Archaeology Odyssey 2:2, May/June 1999

Ancient Life: Tut-tut!

Tomb robbing in ancient times

Archaeology Odyssey

In 1922, Howard Carter amazed the world by opening the tomb of Tutankhamun (1336–1327 B.C.), in the Valley of the Kings. He was shocked to discover he wasn’t the first: “Plunderers had entered the tomb,” he wrote, “and entered it more than once.”

The tomb had been violated twice—the last time probably during the reign of Pharaoh Horemheb (1323–1295 B.C.). Smashing a hole in the wall beneath a jaguar-shaped bench (above), the ancient thieves made off with jewelry, linens and precious oils. The robbery was discovered by Horemheb’s officials (as we know from their seals, showing a jackal standing over nine bound captives), who re-sealed the tomb with a darker plaster.

Arriving on the scene millennia later, Carter’s team found a footprint that may have belonged to one of the plunderers. They also discovered a jar of unguent that had hardened, preserving finger marks—perhaps left by a tomb robber as he scooped out the precious balm. But the thieves never reached the tomb’s inner sanctum, where Carter came upon Tut’s sarcophagus and mummy.

The Tomb-Robbing Papyri, now in the British Museum, contain accounts of thefts during the reigns of Ramesses IX (1126–1108 B.C.) and Ramesses XI (1099–1069 B.C.). These documents record not only the ancient grave robber’s modus operandi but also his punishment—generally execution by impalement on a stake.

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