Protests have centred on Cairo's Tahrir Square, home to the Egyptian Museum. Credit: Amr Nabil/AP Photo

"I'm a little shaken. They are throwing Molotov cocktails towards the museum." Sarah Parcak, an archaeologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, who has spent the past 12 years working in Egypt, was speaking yesterday as the Al Jazeera TV news network showed live footage of running street battles around the Egyptian Museum at Tahrir Square in Cairo. "We are all nervous and scared, first and foremost for the people, but now the museum, a symbol of Egypt's vast cultural heritage and treasures, is being threatened by Mubarak's own people," she said.

The military quickly extinguished the fires caused by the firebombs, but the battles around the museum continued throughout the night, with several more petrol bombs landing near the museum (see Fresh danger surrounds the Egyptian Antiques Museum). Trouble had started yesterday when people loyal to President Hosni Mubarak mounted orchestrated attacks against the peaceful protesters, beating them, throwing rocks and petrol bombs, and shooting into the crowds.

So far, the protesters have held their ground against the onslaught, but the night's battles have left at least 8 dead and 900 wounded.

Military priorities often take precedence during conflicts, while loss of life is the immediate concern in a humanitarian crisis. But efforts must nonetheless also be made to preserve artefacts, sites and monuments that are part of a nation's cultural heritage, and also vital to understanding its history. Balancing these concerns is a problem that the international community has grappled with for decades.

We are all very concerned about the Egyptian Museum, but please what we need first is to restore order and save the Egyptian people. ,

The massive destruction of cultural heritage during the Second World War prompted the adoption of the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict in 1954 at The Hague in the Netherlands. Signatories to the Convention pledge to take measures such as creating maps and inventories of cultural heritage, and to set up military units with expertise in archaeology and the protection of key sites and artefacts. In principle, governments and armies should draw up heritage-protection plans during peacetime, which can be activated once a conflict starts.

But implementation of the treaty varies widely. "There is much work to do," says Julien Anfruns, director-general of the International Council of Museums, and president of the International Committee of the Blue Shield – the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross. "The Hague Convention is important, and the chaos over the past few days makes it even more important," says Frank Rühli, who co-heads the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich's Institute of Anatomy in Switzerland.

Egypt is a signatory to the Hague treaty, but few details are known about the heritage-protection plans of its military. It is clear, however, that the military was initially caught off guard by the recent surge in protests in Egypt, taking several days to secure the country's main museums and sites.

"There was a period at the beginning that was dangerous. Now it seems that main sites are protected by military," says Rühli, who had been scheduled to fly to Egypt this week to work in the Valley of Kings, but now doubts that his team will be able to resume its work there before the end of the year.

People power

Under normal conditions, Egypt's archaeological sites are "amazingly well guarded", says Parcak, for example by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities' (SCA) security guards. She attributes this effort to Zahi Hawass, head of the council, who was made minister of antiquities — a new position — in Mubarak's new government sworn in on 31 January. "He will be doing everything in his power to make sure the sites are protected," she says.

Egypt's ancient heritage is so rich that the whole country is basically one large open-air museum. Margaret Maitland , University of Oxford

But in the early days of the uprising, the unrest provided a window of opportunity for looters. Young citizens responded by helping the SCA's security guards, forming vigilante groups to protect sites. They formed a human chain around the Egyptian Museum on the first night of rioting in the vicinity, for example, and so prevented any serious damage or thefts.

Ismail Seregeldin, director of the Library of Alexandria, issued a statement on 30 January to thank the youth for protecting the library from "lawless bands of thugs, and maybe agents provocateurs". The Library would remain closed, he added, until greater security returned.

In a statement yesterday, Hawass said that the army was now protecting all 24 national museums, including the Egyptian Museum, the Coptic Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, as well as all the major archaeological sites, including Luxor, Aswan, Saqqara and the pyramids of Giza. The local population are guarding the San el-Hagar site in the Nile Delta.

Impossible task?

But many researchers fear that it may be impossible to protect all the country's important heritage sites, leaving some vulnerable should the security situation worsen. "Egypt's ancient heritage is so rich that the whole country is basically one large open-air museum. It would be impossible to station a soldier at the door of each and every tomb," says Margaret Maitland, a graduate student in Egyptology at the University of Oxford, UK, who has been collating information about lootings and damage on her blog, The Eloquent Peasant.

Meanwhile, researchers are struggling to assess any losses or damage to artefacts, hampered by continuing difficulties in getting reliable information from inside the country. Parcak has created a Facebook page, Restore + Save the Egyptian Museum!, where archaeologists are sharing information on damage and looting, and trying to separate fact from rumour.

So far it seems that the damage to the Egyptian Museum on 28 January, when 10 men descended into the museum on ropes from glass panes on the roof, was limited, with around 70 objects broken. A warehouse storing antiquities was also looted in Qantara in the Sinai, but most of the roughly 300 stolen objects have been recovered. Padlocks on tombs in Saqqara were broken, but no damage to the tombs was reported.

Rühli hopes that Egypt will call on external experts to form an international mission to assess the damage, and decide what restoration is needed. Such a mission could also assess the security at sites, and how this might be improved. Jan Hladík, a specialist in cultural heritage at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), notes there was a similar UNESCO mission during the Iraq War, in 2003. Researchers have also called on law-enforcement agencies and art dealers around the world to look out for stolen Egyptian antiquities.

For those in the thick of the fighting, however, Egypt's vast heritage is understandably not the most pressing priority. "We are all very concerned about the Egyptian Museum, but please what we need first is to restore order and save the Egyptian people," one member of the Restore + Save the Egyptian Museum! Facebook page posted last night, after returning from the bloody clashes in Tahrir Square.