The Ancient Tomb Raiders that Destroyed History

Egyptian history was lost, but it maintained an economy through crime.

When Egyptian tomb raiders are mentioned, many people think of Howard Carter and the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun or King Tut as he became know. This is far from the truth, as Carter did not rob the grave but discovered it. Tomb robbing was not a current crisis. The more significant majority of tombs were destroyed during Egyptian times. The pillaging of the tombs causes many valuable artefacts and historical facts to be lost. However, at the time, it also provided a stable part of the economy. In the Pharaoh’s time, authorities did not view tomb robbery as disdainfully as it is today.

Who were the grave robbers of Egypt

These criminals existed from all levels of the economy, from serf to royalty. The poor could not afford nice things or even feed their family, whilst the rich were buried with gold and silver. It is easy to see why this robbery would have been so popular. Many would steal enough silver to feed their families.

Usually, these criminals acted in teams of ten. Many of them were involved in the burials, so they knew where to look for the riches. Some tradesperson would even carry out riches in their trade bags before the tombs were even sealed. As a result, many mummies were found intact with their seals still in place but their refinery missing.

Egypt was a cashless society until the Persian’s invaded in 525BC; robbers would have traded goods from tombs. They would have taken stolen goods to higher officials who would have paid the robbers in goods. These would have then melted down the gold for their profit. Thus, Egyptians established the earliest form of fencing stolen goods.

Nobility would also rob their relatives. It was often seen as an act of revenge to take the effects the kings wanted in the afterlife. Subsequent rulers would take the riches of their predecessors, and in some cases, even the sarcophagus was reused.

Robbery Proof Tombs

It was also undeniable where these tombs were located with the pyramids and mastabas that surrounded them.

As this practice became more popular many anti-theft devices would be used to deter the would-be robber. None were very successful, as those who had helped build the tombs knew precisely what to expect when they reentered with their teams of robbers.

Some of the standard anti-theft devices used would be tripwires and trap holes. Like a scene from Indiana Jones, most tombs were set with these; some even carried decapitation wires.

The location of the burial chamber was also essential to deter robbers, hallways to it were filled with debris to hide what the corridors led. The constant threat of theft was the factor that led to the more conspicuous Valley of the Kings being used to bury influential leaders.

It was no secret that, as the burial process grew more elaborate, so did the value of the grave goods interred with both royal and non-royal mummies. Gilded coffins, amulets of precious stones, exotic imported artefacts all proved too tempting for thieves — Egyptologist David P. Silverman


Although the ancient Egyptians celebrated the afterlife, this did not stop them from desecrating the tombs of their leaders. However, religion stated that only the initial robber was seen to have violated the burial ground; once he had opened the vault, everyone else was blame-free.

This was not to say that the Egyptians took these crimes lightly, when they were discovered. We know from ancient Egyptian court records that a guilty charge of grave robbery carried a death sentence. Perpetrators were either burned alive, decapitated or impaled. This provided the criminal with further problems when burned to nothing more than ashes; they had no body to take with them to the afterlife. They would not be admitted there. If they were impaled, they believed that they would be tied to the place of impalement and again not enter the afterworld.

Less severe punishments consisted of cutting one or both hands off, whipping, beating or torture. Rulers generally saved these punishments for those that would turn against their co-conspirators for a lesser sentence.

King Tutankhamon’s Tomb

In 1907, Howard Carter, who was hired by a wealthy aristocrat called Lord Carnarvon, gained a license to dig where he thought the tomb of Tutankhamon was. Over the years, he was generally unsuccessful. It was reported that Lord Carnarvon had grown tired with the lack of success and told Carter this would be his last year of finance.

On November 4th 1922, a young boy hired as a water fetcher was digging about with a stick. He found a stone step and called Carter over. The team then found a flight of steps leading down to a sealed door and a secret chamber. On November 26th, Carter and Carnarvon entered the tomb. However, it was not until February 16th 1923, that Carter opened the innermost chamber of King Tut’s burial temple. It was the most intact tomb ever excavated.

Although Howard Carter found the tomb, it had been robbed twice previously before being discovered. During the first robbery, the robbers sought linen, cosmetics and metal; historians estimated that this robbery occurred between 1500 and 1300 BC. However, on this occasion, the robbers only gained access to the annexe and antechamber, so they did not find any true wealth. The tomb was then resealed; it is believed by the Maya people.

The second robbery resulted in jewels and figurines being removed. Carter estimated when he opened the tomb that two-thirds of the jewellery was missing. More would have been removed from the tomb had it not been accidentally buried by the ancient workers constructing Ramesses VI tomb in 1137BC. We would have never discovered the historical facts we know about the Egyptians with the loss of this tomb.

King Tut would have made quite a fortune for those that robbed him had they found the entrance, as it is estimated that the wealth found within the tomb is worth three-quarters of a billion dollars. The gold coffin itself was valued at thirteen million dollars. However, historians believe that there were far greater wealth in other tombs. King Tut was only twenty when he died; other longer reigning Pharaohs would have amassed more incredible wealth. Unfortunately, these have been lost to the grave robbers.

The Curse of King Tut

Legend has long surrounded the tomb of King Tut. Was one of the anti-theft devices used, a form of ancient curse? Carter spent ten years supervising the removal of artefacts from the grave. He finally left Egypt in 1932 to return to the UK, where he travelled, giving talks. Unfortunately, Carter would die in 1939 of lymphoma. He, however, was not the only member of the excavation team to die, which led to the legend of the curse.

Shortly after Carnarvon opened the tomb, he was found dead from an infected mosquito bite, leading to blood poisoning. His half brother would also suffer the same fate. Sir Archibald Douglas- Reid, a radiologist who used x-ray to examine the tomb, died of a mysterious illness. Jay Gould, a financier, died of a fever contracting in Egypt when he visited the tomb.

Sir Bruce Ingrain, who was given artefacts from the tomb by Carter, had his house burned to the ground. When it was re-built, it was then flooded. One of these occurrences in themselves would have been understandable. But the combination of them all led to the legend of the curse.

Grave robbing was a valuable part of the economy for many years in many countries. Several other countries have lost valuable history due to this practice: China, Europe and America being a few to mention. The impact that it had on economies and the poor was enormous. At the time, none of them considered what historical information they were destroying. All they were concerned with was feeding their family.

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