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Tomb Robbers in Ancient Times



Everyone is aware of the treasures which came from the tomb of Tutankhamun on its discovery and we all agree that these are superb works of art, but just think, what other treasures might have been found, if the tomb robbers in ancient times were curtailed in their activities. In the great scheme of Ancient Egyptian history, Tutankhamun's reign was a very short one and although he did not leave any great building works or military campaigns to be remembered by, yet such fine works of art were amassed in his tomb.

It is not surprising that these ancient tombs would fall foul of robbers, as the riches found in these tombs were in stark contrast to the type of lifestyles available to these people. Was it pure greed or were these crimes carried out to literally to feed the families of these robbers? Were there any political motives involved? We have seen attempts by certain rulers to deliberately obliterate the memory of previous rulers by the destruction of monuments and such like. We must also ask the question whether these early tomb robber are any more or less guilty than those explorers and adventurers who came to plunder the remaining treasures nearer our own time in the name of imperialism and progress. These are moral questions, which we must reflect upon but what do we know from early records?

Some of these robberies have been described and documented during the last years of the XX Dynasty. The British Museum houses the Abbot Papyrus which relates many of these accounts. One relates to the reign of Ramesses IX, when the vizier Khaemuaset ruled over Thebes, assisted by two administrators called Paser and Paur who seemed to be at odds with each other for much of the time. During this time ten royal tombs in the Dra Abu el Naga area relating to the XI, XIII, XVII and XVIII Dynasties were looted. Elaborate detail describing how the tombs were desecrated was recorded, as in the case of Sebekemsef's tomb (XIII Dynasty) and that of his wife his wife Queen Neibkhas. Paur mentioned above managed to get the names of eight of the looters, who were imprisoned after confessions were extracted. The confession of one of these robbers is reported also in another papyrus (consisting of two fragments, the Amherst Papyrus and the Leopold II Papyrus). He describes working with copper tools, cutting through stone and describes the amulets and gold jewellery and how all the loot was divided out into eight parts. More importantly he says that when released, he and his friends continue to rob the nobles tombs and describes an elaborate network of robbers, something akin to a modern day mafia.

Returning to the Abbot Papyrus, we can also follow the account of a robbery in the Valley of the Queens, where a confession was extracted from a coppersmith (after a sound beating), where he describes the looting of the tomb of Queen Isi, wife of Ramesses III. When the tomb was inspected however, it was found to be intact. The Mayer Papyri dating later in the reign of Ramesses IX, describes the trial relating to the looting of the tombs of Ramesses II and Seti I. The actual robbers themselves had died and the account relates to the evidence of the wife and son of one of the robbers. Here the wife claims that her husband robbed the tombs to get money to provide food for the family.

From the above cases we can see that law and order accounted for something and that robbers ran the risk of being caught, but this was not always the case. Later the priests overseeing these tombs were forced to remove what little was left to safer places. Nonetheless, pilgrims and robbers continued to visit these tombs over the years as is described by Diodorus Siculus (1st BC) and Strabo (64 BC - 20 AD), indeed right up to the last century. Of course these new hiding places, would again arise new interest and many 19th Century explorers and adventurers combed the countryside in an effort to unearth these secret places. Some were found and their contents are now safely housed in Cairo Museum. Adventurers such as Giovanni Belzoni, Victor Loret and others made significant finds. The cache at Deir-el-Bahri yielded up many of the greatest pharaoh's i.e. Amenophis I, Tuthmosis III, Seti I, Ramesses II and Ramesses III, as well as lesser known rulers. Incidentally, this find came about as a result of a local worthy coming across these mummies. Abdel Russul was his name and he decided to offload some of the riches still in situ. Although trying to do this in a discrete manner, suspicion came to the fore and the site was discovered after an investigation by the then Director of Antiquities, Gasten Maspero.

The question still remains today, whether there is any undiscovered riches still awaiting discovery. Nobody really knows, but this together quest to solve all the ancient mysteries will ensure that digs will continue in Egypt for a long time to come.


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