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The Royal Cache of Deir el-Bahri: Priests as Tomb Robbers

Updated on May 25, 2017
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Dieselnoi studies the history and culture of ancient Egypt, and is also a collector Egyptian art.

The Discovery of the Royal Cache of Deir el-Bahri

When a number of ancient Egyptian funerary objects, together with some important papyri began to appear on the European market for antiquities during the 1870’s, it aroused suspicion with the 'director-general of excavations and antiquities of Egypt', Gaston Maspero. The pieces bore the names of royals but he knew that they could not have come from any licensed excavation. The items were apparently brought in by tourists returning from Egypt. 'The Book of the Dead’ for Pinudjem was now in possession of an English gentleman named Campbell, which he had acquired for the sum of 400 pound sterling during a stay in Luxor.

There were more examples like this, and in 1878 Maspero became convinced that local Arab tomb robbers had discovered previously unknown royal tombs, and were selling the contents. When he returned to Luxor in March 1881, he intended to seek out the looters and to discover the location of these tombs.

The wooden coffin of Ramesess II, photographed by Emil Brugsch, an assistant of Gaston Maspero. This casket may have originaly belonged to pharaoh Horemheb, and may have switched owners during the reburial proces.
The wooden coffin of Ramesess II, photographed by Emil Brugsch, an assistant of Gaston Maspero. This casket may have originaly belonged to pharaoh Horemheb, and may have switched owners during the reburial proces. | Source

A Family of Local Tomb Robbers

Maspero patiently followed the trail from the tourists and the traders back, and after an elaborate investigation he concluded that all the artifacts could be traced back to members of the Abd el-Rassul family from the village of Qurna, and also to a somewhat notorious art dealer named Mustapha Agha Ayat. Ayat however, could not be indicted because he was protected by the diplomatic status that he enjoyed as a consular agent for Britain, Belgium, and Russia. So Maspero decided to direct his aim at two brothers from the Abd el-Rassul family.

After an interview with Ahmed did not provide any new insights, only utter denials of the accusations, Maspero transferred the case to local authorities who used less subtle interrogation techniques. But even under torture, Ahmed did not confess to anything. An official investigation was launched in which local dignitaries from the village Qurna professed to the good character of the accused, stating that Ahmed was incapable of stealing even the most insignificant object of antiquity, let alone violating a royal tomb. More likely than not, these dignitaries were in for a cut of the profits but the outcome of the proceedings was that Ahmed would be provisionally released anyway.

Gaston Maspero
Gaston Maspero | Source

Honor Among Thieves

Upon Ahmed's return to Qurna, trouble ignited between the Abd el-Rassul family members and other villagers. Ahmed had been imprisoned and tortured for two months, and he demanded a bigger share of the proceeds as compensation for his sufferings. Where previously his cut had been one-fifth, he was now demanding half of the earnings and he threatened to inform the authorities if he did not get his way. A month of quarreling passed. Finally, the oldest of the el-Rassul brothers, Mohammed decided to preempt the inevitable betrayal that was to come. On June 25th 1881, he gave up the location of the cache to the authorities. It was one of the greatest archaeological finds ever made in Egypt and it became known as the Royal Cache of Deir el-Bahri.

The Royal Cache

Nowadays the tomb is commonly referred to as DB320 or TT320, and it is hard to overstate its importance. In it, more than 50 royal mummies were stashed, together with some 6000 funerary items, mostly shabti's and papyri. Among the mummies were the greatest pharaohs from the 17th to the 20th dynasties. To name just a few of these great kings:

  • Ahmose I
  • Ramesses II
  • Ramesses III
  • Hatschepsut
  • Thutmosis III

Also, one of the most mysterious mummies ever found, that of 'Unknown Man E', came from the Royal Cache of Deir el-Bahri.

Canopic jars of Neskhons, wife of Pinedjem II. Made of calcite, with painted wooden heads. Originally from the Deir el-Bahri royal cache, circa 990-969 BC.
Canopic jars of Neskhons, wife of Pinedjem II. Made of calcite, with painted wooden heads. Originally from the Deir el-Bahri royal cache, circa 990-969 BC. | Source

The Reburial Project

At the end of the reign of Ramesses XI, somewhere around 1079 BC, the rulers of the south, the high priests of Amun, ventured on a new project. In preserved texts it is referred to as 'renewing the burial places' but this is a euphemistic term. A scribe called Butehamun was appointed to oversee the whole affair. Old royal mummies were removed from their original tombs, rewrapped, and moved to hidden caches. All valuable funerary items were taken from the tombs. In the process of rewrapping, the mummies were stripped of gold, jewels, and amulets, along with anything else considered valuable.

Who Is Who?

The scribes who were involved in the reburial project recorded what they did on so-called 'dockets', short notes that were attached to the mummies and the coffins. On these notes, they wrote down the name of the deceased and his titles. On other dockets details of the work were recorded, for example, the date of the rewrapping and who carried it out. It was a messy process and the mummies often ended up in the wrong coffin. Some archaeologists are convinced that the body of Ramesses II was eventually reburied in the casket of pharaoh Horemheb. Apparently, the officials did not care much about what mummy went into what coffin, but they were very meticulous in getting the right name on the mummy. In those cases where they did not know whose mummy it was, they would not leave a docket.

DB320 / TT320

The reburial project went on for many years. About a century after it started, TT320 came into use, first for the burial of Neskhons and her husband, the high priest of Amun, Pinedjem II. Afterward, TT320 was transformed into a cache, holding the mummies and burial goods for more than 50 royals and nobles. Over the years, some of the mummies were reburied multiple times before ending up in TT320. For example, the mummy of Ramesses III contains a docket of Butehamun, This shows that some of Butehamun's ‘work’ ended up in TT320, decades after his death.

Book of the Dead for Pinudjem II
Book of the Dead for Pinudjem II | Source

Restoration or Robbery?

In the past, most egyptologists thought that the hiding of the mummies was done by pious priest in order to protect the precious bodies from desecration. Nowadays, most scholars are not so sure and some are convinced that the reburials were nothing less than state-sanctioned tomb robbery. The enormous wealth that the high priests of Thebes were able to gather this way was unparalleled. Also, some of the plunder found its way up to the northern rulers and was later uncovered in the Tanis Royal Necropolis.

In a strange irony, the 19th-century tomb robbers from Qurna were instrumental in exposing their college's from three millennia earlier. The scale of the state-sanctioned project to 'rebury' the sacred royal bodies was unprecedented. Under the pretense of 'restoration' enormous wealth was accumulated, but it could only be done by cannibalizing Egypt's glorious past.



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