Wondrium Series Explores History of Egyptian Tomb Robbing

grave robbers not deterred by harsh punishments, curses

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Stone wall with Egyptian carving figures and hieroglyphs, Luxor, Egypt, Africa.
Tomb robbers in Egypt seek items such as durable goods, gold, jewelry, and other valuable objects. Photo by matias planas / Shutterstock

Tomb robbing in ancient Egypt goes back about as far as the practice of burying the Egyptian dead in tombs with their belongings. To prevent tomb robbing, strict punishments were enforced, such as being sentenced to death by impalement; and curses were placed on tombs against anyone who would rob them. However, none of this stopped grave robbers from stealing the possessions of the deceased and peddling them on the black market.

How did this grisly trade come into practice and why did people risk being cursed to make off with items from tombs? In the video series The Real Ancient Egypt, several experts help put Egyptian tomb robbing into perspective some 7,000 years later.

Why Did Egyptians Get Buried with Their Possessions?

“The Egyptians thought that it was really important to include objects in your tomb,” said Dr. Kate Liszka, the Benson and Pamela Harer Fellow in Egyptology at California State University, San Bernardino. “The afterlife was considered like life on Earth, but without any problems, so you still needed stuff.”

According to Dr. Liszka, the objects in tombs generally fit in one of two categories. First, Egyptians were buried with objects that helped them get into the afterlife. These objects were said to have magical spells on them and included things like the Book of the Dead.

Second, there were objects that Egyptians would use in the afterlife. These included perishable food, furniture, clothing, and even flowers.

“Once those are underground, you’re probably not going to reuse them,” Dr. Liszka said. “But there’s a lot of durable goods, too—things like furniture and linen—that even if you get some dirt on them, you can still reuse them. The most valuable objects are going to be your metal and your semi-precious stone.

Why Do Grave Robbers Steal?

So many tombs have been robbed already that when an archaeologist excavates a tomb for the first time, they have to assume it’s already been picked over for valuables. Even so, it was not an accepted practice in Egypt.

“Tomb robbing was a highly immoral and unethical act,” Dr. Liszka said. “Most people did not do this, because when you steal things from a tomb, you are also harming the afterlife for the person in the tomb, too. Most people took this very, very, very seriously.”

How did Egyptians try to deter tomb robbers? Painful executions weren’t the only tool at their disposal. Magic was a major tenet of religion in ancient Egypt and curses were frequently placed on tombs. Unfortunately, these curses weren’t terribly effective, since tombs still got raided.

Dr. Kasia Szpakowska, former Associate Professor of Egyptology at Swansea University, offered more insight into the mind of grave robbers who faced curses.

“Clearly the benefits outweighed the potential threats even in the afterlife,” she said. “And we have to remember that not all Egyptians believed in an afterlife. We do have texts that show that there were some people who were pessimistic and who questioned, ‘Was there really an afterlife?'”

History shows that the fact that Egyptian tombs contained durable goods and valuable objects maintained the interest of thieves and tomb robbing flourished.

The Real Ancient Egypt is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily