By Marie Parsons
From Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt by John H. Taylor
From the earliest days of royal and noble burials in ancient Egypt, objects and jewelry of gold, precious stones, alabaster and faience had been placed within the tombs for the use of the kings in the afterlife. Even the golden masks on the deceased, like this example of King Psaunnes, would have been hacked off. It was important that the deceased be provided for in the afterlife as well as he had been in this life.
But often, for many reasons, then as now, the temptation of the sight of a treasure trove proved strong enough to overcome the devotion and esteem generally given to the king, his wives and his courtiers. One hundred deben of copper, in the 20th Dynasty a thiefs share of loot, was equivalent to ten months of worker rations, in one haul. The gain was perhaps worth the risk. So thieves have always thought.
Providing the dead with commodities and objects of value thus brought with it the threat of tomb robbery. The tombs of the elite were most at risk, since they contained a higher proportion of valuable objects, but even poor graves were robbed for the sake of the meager offerings and adornments placed with the dead. Grave robbers were present from the earliest times. Old Kingdom inscriptions contained warnings that robbers would be judged by the gods in the hereafter. Severe punishments awaited in this life as well, more definite than any curse.
Some architectural developments were taken to avoid the possibility of theft, such as in earliest times, storing goods in subterranean chambers. The entrance stairway leading to the burial chamber in Early Dynastic and Old Kingdom mastaba tombs was blocked by one or more stone slabs, which slid into place in vertical slots. The entrance passage or shaft was also blocked by rubble.
The burial chamber in the tomb of Senwosret at Lisht was protected by a series of stone slabs, the first of which, once lowered, could not be forced upwards again because metal or wooden bolts were released from holes in the lateral grooves in the slab, effectively locking it.
When the 12th Dynasty architects changed the internal arrangements of every pyramid with each successive reign, they culminated with the pyramid of Amenemhat III at Hawara, which had a series of blind passages and concealed trapdoors. But even there, the thieves had mined through one of the roof-blocks to gain access to the sarcophagus, sitting in the burial chamber carved out of a single enormous quartzite block. So when Petrie found the chamber, only minute traces of the original funerary equipment were recovered.
But there were times when robbery was committed at the very time of burial, probably by the undertakers or cemetery guardians. A number of intact burials have been found, the tombs with intact entrance blockings, but the bodies had been searched and the valuables removed. Elsewhere bodies had been left thrown out of their coffins, while still articulated. Even large stone sarcophagi could not always prevent theft, since the thieves would lever off the lids or even tunnel through the sides or floors of the sarcophagi.
Today only a handful of bodies remain in their tombs, and even fewer are still as they were when interred.
A group of mummies of high-ranking women of the 21st dynasty, discovered in a tomb at Thebes, was apparently undisturbed, yet examination revealed that the gilded faces had been removed from the coffins, and some items of jewelry taken from the mummies before the wrapping was completed.
Another pair of mummies were examined, and it was found that while the mummies of Hentatawy and Nesit-Iset lay just as they had been placed in the grave, appearing to be still intact, such was not in fact the case. The tapes, the outer sheet, and the Osiris sheet were neatly and carefully folded on the bodies and stitched up the back. Everything was in perfect order at first, and then gradually as the mummies were unwrapped, it was discovered that on both mummies, there were casts in the resin of the metal pectoral hawks, but the pectoral hawks themselves were gone. The heart scarabs in both cases had been taken out and then put back carelessly, around the torn bandages on the chests were marks of fingers, and finally that the left hand of Nesit-Iset had been laid bare in a search for finger rings.
Even more illustrious personages were not exempt from the incursions of robbers. The Tomb of Tuthmosis III in the Valley of the Kings was discovered in 1898 by Victor Loret. This tomb is notable in part for the text of the Litany of Ra inscribed in the burial chamber, and for the scene in which the king is shown being nursed by a divine tree-goddess, labeled "Isis" (the kings mother was named Isis). But the condition of the material recovered indicates clearly that the tomb had been heavily plundered, and not gently. The sarcophagus had been damaged by a rough removal of the lid, gilded wooden images had been thrown with force against the walls, leaving traces of gold foil, and all metal fittings and coverings had been chopped off. Some fragments and objects belonging to Tuthmosis III were found later in the tomb of Ramesses XI.
The treasure trove of Tutankhamun was not exempt from robbery. Howard Carter noted the multiple entries of thieves. Evidence was found of at least two robberies, carried out close to the time of the burial, perhaps by members of the burial party.
At the time of the first break-in, the entrance corridor was empty, save for jars of embalming material and other items stored there for want of space within the tomb proper. Both the outer and inner corridor blockings were broken through at the top left hand corner, giving access to the antechamber, which the robbers ransacked primarily for meta but also linen, oils and perfumes. The robbery was soon discovered, order restored, the corridor emptied of funerary goods and the materials reburied in another pit, filled up to the roof with limestone chippings, and the tomb resealed with the seal of the necropolis administration.
A short time later, the tomb was clearly entered again, though this time with far more difficulty than previously, since the thieves now had to burrow through the corridor blockage. This second gang gained access to the entire tomb, and among their booty was perhaps 60% of the jewelry stored in the treasury. They evidently entered the tomb at least twice, on the last occasion they must have been apprehended. A knotted scarf containing eight gold rings had been confiscated and casually tossed back into one of the antechamber boxes. The breached entrances to the burial chamber and at either end of the entrance corridor were closed and resealed with the same jackal and nine-captives motif, and the hole dug through the corridor fill re-blocked.
The news of the discovery of the tombs of the sons of Ramesses II electrified the Egyptological world. Ramesses II is the Great warrior-king who brought glory to Egypt during the New Kingdom. But even his tomb bears traces of theft.
According to the so-called "Strike Papyrus" preserved in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, an attempt was made by two individuals to enter the tomb of Ramesses II during the 20th Dynasty, in Year 29 of Ramesses III. They stripped stones from above the tomb entrance. One robber named in the papyrus as Kenena, son of Ruta, made a similar attempt on the tomb at KV5, the tomb believed now to hold the sons of Ramesses II.
The tomb of the parents of Queen Tiye also bears evidence of theft on two, possibly three occasions. The first time was during the reign of Amenhotep III, when oils and perfumes were removed. The second was during the reign of Ramesses III, indicated by the presence of sealings bearing that Rameses name. And the third time was during the reign of Ramesses XI.
After the three attempts, all the portable valuables were gone, metalwork, including all jewelry not otherwise wrapped in the mummies, and most of the linens not directly used on the bodies. Perfumes and cosmetics had also been removed, usually evidence of a robbery soon after the original interment. All that remained were three containers of rancid castor oil, natron, and a dark red substance.
When Theodore Davis excavated the tomb in 1905, he found that the mummies had been disturbed within their coffins, while promising looking boxes had their lids ripped off. Several items were found in the corridorthese included a heart scarab, chariot yoke and gilded wooden staff. They were probably being carried off by the thieves and suddenly discarded.
Some subsequent attempts were made to bring order back to the burials. Tjuyus mummy had been covered with a sheet, some boxes were refilled with items, and the access hole, made to enter the burial chamber were roughly blocked again with stones.
Some thefts took place against a background of economic trouble and incipient national disunity. Robberies peaked during periods in which central authority was weakened and necropolis guards less well organized or honest. Perhaps the best-recorded thefts come from the village of Deir el-Medina, from records of tomb-robbers and their trials during the 20th Dynasty.
During the course of the 20th Dynasty, the age of the last Ramesside kings, the control of the central government slackened. After Ramesses IIs glorious reign, it seemed that his successors were coming fast, one after another. When kings died in only a short period of time, tombs were left unfinished, and deliveries from the central government became problematic. By the ninth year of Ramesses IX, delivery of the Deir el-Medina village rations became sporadic and insubstantial again.
In addition, the Theban region was unsettled by attacks of Libyan raiders. One work journal at Deir el-Medina recorded "Year one, first month of winter, day three. No work for fear of the enemy." The work-journal further reported that those enemies have reached Pernabi, a town north of Thebes perhaps, and that they have destroyed all that was there and burned its people. Foreign wars left mercenaries, Bedouin and dispossessed Egyptians roaming the Nile, attacking its towns and villages. Armed and armored, they must have struck fear into the villagers near the Valley of the Kings. But the King was up in the delta with his army-the village, even Thebes, its temples, tombs with gold, were defenseless.
The workmen gangs went on strike. It would not be the first time. Life was becoming harder and the standard of living was dropping. The rich tombs on the western bank began to attract foreign raiders again and Thebans too.
At some time prior to Year 9 of Ramesses IX, c. 1117 BCE, an unnamed tomb had been broken into, and copper and silver objects removed. The thieves then quarreled about the division of the spoils, and an informer threatened to tell the authorities unless he too was paid. So the thieves decided to rob Ramesses VIs tomb to increase their shares. The tomb of Ramessses VI had been sealed only about 15 years earlier. The thieves were caught and punished and the tomb resealed.
