Tomb Robbery in Ancient Egypt & the 20th Dynasty Trials

Tomb robbing had been a problem in Egypt since its earliest kings commissioned large tombs to be built in their honour. In fact, many of the goods found in even first dynasty royal tombs contain jars and seals that were originally placed in the tomb of their predecessors, and apparently even kings who were most highly revered by all levels of Egyptian society were not immune to the threat of having their tombs robbed. Evidence of tomb robbing can be seen in the remains of king Sneferu discovered in his Red Pyramid at Dashour, his mummy exposed to flames in order to quickly and efficiently access the valuable jewelry undoubtedly contained in his wrappings. His son, Khufu, was even in his own lifetime forced to relocate the tomb of his mother, Hetepheres, from Dashour to Giza in order to better protect it against thieves.

      Various methods of preventing access to burial chambers were constructed in the tombs themselves, such as portcullises in the pyramids, but the very workers who constructed them were able to plan their thefts so as to bypass the main security features. Some robberies took place so soon after the burial that bodies were found to have been thrown from their coffins fully articulated, still retaining some amount of flexibility. Often, thefts would take place even before the actual burials, as was the case with a group of mummies from the 21st dynasty, who had their gilded faces removed from their inner coffins before being placed in their pristine outter coffins. There is even evidence of tomb robbery in Tutankhamun's tomb, occurring so quickly after his death that priests had discovered missing burial goods and were forced to replace them and reseal damaged parts of the tomb, through which the robbers gained access, before the burial itself took place. Again,  there is further evidence of a second robbery of Tutankhamun's tomb sometime later, when large portions of the king's original jeweled burial goods were stolen. This time, its possible that the medjay (police) caught the robbers in the act when they returned to the tomb for a second go. Golden rings wrapped in a scarf were discovered in a manner that suggests it was casually thrown against one of the walls. You can almost visualize the scene; the medjay crowding through the tomb to discover thieves in the act, snatching the piece of cloth from their hands and tossing it against the wall before escorting them out.

Rag with gold rings: Photo Credit: Howard Carter and A. C. Mace, The Tomb of Tut-ankh-amen (London, 1923--1933.)

      Evidence suggests that in some cases tomb robbing was actually sanctioned by the highest echelons of Egyptian society, indicating that we should perhaps adjust a widespread belief that the act of tomb robbing amounted to the worst of all crimes, resulting, from the Egyptian perspective, in the potential for literal death of the soul. Many of Tutankhamun's burial goods originally belonged to
Smenkhkare, and even large portions of reworked material belonged originally to Queen Nefertari. Pinudjem I stole and reworked a coffin that originally belonged to Thuthmosis I and he once served as the High Priest of Amun, obviously fully understanding the severity of his actions from a religious context. Amenemhat used the royal monuments of the Giza necropolis as building material for his pyramid. Obviously there was some sort of disconnect present in the psyche of the ancient Egyptians that separated these acts, which were apparently deemed acceptable, and those of the 20th dynasty private residents near Thebes. It's a disconnect that still generates debate today. A possible explanation for theft by kings, however, is that they essentially all represented the same Horus and thus each king, as Horus, had claim to the possessions of all former kings.

      In the early 20th dynasty, royal authorities were growing more and more concerned with rumours of tomb robbery in the Valley of the Kings. In the 9th year of Ramesses IX a craftsman by the name of Amenhotep was tasked, with his son, to inspect the tomb of Ramsses VI; a tomb that he himself had worked in years earlier. In this particular case all was found intact, however four years later a stonemason named Amenpenefer (1124-1108), attached to the High Priest of Amun, was accused of tomb robbery, arrested, and held to account by the Mayor of Eastern Thebes, Paser. Amunpenefer just happened to be in possession of vast quantities of gold, and after a short discussion with the authorities, he was released, only to join his partners in crime at a later date, where he was "...compensated...with another portion of the loot..." and "...together with other thieves...continued...the practice of robbing the tombs of the nobles and the people of the land who rest in the west". As if to spread the blame around the community equally, he claimed "...and a large number of other people rob them as well...".


The Ramsseum was the centre of west bank administration during the 20th dynasty

      A few months following the arrest of Amunpenefer, three trespassers were caught in the Valley of the Queens. For over a decade tomb robbers had been stealing goods from private tombs in the region, but the arrest of these trespassers was cause for serious concern as the valley housed tombs of women directly related to th king. Under orders of Ramesses IX, his vizier sailed south to Thebes to share the lead of the investigation with the Mayor of Eastern Thebes, Paser. Subjected to various forms of torture, the three men admitted to robbing the tomb of Queen Isis, the wife of Ramesses III and mother of Ramesses IV and VI. It is not known what exactly their punishment was, but documents dating to some time later record that they were still in prison. With the royal court now aware of the escalating nature of the threat in the south, Paser would need to remain highly vigilant.

      The real cause for the pandemic of tomb robbery that took place during the 20th dynasty can be traced back to the cause of the worker's strike under the reign of Ramesses III some years earlier. As constant military expansion and threats from Lybians, Bedouins, and other "barbarians" increased, the previously well supplied workers in Deir el-Medina felt the pinch. As there was no coinage or form of standardized currency in ancient Egypt, the workers were increasingly distraught over the availability of provisions as basic as grain. One robber recalled, after the looting and burning of Tjanefer's coffin, who served as the "third priest of amun...", their share of the loot was four kite of gold; a sum equal to a third of a year's supply of grain for an individual of their social standing. Obviously, as Tjanefer served a rather minor role in the government in comparison to alternative burials nearby, other higher-risk hauls could generate far greater rewards.

The worker's village of Deir el-Medina as it stands today

      The effect of widespread looting resulted in a market flooded with precious metals, which in turn forced the inflation of grain's value. During the frequent periods when royal rations were few or no grain at all was authorized for release from the granary, the consequence of their previous looting further drove the workers to continue with their transgressions in order to maintain a stable economic footing. The outcome of an economy now so dependent on the proceeds gained from tomb robbery was that the entire fabric holding the community together, from top to bottom, was tainted by the terribly cyclic need for precious grave goods.

      The Mayors of Thebes and the High Priest of Amun were caught in a terrible bind. On the one hand they had to be involved with the process, simply by being at the head of an economy and bureaucracy so dependent upon it. On the other hand, they were directly responsible for the safety and integrity of royal tombs in the western valley and the failure to keep these tombs safe could have terrible consequences should word reach the king that very souls of his ancestors were in danger of being destroyed.

      In the 16th year of Ramsess IX, Paser was approached by two scribes from the workmen's community at Deir el-Medina, named Harshire and Pabes, with reports of a royal tomb robbery. Rumours had been spreading for some time that a royal tomb had been robbed, and since the scribes belonged to the community that had robbed the tomb of queen Isis, they attempted to shift blame by accusing a gang of robbers from a neighbouring community. As residents of Deir el-Medina on the western bank of Thebes they fell under the jurisdiction of the Mayor of Western Thebes, one Pewero and proper protocol would have had them report this to him. Instead, they reported to the more highly ranked Paser, hoping that his relative ignorance of conditions on the west bank would save them from suspicion.


Painting from the tomb of Nebamun, a resident of Deir el-Medina

      Paser acted swiftly, sending a messenger downriver to the capital in the Delta, notifying Ramesses IX that it was reported that the tomb of king Amenhotep I had been robbed. In response, the king ordered the vizier, Khaemwaset, along with other high ranking members of the royal court, to immediately head south in order to personally oversee the investigation of the claim, and further inspect ten royal tombs in the valley. The Papyrus Abbott notes that upon inspection, the tomb of Amenhotep I was intact, along with eight others. The tomb of king Sebekemsaf, however, was found to have been robbed. Pewero recorded:

The pyramids, graves and tombs examined this day by the inspectors: the tomb of King Amenhotep I – which the Mayor of Thebes Paser had reported to the...commissioners...saying 'The thieves had violated it'. Examined this day; it was found intact.

The pyramid tomb of King Inyotef VI – it was found intact.

The pyramid tomb of King Inyotef VII: the thieves had not succeeded in penetrating it.

The pyramid tomb of King Inyotef VI: the thieves had not succeeded in penetrating it.

The pyramid tomb of Sebekemsaf II: the burial chamber was found empty of its lord, likewise the chamber of the great royal wife...the thieves had laid their hands upon them -

The pyramid tomb of King Sekhenenre I: - it was found intact.

The pyramid tomb of King Sekhenenre II: it was found intact.

The pyramid tomb of king Kamose: it was found intact.

The pyramid tomb of Prince Ahmose: - it was found intact.

The pyramid tomb of Montuhotep: - it was found intact.

Total pyramid tombs of the kings of old examined this day and found to be intact, nine pyramid tombs; found to have been violated, one tomb, total ten.”

Pewero immediately wrote to the vizier indicating that he had quickly arrested three men who, under conditions of torture, had admitted to robbing the king's tomb. One of these men was involved in the sacking of Queen Isis' tomb years earlier; a coppersmith named Pehkaru. In what must have been a terrifying experience, the delegation gathered around Pewero and the vizier, bound Pehkaru and took him into the valley, forcing him to identify the tombs he had broken into. Able only to identify the tomb of queen Isis, he was forced to swear an oath upon threats of physical mutilation (cutting off his nose, ears, and placed upon the rack) should he later be discovered to have lied, he expressed with all sincerity that the tombs he had identified were the only ones he had participated in robbing. Very much pleased with himself, believing that he had personally put an end to tomb robbing in the valley and redeemed his character as Mayor of the West bank, Pewero led the delegation across the river to the rear of the Temple of Amun where Paser had his residence. The crowd there began to dance and sing in the streets, very much aware that the accusations Paser had made turned out to be false, attempting to embarrass and devalue his word in front of the king's representatives and boost the perception of their effectiveness in maintaining security on the west bank. This, naturally, had the effect of angering Paser, who came out of his house to address the crowd, reprimanding the mob for the celebration of finding his accusation to be untrue while the tomb of king Sebekemsaf was found to be bare. One of Pewero's minor bureaucrats, hot under the collar and feeling defensive, responded by making the bold claim that no tombs, in either valley, were found to have been robbed, which forced Paser to disclose the fact that the two scribes had come to him from Deir el-Medina, on the west bank, with these accusations and that he then had no choice but to report the their claims to the king, which resulted in the delegation being sent south to begin with. Alarmed by this revelation, Pewero lost his cool and a shouting match over protocol between the to mayors drowned out the residual noise of celebration. After all, the residents on the west bank were under the jurisdiction of Pewero, not Paser, publicly reflecting a sense of distrust in his leadership and indicating, perhaps, some kind of involvement.

