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“The Mechanisms and Practice of Egyptian Tomb Robbery: A View from Ancient Thebes” Nigel Strudwick (EEG Meeting Talk)

At the beginning of April Nigel Strudwick came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about tomb robbers. He said that the origins of this particular talk were in trying to understand why most of the Egyptian tombs are in such a chaotic mess when they’re first excavated. He started by showing us pictures of tombs that were discovered intact and tombs that had been robbed before they were discovered. There are actually very few tombs that made it to modern times without having been robbed – the two examples he showed us were the tomb of Kha and Merit in Deir el Medina, and the tomb of Sennenmut’s parents (Ramose and Hatnefer). Kha & Merit’s tomb was fairly neatly organised, with the funerary goods and meal laid out in front of the two large shroud-covered coffins. Ramose & Hatnefer’s tomb was more untidy, and had some extra anonymous burials haphazardly stacked up in a second chamber of the tomb. However both were significantly more well organised than the two examples he showed us of tombs that had been robbed – TT253 and TT99. Both of those were in utter chaos. A single broken pot might be scattered across every chamber in the tomb. In TT99 there were pieces of mummy tossed aside in corners, and ripped up pieces of cartonnage were found scattered through the whole of the tomb (which included 8 burial shafts).

Tomb robbery seems to have always been with us. There are burials at Naga ed-Der dating to around 3,500 BCE which have evidence that they were robbed soon after burial. These burials date from the time when the Egyptians placed their dead directly in the sand, and they became naturally dessicated. There are marks on the bodies that are the result of damage to the body after the person was dead, but whilst the tissue was still soft (so after rigor mortis wore off, but before the body dried out). So that indicates they were manhandled not all that long after they were buried, and this is likely to be the result of robbers removing their more valuable grave goods.

The New Kingdom era tombs of Thebes are the ones that Strudwick is most interested in, and he’s identified six phases of robbery that took place in this area. These are: opportunistic tomb robbery in the 18th Dynasty; systematic tomb robbery of minor tombs in the 20th Dynasty; systematic robbery of royal tombs in the late New Kingdom; later opportunistic tomb robbery during Pharaonic times; tomb robbery during the 1st Millennium CE; tomb robbery during the more modern period (from the Arab conquest through to modern times). Tutankhamun’s tomb is a pretty good example of the first phase – his tomb was very slightly robbed shortly after his burial. The robbers broke in through the door, which was subsequently resealed. They didn’t take much, the evidence inside is of a few things being disorganised and boxes with their lids off. It looks like they took small valuable objects like bottles of oils, which they could easily carry off and sell on.

The major phases of tomb robbery are during the late New Kingdom period when tombs of all sorts were robbed in a systematic fashion. There is documentary evidence for this phase of robbery in a collection of papyri known as the Tomb Robbery Papyri. These date to the 20th Dynasty, and were probably dug up (illicitly) in Medinet Habu – they are now in several different museums worldwide, and a lot of them are in the British Museum. One of the most important of these is called the Abbott Papyrus and it talks about an inspection of the tombs on the West Bank at Thebes. It’s clear from the document that there are political reasons why this inspection has happened (he didn’t go into the details of this as it wasn’t relevant to this talk). The inspectors visit several Royal Tombs, but only the 17th Dynasty (and 11th Dynasty) ones that are between Deir el Bahri and the Valley of the Kings not the 18th Dynasty and later tombs inside the Valley of the Kings. The 17th Dynasty tombs were excavated relatively early in the modern period of archaeology so sadly aren’t properly recorded – but some of the objects mentioned in the Abbott Papyrus are in museums, so clearly the inspectors did actually visit the tombs they said they did.

At this point in the talk Strudwick showed us a youtube clip (which I failed to find when I searched, unfortunately) from a drama called “Ancient Egypt: The Tomb Robber’s Tale”. This showed some robbers breaking into a tomb, taking some stuff out and then setting it on fire! As he pointed out, this feels sensationalised and “hollywoodised” – but then he read us excerpts from several of the Tomb Robbery Papyri that describe similar scenes. One of the excerpts, from the Leopold Amherst Papyrus was the words of a(n extorted) confession from one of the robbers, and was the account that the dramatisation was based on. So why burn the coffins? Most coffins weren’t solid gold, instead they were gilded wood.and there are a couple of different ways to get the gold off the wood – you could chisel it off (which is sometimes described as taking place) but that’s pretty time consuming, or you could burn the coffin and collect the gold out of the ashes.

