The King Tut Tomb Robberies

The King Tut Tomb Robberies

Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

Drawing showing various blockings within the tomb and where they were accessed by the tomb robbers

Many, if not most people think that the Tomb of King Tut (Tutankhamun), was in tact when Howard Carter discovered it in the early 1900s. Indeed, even though King Tutankhamun might not have been a major pharaoh, his tomb was packed with marvelous treasures. However, his tomb was not in tact, and had in fact been robbed more than once.

Even at the outset, Carter and his financier, Lord Carnarvon, knew that the tomb had been compromised, because of a re-plastered and sealed hole in the outer doorway. Furthermore, once they had entered the tomb, the disorganized state of the material, the damage sustained by several objects and the discernible lack of solid metalwork, bedding, glass, oils and unguents all suggested that the tomb had been robbed during antiquity.

An original seal on a doorway prior to its removal

Of the various rooms within the tomb, the Annex was the worst one affected by the robberies. There was probably not enough room for more than one person in this part of the tomb with all the equipment. That individual probably hastily, but systematically, ransacked the chamber's entire contents, emptying boxes, throwing other artifacts aside, and occasionally, passing objects through the hole in the door to his companions on in the outer chamber for their inspection.

Disarray within the Tomb of Tutankhamun

At first, the excavators thought that the robber was performed in the late 20th Dynasty, when the Theban West Bank was being plagued by a serious spate of similar mischief. This was probably incorrect. Breasted reminded Carter that the tomb of Tuthmosis IV had also been robbed even before the end of the 18th Dynasty, and later investigation strongly suggests that the robbery was near contemporary.

Actually, we now know that the tomb was probably robbed not just once, but twice. The entry corridor was almost certainly empty at the time of the first break in. The earliest breach in the entrance blocking was positioned too low to have allowed a passage through the mass of loose chippings in the corridor beyond. Also, the original plastered surface of the inner doorway, unlike the re-plastered hole, was unmarked by the pressure of the chipping fill, suggesting that the main plaster coating had been long dry when the rubble was introduced. From beneath the fill, Carter recovered a number of fragments of objects which appear to have been stored in the corridor at the time of the first robbery. Apparently, this material found by Carter included the king's embalming refuse and remains of a "funerary meal", which was earlier discovered by Davis, packed in a series of large ceramic storage jars in Pit 54, where they had been reburied at the time of the first re-closure of Tutankhamun's tomb.

Hieratic graffito in the tomb of Tuthmosis IV, dating from the restoration carried out under Horemheb and recording the name of the necropolis scribe Djehutymose. This same man had scribbled his name on a jar stand in the tomb of Tutankhamun

There were also a number of items removed from within and beneath the corridor fill, including stone jar lids, splinters of gilded wood, fragments of god, a bronze arrowhead, razors and a gilded bronze staple. These artifacts appear to have been dropped at the tomb entrance by the first band of robbers, and were later gathered up with the rubble employed to fill the corridor. When identifiable, these objects seem to have come exclusively from the Antechamber. Carter believed that the first band of robbers had operated throughout the entire tomb, while the second were limited to the Antechamber and Annex only. However, the evidence suggests just the opposite sequence.

However, Carter's view that the first group of thieves were primarily interested in metal was apparently correct, but they were also looking for linen and cosmetics, commodities that would have been of little use if the first robbery did not occur in the first few years after the king's burial. Egyptian cosmetics in particular are fat-based, and in the hot Egyptian climate their life span would have been extremely limited.

The king's jewelry chests were found with many items missing

The second theft was probably more extensive then the first, and would have also been more difficult. Carter estimated that a chain of men passing back baskets of rubble would have taken between seven and eight hours to dig a tunnel through the newly installed chip fill of the corridor. Inside, the tomb robbers appear to have had access to the entire tomb, though in the treasure their activity appears to have been limited to removing the lids of the king's jewel caskets and unsealing one of the black varnished shrines containing gilded funerary figures, though the latter seems to have been of little interest to them once discovered. From inventory dockets scribbled at the time of the funeral, Carter was able to estimate that some sixty percent of the jewelry originally contained in the Treasury caskets had been stolen, together with a whole series of precious metal vessels.

Rings found wrapped in linen and tossed aside by the tomb robbers

Interestingly, a knotted scarf of linen containing, according to Carter, "a handful of solid gold rings", had been tossed into one of the boxes in the Antechamber. According to the excavators, "We are almost forced to the conclusion that the thieves were either trapped within the tomb, or overtaken in their flight - traced, in any case, with some of the plunder still upon them". Though we do not know if they were caught, but if so, their fate would have probably been similar to the Ramessid robbers who were in later times. They would have been subjected to bastinado (beating on the feet), followed by impalement on a sharpened stake.

The resealing of the tomb may have been carried out by Maya, who undertook restoration of the Tuthmosis IV burial (Tomb 43) in the eight year of Horemheb's reign, and whose assistant, Djehutymose left his name scribbled on a calcite jar stand found by Carter in the Annex. According to Carter, their efforts "seem to have been in almost as great a hurry as the thieves, and their work of reparation was sadly scamped". More recent scholars have suggested that they may have been fearful of drawing attention to the tomb.

The necropolis Seal with a Jackel (Anibus) at the top and nine, bound captives below.

Whoever restored the tomb, they did partly succeeded in restoring a superficial order to the burial, though none of the boxes or shrines compromised by the robbers were resealed. The holes in the Burial Chamber and the Antechamber blockings were re-closed, plastered over and stamped with the necropolis seal, consisting of a jackal over nine bound captives. This was the same seal used after the first robbery, indicating that the two separate instances of theft were not far apart in time. The corridor fill was repacked, and the dismantled part of the corridor blocking was also repaired.

What does all this tell us? First of all, it was no small matter to rob a tomb at the time that King Tut's was robbed. Later tomb robberies were relatively complete, but obviously not this one. Apparently, these robbers had to work fast and get out or be discovered, which might have happened anyway. Either way, what they left behind amounted to the richest burial ever unearthed in Egypt.

See Also:

Tut's Tomb






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