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Cultural Racketeering in Egypt: Predicting Patterns in Illicit Activity: Quantitative Tools of the 21st-Century Archaeologist

January 6, 2016

By: Katie A. Paul

The modern era of globalization has made the world more heavily connected than ever before, technologically, politically—and criminally. The Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 facilitated social movements that redefined the modern world. They also served as the catalyst for cultural racketeering—the systematic theft of art and antiquities by organized criminal syndicates.

KP Presentation slideThis study presents an examination of the patterns and trends of cultural racketeering in Egypt. Data was gathered from research and analysis of social media and media within Egypt and around the world. The various aspects of media examined reported on the threats and damage to cultural heritage in Egypt. Social media has proven to be a major means of information sharing in Egypt and the Middle East and North African region. The Egyptian population’s extensive engagement in social media was first displayed during the January 2011 revolution and has only increased in popularity since. This study breaks down the individual reports of looting and/or trafficking into demographic data, site classifications, and illicit activities taxonomies on a month-by-month basis in the years following the 2011 revolution. Graphing the quantitative data collected from the analysis of these on-the-ground reports provides a glimpse into the patterns that have emerged and the methods of operation for various types of looting and smuggling networks within Egypt. This quantitative examination reveals the patterns of cultural heritage crimes taking place in Egypt—and more importantly, identifies cyclical activities that can help predict the activities that lie ahead.

The post–Arab Spring expansion of criminal networks in the Middle East antiquities trade has created a new atmosphere where archaeologists must be investigators of the present as well as the past—navigating technology, politics, security, and economy to protect and preserve heritage and keep up with the criminals involved.

There is an increasing need for experts in the field to not just grasp the science of archaeology but also understand the dynamics affecting cultural heritage within political and economic sectors. Coordinating with the efforts of experts beyond the archaeological arena creates immense opportunity for archaeologists to undertake solutions to combatting cultural racketeering that are practical, workable, and flexible.

The Egyptian government is faced with the crisis of too many crimes and too few resources. By understanding established patterns in the illicit trafficking of antiquities, we can help governments allocate their already scant resources in the most effective manner to combat looting. Researching beyond the scope of the archaeological material affected and engaging in this quantitative ethnography of social media and media helps provide archaeologists and heritage experts with the tools to create a targeted approach to thwarting looting networks and their patterns of activity. This study has identified new tools, techniques, routes of research, and potential for cross-disciplinary cooperation to glean credible information pointing to activity cycles and overall trends of cultural racketeering in Egypt. The practical applications of this research toward streamlining government activities in the fight against looting can serve as a model for examining patterns and solutions in other tech-oriented nations facing challenges of high heritage crime coupled with low heritage resources.


This abstract for Cultural Racketeering in Egypt: Predicting Patterns in Illicit Activity: Quantitative Tools of the 21st-Century Archaeologist will be presented at the 117th Annual Archaeological Institute of America Meetings in San Francisco on the morning of Thursday, January 7. Antiquities Coalition Chief of Staff, Katie Paul will be presenting her research in session 2A beginning at 10:45am – check out the AIA program for more information!