use the various law enforcement tools available -- including import restrictions -- to halt the transport and sale of undocumented antiquities. Given the economic nature of this problem, any economic aid packages to Egypt should include appropriations to help protect these priceless sites. Finally, our goal is to work with the Egyptian government to set up training programs to help Egyptian law enforcement officials and others establish “best practices” in cultural heritage enforcement around the world.
ARCA Blog: What can our readers do to help?
Dr. Cline: We appreciate the wonderful support to date for our call for action. We would like to ask your US readers to sign our petition,, and encourage their local congressional representatives to include antiquities protection in the economic aid package for Egypt. Archaeology students in Egypt could help in assessing damage to sites and storerooms. We also appreciate receiving any information about the looting and other ways to raise public awareness of this critical challenge.