East Kent Egyptology Society
WEDNESDAY 21ST JUNE 2017: REG CLARK. TOMB SECURITY IN ANCIENT EGYPT TO THE PYRAMID AGE
Note: This report does not include the accompanying illustrations.
It is difficult to do justice to Ray’s presentation, which covered in fine detail the efforts made by early Egyptians to protect the mortal remains of their dead, and the treasures that they hoped would accompany them to the afterlife. He said that it was evident when looking at the architecture of the Egyptian tomb that physical measures were soon taken to discourage robbery, and he raised the question why they expended so much effort to defend their tombs. His talk described in some detail how tomb protection evolved over the years up to the Pyramid Age, and what influence these methods had on tomb design and construction.
He began by showing illustrations taken from films such as The Land of the Pharaohs and The Mummy, to illustrate the sensational manner in which his subject has been misrepresented in order to fill cinema seats. He quickly became more serious, however, by saying that Ancient Egyptians believed that after death the spirit consisted of the Ka, the person’s double, which permanently remained with the mummy in the tomb; the Ba, which was usually portrayed as a human headed bird and which could escape to the world of the living during daylight hours, but which must return to the tomb at night; and the Akh, the transfigured spirit of the person which survived death and had the potential to be mingled with the gods in the afterlife. Essentially, however, the Akh and Ka were believed to need a preserved body and intact burial in order to exist, hence the importance of an unviolated tomb. Unfortunately, the Egyptians also considered it necessary to accompany the mummy with valuable material goods which could be useful to the spirit in the afterlife, an afterlife which was considered to be an idealised version of the Land of Egypt they so loved. Hence the motivation given to robbers to break into tombs – something which is not a problem for us today as leaving grave goods with a corpse is not a modern practice.
While studying for his PhD Reg collected an extensive amount of detailed information concerning the increasingly desperate efforts made over many hundreds of years to make tombs and their contents inviolable with, however, minimal success. To cover the subject and the illustrations he showed in detail would be impractical, but in essence his presentation covered:
Early shallow pit burials from Pre-dynastic times, dating back from some seven thousand years. Even then burials contained items of some value such as fine pottery and worked flint artefacts, which were a temptation for tomb robbers.
Over time early Dynastic pit tombs became protected by increasingly thick walls of mud-brick, with chambers covered by log roofs and heaped mounds of sand or gravel. These were not inviolate, and were often entered by robbers’ tunnels which were dug down from outside the tombs perimeter and then orientated horizontally to breach the mud brick walls, thus giving access to any valuables inside. Wooden log-roofs, which would eventually collapse, were replaced by stone slabs which were not affected by rot and termite damage – a measure which was also of little avail. Further developments included burial chambers which were completely stone-lined, and a few tombs were partly filled with liquid Nile mud which sets like concrete, and which was an attempt to make the robber’s job much more time-consuming and difficult.
As these early pit tombs could not be capped before the interment took place a new development was to introduce a sloping entrance corridor leading from outside the tomb down to the internal chambers, the corridors often being blocked with heavy stone portcullises and then back-filled.
As funeral rites increasingly required funerary enclosures and buildings at ground level in order to accommodate continuing prayers and offering to the dead the mastaba (bench in Arabic) tomb was developed. This could not be concealed due to its nature, and the dead were interred deep underground at the bottom of shafts which could be back-filled and sealed with an unobtrusive capping.
Later rulers, demanding ever increasing funeral goods to accompany them to the afterlife, had labyrinthine arrangements of tunnels and chambers dug into the bedrock to store large collections of stone provision jars and other valuables. Food stuffs were of little value to robbers, but precious oils and unguents were valued providing that the tomb was entered shortly after sealing and before the contents became rancid and of no value.
Ron showed many examples illustrating ways in which robbers entered tombs by tunnelling, when they often shattered portcullis slabs using hammers, or heated the stone by fire and then threw water on it so that it crumbled. To light a fire in congested spaces underground would, however, be a risky strategy if the robbers were not to asphyxiate themselves.
Evidence clearly shows that tombs were often entered shortly after they were sealed, as some tunnels were dug from the exterior in a virtual strait line down to the tomb chamber. The obvious implication is that those involved in the construction of the tomb and who knew its layout were involved in the robbery. Anyone associated with the necropolis, from the workmen themselves to local officials could be involved, and it is suspected that senior members of the local administration would not be completely innocent providing they received a generous cut from the proceeds. The involvement of high officials could be most expected after a change of dynasty, it can be assumed.
As religious ideas developed the pyramid as a burial structure came to the forefront, and Zozer’s Step Pyramid, which was basically formed from successive mastaba placed one atop another, became the favoured method of burial for royalty. This step design was quickly refined by the filling in of the steps with masonry, resulting in the true pyramid. As time was getting short Reg briefly showed illustrations of early pyramids including Seneferu’s pyramid at Meidum, his Bent and Red Pyramids at Dahshur, and Khufu’s pyramid at Giza. All these, despite the measures taken to protect them, were entered in ancient times and robbed of their riches. Massive stone tombs, hidden entrances, corridors blocked by large stones, blind corridors, decoy chambers, granite portcullises and the fear of being mutilated or impaled if found and convicted did not, however, stop the robbers.