The dead tell no tales, which is why history oftentimes omits some very interesting details. I did a little digging for dirt during a recent meeting with well-known Archeologist and Egyptologist, Kara Cooney, author of The Woman Who Would Be King, about the rise to power of the Egyptian Pharaoh-Queen Hatshepsut. It’s a great read, but somehow we strayed from the book to the topic of tomb plundering, which was even more fascinating.
Cooney, a 6-foot tall, modern Lara Croft-type figure, spends her time amidst the mummies while specializing in ancient coffin identification. You would think it wouldn’t be a problem figuring out who is sealed up in which coffin with all the sepulchre inscriptions and markings, but it appears royal mummies were often removed from their original nesting coffins, which were multiple coffins within coffins much like those Russian Matryoshka dolls. Some mummies were buried in three to as many as eight internal coffins (as was King Tutankhamen). This multiple coffin practice was part of the process that linked them to their ancestors. But when tombs were plundered, the mummies were often tossed aside and the coffins were re-sold or recycled for other mummies. Who was buried where and in which coffin became a dilemma for later identification purposes. This is where Cooney’s expertise is often called in.
Tomb robbery has been going on since the earliest of times. Old Kingdom inscriptions contained warnings that robbers would be judged by the gods in the hereafter. Severe punishments awaited them in their current life as well, if a curse didn’t get them first. Sometimes safeguards were built-in to thwart the robber. The burial chamber in the tomb of Senwosret at Lisht was protected by a series of stone slabs, the first of which, once lowered, could not be forced upwards again because metal or wooden bolts were released from holes in the lateral grooves in the slab, effectively locking it.
But there were times when undertakers and cemetery guardians took advantage and stole precious belongings of the royals and elite during the very time of burial. A tomb could later be found to have entrance blockings still intact, yet the valuables had already been removed from the body. Objects and jewelry of gold, precious stones, alabaster and faience, which had been placed within the tombs for the use of the kings in the afterlife, as well as gold masks, would all be stripped off.
Even large stone sarcophagi could not always prevent theft, since the thieves would lever off the lids or even tunnel through the sides or floors of the sarcophagi. Today only a handful of bodies remain in their tombs, and even fewer are still as they were when interred.
But was this all the work of common thieves, or was there a higher order at work in the looting process? Cooney says much of the more extensive looting was actually done by the High Priests of Amun, in cooperation with the government treasury, in order to save the Egyptian economy.
After the death of Ramses III, during the New Kingdom’s Twentieth Dynasty, Egypt fell apart due to constant foreign invasions and the heavy cost of war. Drought may have also played a factor towards economic collapse. The Egyptian treasury was close to empty. To keep the government going it called for drastic measures. Gold was needed, and needed fast. Those in power knew where the gold was hidden and which pharaoh’s tombs had an abundance.
The high priests would open the tombs and, unlike the common tomb robbers, they would carefully unwrap the bodies and strip them of the golden pectoral hawks and scarabs which had been placed on their body for protection. Rings, jewelry, furniture, and anything else made of gold, which could replenish an empty treasury, was confiscated. The priests would then see to it that the tapes, the outer sheet, and the Osiris sheets were neatly and carefully folded on the bodies and stitched up the back. When the mummies found in later years were unwrapped, the black resin marks from where the gold necklaces had once been placed, could still be seen.
The priests back then were an unholy lot. They did not take vows of poverty nor chastity. Power and influence went hand and hand with accumulated wealth, and because of it they were a powerful force to be reckoned with throughout Ancient Egypt. Some might liken them to the Vatican today, which wields substantial political influence. It’s treasury contains more wealth than many countries combined.
Even after all these centuries, some things still have not changed. It’s still all about who has and controls the most Gold.