By: Reg Clark
Protecting the dead from abuse is an ancient human instinct but Egypt raised this concern to levels never seen before or since. Tomb robbery is well attested in Egypt from the earliest times and it becomes obvious when looking at the architecture of the Egyptian tomb that physical measures were soon taken to prevent it. This begs several questions: Why did the Egyptians expend such effort in defending their tombs? How did they protect them? And what influence did this have on the design of the tomb?
We know from texts that the Egyptians believed once a burial was interred within its tomb, the structure formed both a repository for the body and a dwelling for two spiritual elements, the ka and the ba, which were integral to a human in life, but separated from it at death. The ka remained in the tomb, whereas the ba could leave during the day to join the world of the living, but had to return at night. However, both had to reunite daily with the body in the tomb to attain the highest spiritual state, which was an akh or ‘effective’ being, able to enjoy eternity on earth and amongst the gods.
Outside the tomb, its visible structure acted as a focus for food offerings intended to sustain the occupant in the other world, thus forming an essential interface between the living and the dead. While inside, items of valuable personal property were placed, which the Egyptians believed would be used and enjoyed in the hereafter. Therefore, to ensure an everlasting afterlife, it was essential that both the structure and contents of the tomb remained intact.
From early on the majority of Egypt’s populace were usually buried in a simple backfilled pit grave, but from the reigns of the first pharaohs onwards (c. 3150 BCE) the emergence of an increasingly stratified society and powerful elite brought a progressive increase in both the size of tombs and the wealth of their contents. This attracted tomb robbers; driving the development of ever more complex security measures to thwart them.
The tombs of the earliest kings at Abydos (the royal necropolis) consisted of little more than a rectangular pit cut in the desert, thinly lined with mud-brick and covered by a wooden roof. Due to structural weaknesses, they were prone to subsidence and offered little protection from tomb robbers. However, in the first half of Dynasty 1, mud-brick liners in royal tombs were built far thicker to protect them from lateral tunnelling and collapse, and to bear a much stronger roof. This supported a large sand tumulus or mud-brick superstructure (often called a mastaba in Arabic), which deterred attacks from above; its large footprint forcing potential robbers to start their tunnels well beyond its perimeter.
The builders of private tombs likewise followed suit, and at cemeteries such as Saqqara, Helwan and Tarkhan, large ‘mastaba’ tombs were built using the same methods as their royal counterparts. However, the actual details of construction varied, dependent on the geology into which the tomb was cut, the resources available, and the tomb owner’s status. Thus, in the grave pits of some tombs at Helwan, where the gravel geology was weak, in addition to thick mud-brick liners, their wooden roofs were set deep down to increase the depth of backfill, making it much harder for robbers to reach the burials.
But on the opposite bank of the Nile at Saqqara, where the harder rock geology deterred tunnelling, more investment was made in the strength of a grave’s roof and the size of its overlying mastaba. Elsewhere, for extra security, some tombs in the Delta had liquid mud poured into the grave after the burial, which set hard like concrete. At Saqqara and Tarkhan there are also examples of stone masonry being used to line and roof a tomb’s substructure, providing yet another layer of defence.
In the second half of Dynasty 1, royal and private tomb architecture and construction methods remained broadly similar, but now often incorporated an external entrance, usually in the form of a stairway. Although this innovation was advantageous, as the tomb could be entirely finished before its owner’s demise, on the other hand, it brought problems, as once discovered it led directly to the burial chamber. Therefore to misdirect robbers, tomb entrances and descents were placed in differing locations and orientations; sometimes incorporating sliding stone portcullises to supplement blockings of soil, rubble or mud-brick.
Similarly, in private tombs, burial chambers were often located off-centre to their mastabas, and in cemeteries like Helwan were occasionally lined with massive stone slabs, which sometimes lined their stairways as well.
The advent of the next dynasty signals the introduction of a new type of tomb architecture. The royal necropolis moved to the limestone plateau of Saqqara and the first kings of Dynasty 2 were buried in enormous rock-cut subterranean tombs, accessed by portcullis blocked stairways and protected by overlying mud-brick mastabas.
In comparison to a pit grave, this method of construction gave these labyrinthine substructures both the advantage of secrecy and the protection of a solid roof many metres thick, and it was widely adopted by the architects of private tombs, albeit on a much smaller scale. In theory, the only way into a subterranean tomb was via its stairway, so these were hidden in various ways, which at Saqqara and Helwan included concealing them inside their mastabas; despite which they still remained susceptible to attacks by robbers. However, in the weaker gravels of Helwan, raiders familiar with a tomb’s layout often bypassed the stairway altogether and tunnelled straight down into the burial chamber.
A brief hiatus occurred at the end of the dynasty when for political reasons the tombs of the last two kings were built in the old royal necropolis at Abydos and reverted to the traditional pit grave in the desert. But the beginning of Dynasty 3 saw a return to Saqqara, and the architecture of royal and private tombs took diverging paths. King Djoser’s new sepulchre initially took the usual form of a deep subterranean substructure accessed by a stairway. But in what was probably a security response to earlier robberies, for the first time the overlying royal mastaba was entirely built of stone.
To increase the overall defences of the tomb, the mastaba was expanded and further layers were added, creating a four-tiered pyramid. But this still left the stairway exposed and to protect this, more tiers were added, creating the 60 m high structure we call the Step Pyramid. Its enormous volume and footprint offering an unparalleled level of protection to the king, and its success reflected in the adoption of the pyramid tomb in varying forms by Djoser’s successors, right up until the end of the Middle Kingdom.
Private tombs, however, continued in subterranean form as before and retained the protective mastaba. But there was still a security problem with the stairway, as the large plan and cross-section of its descent made it easy to find and vulnerable to attack, even when concealed under a mastaba. The answer came with the introduction of the shaft, whose smaller plan and cross-section made it difficult to locate and, once emptied of its blocking, hard to negotiate. Shafts became the secure access route of choice in Egyptian private tombs for the next 2000 years.
To sum up, many aspects of the architecture of Egyptian tombs originate from security measures initially introduced to defend them from tomb robbery. Moreover, as these features evolved, during an ongoing ‘arms race’ between tomb builders and robbers, they were widely adopted and absorbed into normal tomb architecture. As a result, many of these innovations go unnoticed today, but when they were introduced, they were ‘cutting edge’ security measures that in combination with the tomb and its funerary cult, were intended to ensure the tomb owner’s eternal enjoyment of the afterlife.
Reg Clark was awarded his PhD in 2014 by Swansea University. His thesis Tomb Security in Ancient Egypt from the Predynastic to the Pyramid Age, was published by Archaeopress in 2016.
Items cited and for further reading:
Dodson, A. and S. Ikram (2008) The tomb in ancient Egypt: Royal and private sepulchres from the Early Dynastic Period to the Romans, London, Thames and Hudson.
Spencer, A. J. (1982) Death in ancient Egypt, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.
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