The robbery of royal burials was a separate sub-phase of late New Kingdom tomb robbery. Of all the royal burials in the Valley of the Kings only Tutankhamun and Amenhotep II were found in their own tombs. The robberies appear to’ve been systematic, possibly using Ramesses IX’s tomb as a stripping place, and then reburying (the relabelled) mummies in caches. Strudwick explained that Nicholas Reeves’s theory is that this was state sanctioned robbery to fund the military campaigns of this era. But there was also reuse of funerary equipment, like the sarcophagus of Merenptah is found in a different Dynasty 21 burial (which helps to date the robberies).

Strudwick finished up this section of his talk by giving some examples of the remaining phases of robbery. For instance the coffins in TT358 (a Dynasty 21 burial) the coffins have no faces – this would’ve been the gilded bit of the coffin. This would’ve been an opportunistic robbery, that probably happened while the burial was actually taking place! Towards the end of the 1st Millennium CE there must’ve been lots of robbery: “mummia” was a medieval medicine or aphrodisiac made from mummies, and there’s evidence in Arab texts that a lot of this came from Luxor. Later still, after Napoleon invaded and into the modern era, the robbery of tombs is driven by selling antiquities to foreigners. Strudwick also pointed out that none of these phases are mutually exclusive – a tomb might be robbed multiple times – which makes the job of archaeologists even harder.

Having considered when and why the tombs were robbed Strudwick moved on to what was taken and who was doing the robbing. The Tomb Robbery Papyri collectively give quite a bit of evidence for who was doing the robbing. Strudwick told us about three different gangs, each of which was a different type. The first was the gang of Amenpanefer, who are mentioned in two places in the Tomb Robbery Papyri (including the robbery that the youtube video was based on) and they seem to’ve robbed mostly private tombs. This gang were mostly stonemasons, craftsmen and labourers – the urban working class, in other words. The second gang he referred to as the Deir el Medina gang, and it consisted of members of two families – the Amenwa and the Pentawaret. They are mentioned in three places in the documents, and probably robbed in the Valley of the Queens. All of them worked in the Valley of the Kings tombs – they are of higher social status than Amenpanefer’s gang. The last gang were Penwenheb’s gang, who are only mentioned once in the papyri. They were mostly low ranking priests (probably working in the Ramasseum) plus a couple of coppersmiths. They didn’t rob tombs, instead they robbed the temples – the reliefs, doors and statues in an Egyptian temple would be covered with precious metals, and this is what they were stripping off to sell.

So what were these people stealing? Some evidence comes from comparing lightly robbed tombs to intact burials (such as comparing Tutankhamun’s tomb to Kha’s tomb). The lightly robbed tombs have fewer precious metal vessels – the sort of thing you can grab quickly and hide. They also have significantly less linen – I noticed when we visited the Met Museum in NY that they have a lot of linen displayed from Senenmut’s parents’ tomb, and Strudwick was saying that this is much more than survives in robbed tombs. Again this is a relatively reusable resource. Another part of the funerary assemblage that gets frequently reused is the coffin – current analysis of 21st Dynasty coffins in museums suggests that 2/3 of them are reused from earlier burials. Some intact, and some are bits from different sources patched together into new coffins. The Abbot Papyrus mentions that “all the tombs on the West Bank had been robbed and the owners left on the desert” which might be textual evidence for this widespread coffin reuse.

There were also a lot of precious metals stolen from tombs. The various Tomb Papyri list different amounts for different robberies, some quite large but a private burial might yield 20g or so of gold and a larger amount of copper. Three of the papyri discuss what happened to these precious metals, and the authorities seem quite keen to retrieve it where possible. Some was found on the robbers, and some on persons in the community who’d been given it. One of the papyri gives details about the disposal of goods from a robbery carried out by the Deir el Medina gang. Most of the gold and silver was found in the possession of the robbers themselves, and was fairly evenly divided between them. So they were passing on the lower value goods first. The gold that was handed over seems to’ve gone to people who are officials – bribery, in other words. The copper mostly ended up with people who sell things – probably straightforward payment. Altogether the goods end up with a wide variety of the normal people of Thebes, and Strudwick said that the evidence is that tomb robbery was a “normal” part of the local economy of this period.

Strudwick concluded by talking a bit about what this all shows about Ancient Egyptian attitudes to the dead and to death. It’s an example of their society maintaining two incompatible beliefs at once. On the one hand, they strongly believed that all these grave goods were essential for the deceased to have a good afterlife. Yet on the other hand they knew that tomb robbery always happened, so the deceased wouldn’t get to keep his or her essentials for very long.