The ancient Egyptians believed that the dead should be provided with food and objects that could help them carry on their existence in the afterlife. In the simplest of graves, the deceased might be placed in a pit with a few pots and perhaps some tools or personal items. Wealthier people might be able to afford a tomb nicely supplied with furniture, provisions, and clothing. And, should you be the ruler of Egypt, a magnificant pyramid might be built to hold your mortal remains or, as done later, an elaborately decorated, tunnel-like tomb in the Valley of the Kings to house your jewelry-bedecked mummy and a veritable treasure of valuable supplies including furniture, chariots, and other articles adorned with gold worthy of a king.

This practice of burying the dead with objects from this life proved to be a temptation for those with less respect for the deceased. Of the many ancient tombs in Egypt, relatively few have survived intact. In the case of the richly furnished royal tombs, none escaped the attention of tomb robbers. There is even evidence that the famous tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings was broken into perhaps twice in ancient times. Boxes were opened, and a few items removed, but the robbers were probably caught in the act or made a narrow escape. The tomb was resealed by government officials. In the centuries that followed, Tutankhamun's burial place probably survived almost intact because its entrance was buried under the rocky debris left by stone-masons who in later years built a large tomb nearby.

After the Valley of the Kings had ceased to be used for royal burials, priests collected most of the royal mummies from their pilfered tombs, rewrapped them, and then placed them in special hiding places. Two such caches have been found containing most of the great pharaohs, and some queens, of Egypt's New Kingdom. There are, however, a few royals whose mummies have not been found. Thus, there is the possibility that they, and perhaps their tombs, may have actually escaped the ravages of thieves.

The tomb robbers were particularly interested in finding materials that could be sold or used without their original source being known, or materials that could be recyled and thus made anonymous. In the first case, materials such as linen, oils, and perfume were of interest. For recycling, gold or other precious metals could be melted down, and expensive woods and ivory could be recarved. In most cases, thieves seemed to have had no qualms about tearing through a wrapped royal mummy to remove jewelry or other valuable items.

Tomb robbery was definitely a problem in ancient Egypt and, amazingly, we have old records to prove it. Several documents written on papyrus (paper) have been found that included transcripts of interrogations and confessions of ancient tomb robbers. Some were beaten, and those found guilty no doubt suffered an unpleasant death.

Tomb robbery experienced another surge when agents for foreign museums, collectors, and tourists began flocking to Egypt in the 1800s. The demand for antiquities was great, and, as a result, many tombs were robbed. Some thieves even removed portions of the painted walls. In 1858, the Egyptians created a government agency to manage the remains of the country's past and to curtail their destruction. Today, it is illegal to buy or sell antiquities in Egypt. Even scientists are not allowed to excavate there unless they have special permission. Unfortunately, tomb robbing continues on occasion, just as it has for thousands of years.

PHOTO (COLOR): Surviving artifacts from ancient Egypt bear witness to the damage and destruction caused by looters and others through the centuries.


By Donald P. Ryan

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