A draughtsman named Amenhotep revisited the tomb of Ramesses VI and found it safe and sound. But four years later, while gangs of Libyans and mercenaries roamed the west bank and the workers asked for their rations once again, a stonemason named Amenpenefer was arrested and held in the offices of the Mayor of Thebes, accused of robbing tombs. He bribed an official with gold and was quietly released. But he wrote four years later that he "rejoined his companions who compensated me with another portion of the loot. SoI have continued to this day the practice of robbing the tombs of the nobles and the people of the land who rest in the west. And a large number of other people rob them as well"
A few months later, three men were arrested for trespassing in the royal cemetery of the "Place of Beauty", where close relatives of the King were buried. The police in the area were under the control of the mayor of west Thebes, named Paweraa. Either he knew nothing or he failed to take any action. Eventually rumors of the thefts came to the notice of the mayor of east Thebes, one Paser, who openly denounced them. A special commission was set up in year 16 of Rameses IX consisting of the vizier, several royal butlers, and several other notables. After some ungentle persuasion, one of the three admitted to stealing objects from the tomb of the wife of Ramesses III. Records show the men were still imprisoned years later, but nothing is known of more specific punishments. Ten royal tombs were examined, of which two showed signs of attempted penetration, and one had been robbed and the royal mummies burnt. The sepulchers of two priestesses of Amun were rifled.
Paweraa was not amused by the implication that he and his staff were incompetent to guard the royal tombs, and tried to ensure a whitewash. Only one of the ten tombs examined, none of which were in the Valley of the Kings, was found to be violated. But the private tombs in the cliffs on the west bank were all found to have been robbed. A list of suspects was placed before the commission, and the thieves arrested.
Some 45 people were arrested and tortured, and after confessing, brought to trial. The confession went something like this:
"We found the pyramid of King Sobkemsaf I, this being unlike the pyramids and tombs of the nobles that we were used to robbing. We took our copper tools and forced a way into the pyramid of this king through its innermost partthen we broke through the blocking that we found at the entrance to his crypt and found this god lying at the back of his burial place.we found the burial-place of Queen Nubkhaes his wifewe also broke through and found her resting there in the same way. We opened their sarcophagi and their coffins in which they werethe noble mummy of the king was completely bedecked with gold, and his coffins were adorned with gold and silver inside and out and inlaid with all kinds of precious stones."
Apparently the robbers worked in gangs of seven or eight, including stonemasons or coppersmiths, with water-carriers, a smith to melt down the plundered metals, and a boatman to ferry them from the necropolis to the city. Once inside the tombs, which they would access from the rear to leave the doors and seals intact, the robbers would smash the burials, break open the stone sarcophagi, hack the gilding from the coffins, tear the mummies apart for their jewelry, carry off the linens, oils and furniture. Sometimes the thieves simply set fire to the burial chambers, then later on scraped the hardened pools of gold from beneath the ash. "We went to the tomb of Tjanefer, who had been third priest of Amun. We opened it and brought out his inner coffins and left his mummy in a corner of his tomb. The inner coffins weset fire to them in the night and made off with the gold which we found on them."
The inhabitants of the west bank took the findings to be a vindication of themselves and launched a demonstration aimed against the mayor of East Thebes.
But the footnote to all this was that the loot stolen from the tombs had found its way into the Theban economy. Since at this time there was no coinage in Egypt, payments were made in kind. Everyone had somehow benefited at some time from the thefts. After all, in a region where everyone knew everyones business to some degree, it would have been difficult to hide sudden newly-acquired wealth.
A great irony was that the very people who lived their lives in the fervent belief that the king was their living god, their priest who would act to bring and keep maat in the world and prevent the incursion of chaos, thought nothing of robbing that king after death. One has to wonder what went on in their minds. Did it not matter that they were violating the nourishment of his ka? Or perhaps, like us today, the ancient Egyptian thieves were able to somehow moralize and justify how their illegal acts were justified if there was an ultimate reason that was good-for example, the care of themselves and their family outweighed the care of the dead.
Ancient Lives: Daily Life in the Egypt of the Pharaohs by John Romer
The Complete Valley of the Kings by Nicholas Reeves and Richard Wilkinson
Tomb-Builders of the pharaohs by Morris Bierbrier
The Mummy in Ancient Egypt by Salima Ikram and Aidan Dodson
Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Updated: June 8th, 2011