On a television documentary about ancient Egypt which aired several years ago, a well known Egyptologist expressed amazement that ancient Egyptians were capable of committing acts of tomb robbery. Given their religious belief in the necessity of having an intact mummy completely equipped with the ritual provisions needed for survival in the Afterlife, this Egyptologist found it almost inconceivable that certain Egyptians could sink so low as to engage in the pillaging of the tombs of their ancestors.
Her comment (probably unintentionally) reinforced the popular opinion, which views Egyptian tomb robbing as a dastardly deed committed by miscreants who disbelieved in the religious significance of the burial customs adhered to by other, more respectable, Egyptians. According to this view, tomb robbers came from the very lowest dregs of society. They were outlaws driven by a combination of greed and starvation, who conducted desperate raids upon the final resting places of decent, god-fearing Egyptians. It is easy to visualize these wretches furtively sneaking into the tombs by night, trembling in the torch-lit shadows before the coffins of the very dead in whose sanctity they professed not to believe, and smuggling their illicit treasure out into hiding places among the unpatrolled mountains and hills of the desert.
Such dramatic adventures occur more frequently in Hollywood movies than they probably did along the west banks of the Nile. Of course, infrequent forays by desperate individuals did take place, but the actual large-scale pillaging of most tombs was done by the very priests and tomb workers who laid the dead to rest. And a good deal of this robbing was known about and condoned by government officials who exploited the stolen booty for their own benefit. Tomb robbing in ancient Egypt was a complex and multi-faceted institution, and we simply don't know enough about ancient psychology to fully understand the complete range of significance that this activity possessed for the Egyptians. But the facts supply some clues which indicate that our popular notions about tomb robbing are overly simplistic. The taken-for-granted idea that an Egyptian tomb was sealed for all eternity on the day of its owner's funeral, and that it was always a sacrilege to reenter it at a later date, needs serious revision.
First, it must be pointed out that the concept of "tomb robbing" for us today possesses a more general meaning than it held for the ancient Egyptians. By "tomb robbing," our culture means any act wherein personal possessions buried with the dead (including the body of the deceased) are exhumed by and unlawfully appropriated for the gain of some other person or persons. As we will see, the Egyptians employed the concept "tomb robbing" in a much more narrowly circumscribed fashion. There are many examples of Egyptians committing acts that today would be unanimously condemned as tomb robbing but which were accepted and condoned by the Egyptians themselves.
For example, we know that it was permissible for certain people to enter a tomb and remove objects for subsequent use in their own burials. Tutankhamen's second inner coffin, four of his miniature canopic coffins, and the golden bands around his mummy had all been taken from the grave goods of his (supposed) older brother, Smenkare. Pinudjem I appropriated the coffins of Thothmosis I, which had been extensively reworked by Pinudjem's craftsmen in order to conceal the identity of their original owner. Examples of such recycling of grave goods taken from older burials are numerous, indicating that this practice was, apparently, "politically correct." But how it was viewed as different from the kind of tomb robbing that was a punishable offense remains a matter of speculation.
One possible way of explaining this practice is to appeal to the ancient belief that the pharaoh was an earthly incarnation of the god Horus. Every pharaoh was the same Horus, although in differently appearing material forms, and in this sense each king could be said to own all the grave goods of the rulers who predeceased him. Another explanation for the Egyptian's practice of reusing grave goods could be based on the hypothesis that such goods came only from burials that had already been unlawfully pillaged, assuming that a tomb, once robbed, became permanently defiled in such a way as to make further removal of its remaining contents unobjectionable. Of course, one could argue that the facts fail to support this assumption. After the thieves had long gone, many tombs (including Tutankhamen's, Yuya and Tuya's, and Mahirpra's) were tidied-up and resealed by necropolis officials and priests, indicating that these particular tombs still retained their sanctity, or had it renewed by the proper rituals. Rulers from the late XX'th through XXI'st dynasties formed reburial commissions which gathered the remains of kings en masse from their rifled tombs and reburied them, with appropriate solemnities, in safer locations. All this indicates that tombs, grave goods, and mummies could retain their sacrosanct character even after they had been disturbed by unlawful hands. Perhaps the ancient Egyptians distinguished between varying degrees of defilement, so that some robbed tombs could be cleaned up and resealed, while other tombs, in which the degree of disturbance was severe, were written off as beyond ritual repair and had their surviving grave goods redistributed for other ends.
For that matter, what about the many intrusive burials in which individuals had themselves interred in other people's tombs? Could this not be seen as the ultimate act of tomb robbing, in which an entire sepulcher was taken over for the use of someone other than its originally intended owner? Yet many Egyptians did precisely this, apparently without compunction. In reality, such intrusive burials were probably motivated out of a combination of expedience and religious reverence for the tomb's original owner. People lacking the means for constructing their own tombs had themselves buried in the long-neglected sepulchers of dead royalty in order to take advantage of the aura of magical potency which such places retained. They probably saw themselves as sharing the tomb with the spirit of its original owner, and viewed their actions as in no way disrespectful.
But what about those who entered tombs in ways deemed unlawful by the ancient Egyptians? These were the tomb robbers proper; those who were imprisoned, tried, and severely punished for their acts whenever they were unfortunate enough to get caught. What kind of people were they?
Archeological data provides a lot of information about tomb robbers. We have actual written records, dated to the late XX'th dynasty, which describe the court trials of various people accused of tomb robbing in the Valley of the Kings. These records clearly tell us that tombs were robbed by the very same workers who had carved them out of the limestone cliffs of the Valley. The papyrus texts also implicate the mayor of Western Thebes and other Theban officials, who apparently knew about the illicit activities in the necropolis but did nothing to stop them, probably because they were getting a portion of the loot.
We also have indirect information about tomb robbing which can be inferred from the actual condition of the tombs themselves when discovered, and from taking inventories of their remaining contents. In this context, Tutankhamen's tomb provided extremely valuable data on the subject of tomb robbing. The ancient burial party kept detailed written inventories of everything that had been included in Tutankhamen's grave goods. These written records were buried with the king, and, when discovered, enabled archeologists to figure out which objects were missing from the original funerary ensemble. This also supplied information about the kind of things the thieves were after. According to C. N. Reeves, who made an in-depth study of tomb robbing in the Valley of the Kings, most robbers went first for precious metals that could easily be melted down in order to conceal their illicit source of origin. The perishable goods contained in tombs, i.e. the expensive oils, spices, and wine which wealthy Egyptians took in bulk quantity with them into the Underworld, were also a high priority and were usually removed during the first wave of pilfering. Next on the robber's shopping list came the costly linens that the rich had buried with them.
Further evidence indicates that funerary equipment was sometimes stolen before the tomb was even sealed. Archeologists have discovered nested coffin sets in which an intact outer coffin conceals rifled inner ones. As an example, the beautiful outermost coffin of Maatkare can be contrasted with her desecrated inner coffin, which has had the thick sheet gold that once covered the face and hands completely pulled off. The only people who would have had access to the inner coffin prior to the burial would have been the priests and other members of the burial party, who took care to hide their dirty work inside a pristine outer coffin. Guests at Maatkare's funeral would not suspect a thing as they watched the beautiful priestess being placed inside her tomb.
What kind of attitude toward the dead might the tomb robbers have had? We must be very careful not to assume that these ancient people thought about their actions in the same way that we do today. It only seems obvious to us that the tomb robbers were atheistic opportunists who held their culture's funerary beliefs and customs in utter contempt. The ancient Egyptian religion was vastly different from our own, and might have offered conceptual loop-holes by which the tomb robber could view his acts as being justified by his religious beliefs rather than as being opposed to them. The whole context in which the Egyptians interpreted the relationship between the living and the dead must be taken into account in our evaluation of tomb robbing.
Today, we look at graveyards and cemeteries as serving a purely memorial function. The spirits of those interred within them have departed to another realm, and we will have no further contact with them until we ourselves join them on the "other side" (unless, of course, we happen to believe in spiritualism and Ouija boards.) The ancient Egyptians, however, had radically different ideas. An Egyptian necropolis did much more than simply memorialize the dead. It served as a point of contact where deceased relatives and rulers could still commune with the living.
