Egyptian tomb robbers and traps - a work in progress

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What defines a tomb robber?

This question, simple as it may seem, raises some interesting issues. The original Egyptian tomb robbers, who lived 2330-5100 years ago, may have stolen for pure malicious intent. But in more recent times, archaeologists have opened, entered, and removed items from tombs. If the definition of a robber is one who takes items without their owners’ permission, these archaeologists should therefore be described as tomb robbers. They (we hope) ‘steal' to inform the rest of us, rather than to feed a craze stemming from malicious intent.

“Burglar Alarms”

Tomb Traps were the “burglar alarms” of ancient Egypt (although one would definitely prefer the alarms of today!). Tomb traps didn’t actually alert anyone to the fact someone had invaded the tomb. Instead, their purpose was to kill the intruder. Rather like going to jail without a trial.

The Egyptians devised several nasty ways of killing people they didn’t like, eg people who entered their tombs when they shouldn’t have. Read more about them in “The Traps” later in this entry.

The majority of people who set the tomb traps or “alarms” were tomb robbers. As tombs were traditionally sealed after everyone had exited, it is unlikely that anyone other than a robber would be in the tomb after it was sealed up.

Most tomb robbers were probably simply hungry for the riches inside the tombs. Perhaps some robbers, however, may have had a grudge, or other personal or public grievance, towards the Pharaoh (or the family of the Pharaoh) buried in the tomb.

When officials realised that the pyramids were being looted, they started having the tombs carved out of the cliffs, in an area now known as “The Valley of the Kings”. The steep cliffs made it more difficult to locate the tombs.

It is possible that some tomb robbing may have been carried out by other empires, particularly during the times when Egypt was invaded by other nations (eg. the Hyksos from Asia, Libya, Nubia, etc.).

The tombs really worth looting were those of the Pharaohs and of wealthy officials. These people were buried with many and varied treasures, including statues of pure gold. As an example of the incredible wealth buried with the Pharaohs, in Tutankhaman’s tomb no less than 5000 ornaments of precious and rare materials were found!

The officials were the brains behind the laying of traps in tombs. They thought them up, and supervised their construction and installation.

Constructing the tomb traps could have caused major logistical and organisational problems. What would have happened if the entrance plug were put in before all the workers were out? Or the curse were spoken over the tomb and someone had to rush back in to finish the final details of a trap? According to the folklore of Egypt, almost certain death!

The years 2130-2180 BC were a time of civil unrest and war in Egypt. Royal powers were dissolved and many pyramid tombs were looted. Up to this time there had been little need to discourage or repel tomb robbers, and looters may well have gone about their business unhindered during these 50 years of unrest. When tombs were built in the Valley of the Kings, tomb robbing became a lot harder.

For a start, it is a lot easier to spot a large pyramid in the middle of a flat plain than it is to find carefully concealed holes in a cliff face. Even so, despite these precautions, all but one of the cliff tombs unearthed by modern archaeologists seems to have been looted by ancient Egyptian robbers.

Obviously, the day after the funeral was not a smart time to try to rob the tomb. And broad daylight was not such a prudent idea either. Robbers picked their time carefully. Some tombs would have been looted centuries after they were sealed (by different robbers, of course!)

The Traps

The curse

Above some tombs, curses were written or spoken by priests, most designed to bring bad–luck upon any who cared to go against the wishes outlined in the curse-
namely “get out of here or else”.
Some traditional curses include:

“"As for anybody who shall
enter this tomb in his impurity:
I shall wring his neck as a bird"’s.”

“"As for any man who shall
destroy these, it is the god
Thoth who shall destroy him."”

“"As for him who shall
destroy this inscription”
He shall not reach his home.
He shall not embrace his children.
He shall not see success".”

Heavy stone plugs

Technically, these weren’t actually traps, in that they were designed not to injure anyone. But these heavy plugs would have made it very difficult to enter the tomb. There was little dynamite in those days, except what risky gun powder could be obtained from China, and the only way of getting through was to chip away at it.

Falling Rocks

A convenient way of getting rid of an enemy was simply to drop a heavy rock on them. For this reason heavy rocks were placed above doorways, connected to wires or ropes that could bring it tumbling down on someone’s head.

Hidden holes

These were holes, leading to steep pits below the tomb. They would have probably have had covers over them, about the size and shape of manhole covers, and would have been delicately balanced over the hole so that at a light step they would have fallen in.


The Ancient Egyptians had relatively advanced medicine, and they had certainly not neglected the art of murder in their studies of alchemy. Powders prepared by magic – men were placed in tombs and systems were rigged so that at a certain time (for example, when intruders entered the tombs) the powders, possibly with fatal powers would have been released into the air and inhaled by the intruders.

False well – cover

In many Egyptian tombs, wells were included in one of the halls. An old favourite was to put a false cover over the well, which worked on much the same principal as the “Hidden Holes”.

Head wires

In some parts of the tomb, wires were placed at neck level. The idea was to decapitate anyone who walked into it. If placed at the right height, these wires could have been one of the most deadly and efficient traps used.


A seemingly useless substance, it was employed to cover the actual sarcophagus of the deceased to prevent robbers tampering with the body.


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