Industrial-Scale Looting Destroys Ancient Sudanese Site
A 2000-year-old historic site has been destroyed in Sudan by illegal treasure hunters using construction-sized excavators to search for buried gold. In Sudan many of the country’s archaeological sites are under threat from illegal gold diggers and looting which has become a major threat to the nation’s heritage.
The important archaeological site at Jabal Maragha, in the Sahara Desert in the East of Sudan, was virtually destroyed by looters looking for gold. It is located some 170 miles (270 km) north of the Sudanese capital Khartoum. As in an increasing number of other looting incidents, the criminals used mechanical equipment and even diggers. The BBC reports that “the Jabal Maragha site, which dates from the Meroitic period between 350 BC and 350 AD, is said to have either been a small settlement or a checkpoint.” It had been excavated in the 1990s by Sudanese archaeologists.
When archaeologists deep in the deserts of Sudan arrived at the ancient site of Jabal Maragha, they thought they were lost
Almost all sign of the two millenia-old site had been obliterated by gold-hunters with giant diggers https://t.co/HZggQDMcUm pic.twitter.com/gzo6S7qom1
— AFP news agency (@AFP) August 24, 2020
Sudanese Investigators Discover Shameless Gold-Hunting Diggers
The Meroitic Period (400 BC- 350 AD) is associated with the Kingdom of Kush once located in the Middle Nile in Ancient Nubia. The Kingdom was an advanced civilization that was influenced by Ancient Egypt, but it also had a distinctive culture of its own. Kush was a major regional power for centuries and it was able to maintain its independence from Ptolemaic Egypt and Rome. Today, there are hundreds of step-pyramids from this period in Sudan, the burial place of their monarchs. They are not as well-known as the pyramids in Egypt, but many have been recognized by UNESCO as being of great historical importance.
Authorities were only alerted in recent weeks about the destruction at the site, who then sent officials from Sudan’s Antiquities and Museum Department to investigate. They found five men using diggers at the site in their search for gold. When discovered, they had already dug a deep trench into the site that is over 50 feet deep and 60 feet long (17 x 20 meters). The looters had even used stone from the location to build a dining hall.
Fool’s Gold: Systematic Looting by Desperate Diggers
“They had only one goal in digging here - to find gold... they did something crazy; to save time, they used heavy machinery,” explains Habab Idriss Ahmed to the BBC, an archaeologist who had worked at the site in the 1990s. “They had completely excavated it because the ground is composed of layers of sandstone and pyrite,” described Hatem al-Nour, Sudan's Director of Antiquities and Museums, in the Global Times. Pyrite, also known as fool’s gold, is a metallic rock. When looters use metal detectors, it causes them to start ringing. This would have caused them to believe they had struck gold. It is not known if they found anything valuable, but it is possible that despite all their looting destruction they found nothing at all.
There is a growing problem with the looting of heritage sites in Sudan. The country has some major deposits of gold and people often used to pan for the precious metal in the Blue Nile. In the 1980s, local people heard reports that archaeologists had found gold and they began to dig up historic areas and ruins. Art Today reports that “in hundreds of remote places ranging from cemeteries to temples, desperate diggers are hunting for anything to improve their daily lives.” It is believed that some officials in the past encouraged the crime and their activities are often funded by local wealthy business people.
Looters of Sudan’s Priceless Past Mysteriously Freed
The team of experts visited the site with a police escort, while the officers took the looters to a nearby police station. To the astonishment of the archaeologist, they were freed after only a few hours. Mahmoud al-Tayeb, from Sudan's Antiquities Department, told the Global Times that they “should have been put in jail and their machines confiscated. There are laws”. Tayeb believes that the looters employer, could be someone with powerful connections who used his influence. Accordingly, they will probably not be brought to justice.
One of the reasons for the destruction and looting of Sudan’s heritage is the general lack of security in the country. In recent years the African nation has been rocked by demonstrations and political crises. However, reasons for the recent wave of destruction run much deeper and relate to the country’s attitude to its heritage. Tayeb is quoted by the Global Times as saying that it is “a serious matter of how do you treat your history, your heritage? This is the main problem. So, what can one do?”
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Is Systematic Looting Destroying Archaeology’s Ability to Unify a Country Divided by Ethnic Conflict?
Hatem al-Nour told the BBC that “out of a thousand more or less well-known sites in Sudan, at least a hundred have been destroyed or damaged.” This is an irreparable loss to the heritage not only Sudan but Africa too. Many even believe that it is just one more example of a systematic looting of ancient Sudanese archaeological sites. Among the sites destroyed was the ancient burial site at Sai, an island in the River Nile. Sudan has been riven by ethnic conflicts in recent years. Some believe that the nation’s heritage could be used to create a sense of national identity and unify the country.
Top image: Archaeological site Jabal Maragha in Sudan has been destroyed by industrial-scale looting. Illustrative image from Jebel Bakal across the Sudanese desert with the pyramids. Source: Frank / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan