Tomb Robberies

From the day they were first sealed in antiquity, treasure-filled tombs in the Valley of the Kings were potential targets for theft. Records have survived of inspections that reveal how tombs were to be protected and why such protection often failed. At first, in Dynasty 18, the safety of a tomb depended on its remote location and the burial of its entrance under rubble. This was unreliable protection. In Dynasty 20, royal tombs had large and very visible entrances and protection depended on the honesty of guards. Such honesty was not common. By the end of Dynasty 18, necropolis security had already begun to break down, and inspection tours assessing the extent of thefts were increasingly frequent. There are records of such inspections of KV 43 in regnal year 8 of Horemheb [15558, 15559], and of KV 62 shortly thereafter.     15558 15559
Some thefts were probably carefully planned. But others were spur of the moment, as when an earlier tomb was accidentally discovered while cutting a new one and workmen took advantage of the opportunity. This may have happened when KV 46 was found during the cutting of KV 4 or KV 3 nearby [18054, 11432].     18054 11432
By Dynasty 20, theft had become commonplace at Thebes. Recent examination of the royal mummies shows that tomb robbers had twisted limbs from torsos, smashed skulls, and ripped open chest cavities in their search for amulets and other objects. The priests of Amen, concerned by the number of thefts, decided to rewrap the royal mummies from desecrated tombs and rebury them elsewhere. Hieratic dockets written by the priests and placed on the mummies allow us to trace the reburials from tomb to tomb until finally the bodies were cached in KV 35 [14657] and in TT 320 [13616], south of Dayr al Bahri. For example, the mummy of Rameses II was moved from his own tomb, KV 7, to that of his father, Sety I (KV 17). The mummy of his grandfather, Rameses I, was moved from KV 16 to KV 17. Then all three mummies were moved to another tomb, together with the mummy of Amenhetep I. Finally, the four mummies were transferred to TT 320. In some instances, the original coffins were too badly damaged to be reused for reburial. Only Thutmes I and Thutmes III were reburied in their original coffins.     14657 13616
Preparation of the mummies for reburial took place in several locations. We know that the rewrapping of some royal mummies took place at Madinat Habu, the administrative center of the Theban West Bank [12977]. On other occasions, the preparations were carried out in the tombs themselves or at the cache locations.     12977
The official reason for reburying the plundered mummies was that it was a pious act. But recently, a much more cynical interpretation has been suggested. It was inspired by a letter from the general and high priest of Amen, Piankh, that seems to command his followers to search out unplundered tombs. The implication is that the Theban administration was using the excuse of protecting endangered mummies to actually strip intact burials of their valuables and augment the declining wealth of the state. Many of the coffins used in the reburials, and even those of the family members of the Amen priesthood, show tool marks where all the gilded surfaces were removed. This is thought not to have been the work of the original tomb robbers, but to have been carried out when the coffins and their occupants were reburied.    
Not all New Kingdom royal mummies have been found in the two caches, KV 35 and TT 320, and perhaps another cache will one day be found.    

Published or last modified on: August 23, 2002
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