      Two days later the three workmen held in prison for trespassing in the Valley of the Queens were questioned in light of the investigations which found the tombs Paser had reported as being violated, intact. While the rounds of questioning were so severe that the Thebans still discussed it thirty years later, ultimately Paser was made to look the fool by reporting on tombs that showed no outwardly evidence of being disturbed. Unknown to the officials that day, Paser was correct. The thieves had entered the tombs from the rear, leaving the seals on their entrances intact. The original idea of Harshire and Pabes had failed. Knowing their own guilt and that it was only a matter of time before they were discovered, they tried to shift the blame on others and it would have worked had the inspectors actually entered the tombs. The result of their scheme was now to place them in the public eye as those who had initiated the tribunal, increasing suspicion that they as a community were involved in some manner. Had Harshire and Pabes' plan been known to the workers in the village, it is doubtful they would have been so arrogant in celebrating Paser's embarrassment. Because of their actions, they were now in the sights of a very angry Paser.


The Amherst Papyrus details the confessions of those arressted for the robbery of Queen Isis' tomb. Source:

      Sometime during the next year, Paser and the High Priest of Amun, Amenhotep, ordered a house to house search in Deir el-Medina resulting in the recovery of artifacts from the tomb of Queen Isis. Finally vindicated, he was now legally free to expose those on the west bank who had previously celebrated his public embarrassment. Paser hereafter drops from our record, with no substitute name provided.

      Eight men were arrested, including the brother of Harshire, a tomb-painter named Pentaweret, and his cousin, Amenwa1. While the eight men were being held in the Temple of Ma'at, the mayors and High Priest organized a tribunal to be held in the temple of Amun and recalled the Vizier to preside.

      Pewero was placed in charge of the retrieval of the tomb artifacts. Questioning of the eight robbers as to the location of the goods led to the disclosure of how the wealth spread through all levels of Theban society. Even those closely related to the High Priest and mayor were indicated as receiving some benefit from the robbery. The vizier, Khaemwaset, arrived and immediately put a halt to grain rationing, forcing the villagers who were normally subsidized by the king to feed themselves. By the time the investigation had ended, more gold and goods had been gathered than had originally existed in the tomb itself. Apparently, the threat of being caught with grave goods had reached such a level that even the innocent were bringing gold to the temple so as to not be wrongly accused of having participated in the crimes. It was at about this time that the vizier ordered the seals removed on the tomb of Isis in order to inspect the interior:

"Year 17, third month of the second season, day 22. The workmen of the necropolis ceased work, and the butler, governor of the city, and vizier, Khaemwaset; the workmen of the necropolis and their overseers, went up to the [place (?)] of the (female) singers, to inspect (the tomb of) the king's-daughter, king's-wife, Isis, L. P. H. They opened her tomb, they found the granite block, the eight thieves having done damage in the [///]. They had wrought evil destruction on all that was therein; and they had damaged [its] owner".

      For some reason, none of the burial items recovered from the trials were placed back in the tomb. It was simply tidied up and resealed. It is interesting visiting the tomb three thousand years later, looking at the smashed sarcophagus and understanding fully the events which lead to its destruction so many thousands of years earlier.

      It was still some months later before the vizier returned to Thebes after the trials and reinstated the distribution of grain to the workers. Work on the royal tomb was renewed, and Ramsses IX died a few years later while tomb robbing in the valley continued, largely unabated.


Works consulted:


Aldred, Cyril. The Egyptians. New York: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2000.
Breasted, James Henry ; 1906, Ancient Records of Egypt ; 5 volumes; republished by Histories and Mysteries of Man LTD., London, 1988
James, T.G.H. Pharaoh's People. New York: Tauris Parke, 2003.
Meskell, Lynn.  Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt. New Jersey: Princeston University Press, 2005.
Rice, Michael. Who’s Who of Ancient Egypt. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Romer, John. Ancient Lives. London: Phoenix Press, 2003.
Simpson, William Kelly. The Literature of Ancient Egypt. Yale: Yale University Press 2003.
Shaw, Ian. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Shaw, Ian. Nicholson, P. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. New York: Abrams Inc. 1995.

1 Amenwa was released at the trial due to lack of evidence. Recent excavations of his tomb found an artifact from the tomb of Ramsses III, proving his guilt three thousand years later.