Grave robbery

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Grave robbery, tomb robbing or tomb raiding is the act of uncovering a tomb or crypt to steal artifacts or personal effects. A related act is body snatching, or disinterring a grave chiefly for the purpose of stealing a corpse rather than for stealing other objects.

Grave robbing has caused great difficulty to the study of archaeology, art history, and history.[1][2] Countless precious grave sites and tombs have been robbed before scholars were able to examine them. In any way – the archaeological context and the historical and anthropological information is destroyed.

Looting obliterates the memory of the ancient world and turns its highest artistic creations into decorations, adornments on a shelf, divorced from historical context and ultimately from all meaning.[3]

Grave robbers usually sell their goods on the black market. Though some artifacts may make their way to museums or scholars, many end up in private collections.

Effect on archaeology, by area of study[edit]


Chinese jade burial suits were believed to be myths for many years until two were discovered in 1968; it is now believed that most jade burial suits were removed long ago by grave robbers.

Classical antiquity[edit]

Ancient Egyptian tombs are one of the most common examples of tomb or grave robbery. Most of the tombs in Egypt's Valley of the Kings were robbed within one hundred years of their sealing (including the tomb of the famous King Tutankhamen, which was raided at least twice before it was discovered in 1922).[4] As most of the artifacts in these ancient burial sites have been discovered, it is through the conditions of the tombs and presumed articles that are missing in which historians and archaeologists are able to determine whether the tomb has been robbed. Egyptian pharaohs often kept records of the precious items in their tombs, so an inventory check is presumed for archaeologists.[5] Oftentimes, warnings would be left by the Pharaohs in the tombs of calamities and curses that would be laid upon any who touched the treasure, or the bodies, which did little to deter grave robbers.

There are many examples of grave robbing in the Ancient World outside of Egypt. For instance, the Romans (Byzantium) also suffered decades of theft and destruction of tombs, crypts, and graves.[6]

Central and Northern Europe[edit]

There are also many grave robbers in Central and Northern Europe, mostly working with metal detectors. Merovingian graves in France and Germany but also Anglo-Saxon graves in England contain many metal grave goods, mostly of iron. Grave robbers often leave them, being only interested in gold and silver. Grave contexts, ceramics, iron weapons and skeletons are destroyed.[citation needed]

North America[edit]

Modern grave robbing in North America also involves long-abandoned or forgotten private Antebellum Period to pre-Great Depression era grave sites. These sites are often desecrated by grave robbers in search of old, hence valuable, jewelry. Affected sites are typically in rural, forested areas where once-prominent, wealthy landowners and their families were interred. The remote and often undocumented locations of defunct private cemeteries make them particularly susceptible to grave robbery. The practice may be encouraged by default upon the discovery of a previously unknown family cemetery by a new landowner.

One historical incident occurred during the evening of November 7, 1876, when a group of counterfeiters tried to abscond with Abraham Lincoln's mortal remains from his grave in Springfield, Illinois, in order to secure the release of their imprisoned leader, counterfeit engraver Benjamin Boyd. However, a secret service agent was present and had notified the police beforehand, so the attempted grave robbers only succeeded in the dislodgment of the lid of his coffin. As a consequence, when reburied, additional security measures prevented further depredations against Lincoln's body [7][8]

Central America[edit]

"Tourists can visit the Gold Museum and the Jade Museum in San José, Costa Rica. But they're meaningless scientifically, like a bank vault or a jewelry store. Every item in them comes from looting," said Michael J. Snarskis. "Only the National Museum has an active research program with didactic exhibitions based on its own scientific excavations."[9]

Grave robbers often sold stolen Aztec or Mayan goods on the black market for an extremely high price. The buyers (museum curators, historians, etc.) did not often suffer the repercussions of being in possession of stolen goods and that the blame (and charges) are put upon the lower-class grave robbers. Today's antiquities trade has become a streamlining industry – and the speed these artifacts enter the market has grown exponentially. Laws have been enacted in these regions, but due to extreme poverty, these grave robbings continue to grow each year.

See also[edit]



  • Atwood, Roger (2004), Stealing History, Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, New York City: St. Martin's Press 
  • Daniel, Glyn (1950), A Hundred and Fifty Years of Archaeology, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press 
  • Gardiner, Alan (2007) [1961], The Egyptians: An Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press (The Folio Society) 
  • Peters, Bernard C. (1997), "Indian-Grave Robbing at Sault Ste. Marie, 1826.", The Michigan Historical Review 23 (2) 
  • Shelton, Jo-Ann (1998), As the Romans Did (2nd ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press 
  • Craughwell, Thomas (2007), Stealing Lincoln's Body, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 
  • Peet, T. E. (1930), The great Tomb-Robberies of the Twentieth Egyptian Dynasty, Oxford.
  • Redman, Samuel (2016), Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press