Archeologists have discovered numerous "letters to the dead" which were written by Egyptians asking for some kind of assistance here on earth from those who had gone into the afterlife. In this context, the dead were viewed as being able to intercede in some fashion on behalf of the living in order to influence things in a positive way. It is very conceivable that people who had written such letters would feel resentment toward the dead if their requests appeared not to be answered, especially if the living person had been faithful in keeping up his part of the funerary contract by leaving frequent offerings in the chapel of the dead person's tomb. This kind of resentment could also occur at a higher level and be directed toward royal tombs during times in which the well-being of the whole country suffered. Massive taxes were regularly levied in order to supply offerings to the funerary temples of dead kings, who, in return, were supposed exert a positive influence over the affairs of Egypt. Understandably, negative feelings toward the royal dead would rise during times of natural, economic, and social troubles, and could easily have motivated the pillaging of royal tombs.
Acts of tomb robbing compelled by such sentiments would not imply any atheistic disbelief on the part of the robbers. Instead, these acts would be entirely founded on deeply held religious convictions, and the thieves could be interpreted as acting in a spirit of righteous indignation rather than in one of cynical disbelief. They would view the dead rulers of Egypt as "welchers" who were backing out of their side of the bargain by refusing to maintain the material security of their living subjects. Why not get a justified revenge by interfering with the dead's well-being in the Underworld?
In evaluating the severity of this kind of revenge, we may perhaps place more importance on having an intact tomb and mummy than most ancient Egyptians themselves did. Modern interpreters of the Egyptian funerary religion never tire of claiming that having a well preserved mummy in an unviolated tomb was a sine qua non of admission into the Egyptian afterlife. But there are texts which make exceptions to this rule in special cases, such as when the body of a person who drowned in the Nile could not be found. There were special provisions in the Egyptian religion that would allow a person lacking a mummy or tomb to still enter the Underworld, and these "loop holes" could have been exploited by thieves in order to overcome their inhibitions.
Probably, most tomb robbers thought that they were merely inconveniencing the dead by plundering mummies and tombs. Since the dead were thought to lead afterlives very similar to their old lives on earth, robbing a tomb was not that much different from robbing a house, and did not necessarily pack the metaphysical punch that our own interpretations give it. We should always remember that, for the vast majority of Egyptians, mummification and interment in an expensive sepulcher were luxuries far beyond their abilities to afford. Consequently, they probably evolved their own religious beliefs in which the costly provisions of upper-class burials were seen as unnecessary frills. The lavish funerary traditions of the wealthy ruling minority were most likely viewed by the working-class majority as merely a way of maintaining a certain standard of "living" in the Underworld, not as a necessary condition for entering the Underworld. Therefore, they probably didn't think of plundering a tomb as an act that would destroy its owner's chance for an afterlife. Instead, it would at most have a social-leveling effect in the Underworld by reducing wealthy tomb owners to the same economic status as that of the robbers.
Strangely, tomb robbing actually may have played a stabilizing role in Egyptian society. From a purely economic point of view, the Egyptian's practice of keeping immense amounts of wealth out of circulation in sealed tombs initially seems short-sighted. But this practice, when coupled with a religious belief that the dead are supposed to help maintain public welfare, virtually guaranteed that horded gold, silver, and other valuable commodities would be put back into circulation, via tomb robbing, at precisely the times when they were needed the most. Apart from their overt religious significance, the tombs functioned like savings accounts and insurance policies, and there were penalties for making early withdrawals that caused potential thieves to refrain from large scale pillaging until economic need became sufficiently pressing. Also--since it was much less risky to attack a dead king rather than a living one--tomb robbing provided a safe way of venting public animosities that would do no actual harm to the incumbent administration.
In order to better understand ancient Egyptian tomb robbing, we must start seeing it as a social practice that grew up within the context of Egyptian funerary beliefs and customs. The popular view of this ancient activity, which sees tomb robbers as social outcasts who were completely estranged from the religious beliefs of their culture, fails to delineate the full range of significance that tomb robbing could have possessed for the Egyptians.