Tomb Robbery Papyri

Tomb robbery occurred in Egypt as early as the Predynastic Period (ca. 4000 BC), growing more common as burial equipment increased in quantity and wealth. Evidence of looting is most often provided by the empty tombs themselves, which far outnumber those found intact. Even the burials described in modern terms as "untouched," had generally been pillaged to some extent, including that of Tutankhamen. An unusual archive of judicial documents from Thebes supplies greater detail regarding tomb robbery: the identity of the thieves, the types of items taken, and the consequences of the crime.

The collection of texts known as the "Tomb Robbery Papyri" were stored in the archive of the temple of Medinet Habu and recorded two incidents during the reigns of Ramesses IX and Ramesses XI. Some 12 hieratic texts, most notably the Leopold-Amherst and the Abbot papyri, document several trials and inspections of the royal tombs to determine the extent of the crimes. The lower portion of the Leopold-Amherst Papyrus, on loan from the Morgan Library, New York, is on display in the exhibition.

The riches that filled royal tombs were apparently an overwhelming temptation, and were often pilfered immediately after the burial ceremony. The thieves focused on untraceable items such as textiles, glass, and even cosmetics, in addition to the expected precious materials such as gold and silver. By the end of the New Kingdom, robbery was rampant in the Valley of the Kings, facilitated by conspiracies reaching the highest levels of the administration. On two separate occasions, the mayor of Thebes was accused and acquitted of involvement with a ring of thieves during the reign of Ramesses IX. Trial testimony recorded in Papyrus Leopold-Amherst describes the widespread nature of the crime: "we went to rob the tombs in accordance with our regular habit·."

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