EGYPT'S archaeological sites are "in grave danger" from looters, according to the country's former chief antiquities official, Zahi Hawass. He resigned his post this week in a bid to "encourage the government to do something" to protect the sites.
It's just a few weeks since Mr. Hawass downplayed the problem of looting during and after the country's recent revolution. That was despite a break-in at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo during which mummies were smashed and statues broken. At the time he insisted that "the sites of Egypt are safe".
He has now posted a long list of sites that have been affected by looting on his blog, cataloguing instances of damage and theft across the country. "I am most fearful for the Giza platform, the love of my life," he says.
He said that looters have broken into warehouses and tombs at sites including Saqqara, Dahshur, Giza and Abusir. Objects taken include inscribed blocks, and one important 19th-dynasty tomb in Tell el-Maskhuta, near Ismailia, was destroyed. Illegal excavations are also occurring at many sites.
There is little information about the extent of the damage, or what items have been stolen. "There's no clear information, it's very confusing," says Frank Rühli, head of the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He had to cancel a research trip to Saqqara last month but is hoping to return this summer. "It breaks my heart if anything is damaged."
"It is becoming clear that the amount of looting and damage is bigger than originally thought," says Jaromir Malek, director of the Griffith Institute at the University of Oxford. He is particularly worried by reports of break-ins at storage magazines in sites such as Saqqara. These contain finds from nearby excavations, such as loose fragments of wall reliefs. "Some of them contain material from old excavations that has never been properly studied or published," he says.
Malek says that the looters so far don't appear to have had specialist knowledge of the sites they have targeted, but that many of the objects would reach huge sums on the black market once smuggled out of the country. "If it's ancient, it's valuable," he says.
Christopher Marinello, head of the Art Loss Register in London, an international database of stolen antiquities and works of art, says he is working with law enforcement and customs agencies to track down missing items. He encourages archaeologists and authorities working in Egypt to register anything they know to be stolen. Several "important items of cultural significance to Egypt" have been registered so far, he says, although he declines to give details.
Barry Kemp, an Egyptologist at the University of Cambridge and director of the Amarna Project, has just returned to his dig site in the ancient city of Amarna and says that day-to-day work there is continuing, although "all branches of internal security in Egypt seem to have been disrupted", including the Tourist and Antiquities Police, which is normally responsible for guarding archaeological sites. "In the atmosphere of uncertainty, the wolves have come out."
Mr. Hawass, who has headed Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities since 2002 and was made a cabinet minister on 31 January, told The New York Times that he would not remain in his post in a newly appointed government if asked, because he is no longer able to protect the country's antiquities.
However, many feel that his decision may have more to do with his previous close ties to former President Hosni Mubarak. "I believe he was forced out," says Marinello.
Mr. Hawass could not be reached for comment.