Ancient History & Civilisation


It is astonishing how many archæologists were prodigies. While still a merchant’s apprentice, Schliemann spoke half a dozen languages. At the age of twelve Champollion was able to carry on an intelligent discussion of political questions, and at the age of nine C. J. Rich caused a sensation. William Matthew Flinders Petrie, the last of the four great men who laid the foundations of Egyptology in the nineteenth century, the measurer and interpreter, was also a precocious boy. He is reported to have already shown an extraordinary interest in Egyptian excavations at the age of ten. At that tender age he evolved the principle that was to guide him throughout his lifetime: reverence and the drive for knowledge must each get its proper share, the Egyptian soil must be literally scraped, grain by grain, not only to see what was hidden in its depth, but also to recognize how things had been disposed while still in the light of day. This report on Petrie was published in a London newspaper in 1892, at the time Flinders Petrie was appointed full professor—he was then thirty-nine years old—at University College.

There is no doubt that at an early age he combined his interest in antiquities with several others that later redounded to his advantage. He experimented in the natural sciences and took more than a dilettante interest in chemistry. He also made a cult of the mathematics of measurement, on which the exact sciences have been based since Galileo. And all the while he was trotting through the London antique shops, trying out his theories on actual objects. Even as a pupil he often complained of the lack of basic work in archæology, especially in Egyptology.

What the student missed, the grown man supplied. Petrie’s scientific publications number ninety volumes. His History of Egypt, in three volumes (1894–1905), which is packed with investigative results, is the main precursor of all his later works. His long report called Ten Years Digging in Egypt, 1881–1891 (published 1892) still makes exciting reading. Petrie was born on June 3, 1853, in London. He did his first archæological research in England, and published a book on Stonehenge, the early bronze age stone circle. But by 1880 he was in Egypt, and there, with some interruptions, dug for forty-six years.

Petrie found the Greek colonial town and trading center of Naukratis, and dug the Temple of Ramses out of hills of debris at Nebesheh. At Kantara—the great military road between Egypt and Syria once terminated there, and there, today, planes land on the big plaza—he discovered a fort where the mercenaries of Psamtik I had once been stationed, and identified this place with the Greek town of Daphnæ and the Biblical Tahapanes. Finally he rediscovered the two colossal sandstone statues of King Amenophis III, the ones mentioned by Herodotus, and first seen by the European scholar Pater, of Erfurt, in 1672.

The Greeks had called these colossi the Columns of Memnon. When the mother, Eos, rose above the horizon, the son, Memnon, sighed and groaned in in-human tones that stirred the hearts of all those who heard. Strabo and Pausanias recount this legend. Much later (A.D. 130) Hadrian waited with his wife, Sabina, for the cry of Memnon, and the couple were rewarded by hearing unearthly sounds that gripped them like nothing they had known before. Septimius Severus had the upper part of the statue “restored” with sandstone blocks, and the sound came no more. Even today there is no strictly scientific explanation for the tones, the existence of which, none the less, cannot be doubted.

The wind had gnawed at the stone of the colossi for centuries. Vansleb saw the lower parts of at least one of the great statues. In Petrie’s day nothing but ruins remained, sufficient to enable him to estimate the height of the throne royal figures at 38.4 feet. The length of the middle finger of the southern colossus was 4.4 feet.

Petrie excavated throughout his whole lifetime, but always scattering his efforts, unlike Evans, who spent a quarter of a century exploring the one site of Knossos. Petrie actually “scraped” his way through all Egypt, and so doing traversed three millennia. It was typical of Petrie that he should become expert on the small and intimate, particularly on everything that Egypt had to offer in the way of ceramics, statuettes, and the like. In this field he was a pioneer, the first to impress temporal sequence on Egyptian miniature sculptures. At the same time he became an authority on the largest and most sublime of Egyptian artifacts, the towering pyramids, symbols of death.

In the year 1880 Petrie arrived at the Pyramids of Gizeh. After inspecting the whole site he found an abandoned mastaba that some predecessor had provided with a door, probably with the idea of using the structure as a storehouse. This queer European told his carriers that he would live in the tomb, and the following day was duly installed. A lamp smoked on a box, in the corner a kerosene cookstove made a roaring sound. William Flinders Petrie was at home. That evening, when the shadows were long and blue, a stark naked Englishman crept over the ruins to the foot of the great pyramid, found the entrance, and went in, a ghost in the chambers of the dead, where the air was as hot and close as in a henhouse filled with nesting fowl. After midnight he scrambled out of the depths. His eyes burned, his head ached, he was streaming sweat like a man escaped from a fiery oven. In this condition he squatted in front of his box and copied the notes he had made inside the pyramid, the measurements of length and cross section, of corridor slope and corner angle. He also jotted down his first hypotheses.

Hypotheses? About what? Were there any mysteries in the pyramids? They had lain open to public view for thousands of years. Herodotus marveled at them, and the ancients called them one of the seven wonders of the world. Wonders—by definition they elude explanation. Was it not inevitable that the mere existence of the pyramids should pose staggering questions for the nineteenth-century mind, for the man of technique and the reasoned approach, for an era of skepticism and but little feeling for the sublimity of immaterial goals?

The pyramids were known to be tombs, gigantic sarcophagal houses. But what under heaven had ever inspired the Pharaohs to build in a way never seen before or since? In Petrie’s day the Egyptian pyramids were thought to be unique. Now, of course, Middle America has been archæologically explored, and analogues of the Egyptian pyramids discovered in the Toltec jungle, though these were temples and not tombs. What was in Egyptian minds when they made their fortresslike monuments, when they constructed artfully hidden entrances with blind doors, and culs-de-sac ending hard up against impenetrable granite blocks? What had made Cheops raise a veritable mountain of stone over his sarcophagus, a geometric heap containing 29,500,000 cubic feet of limestone? Petrie, working night after night in rubble-choked corridors, half blind and gasping for breath in the dead air, was determined to solve the riddles of the pyramids with the scientific methods of his century. Many of Petrie’s results have since been verified; and many, too, have been negated by later investigations. Whenever figures are given in this text, they come from modern sources. But now as we first set out on the trail of the robbers who almost nullified the labors of the Pharaohs, we shall choose Petrie as our guide and mentor.

More than 4,500 years ago a broad stream of naked slaves, fair and dark of skin, flat of nose, swollen of lip, and shorn of skull, rolled up from the Nile. They stank of rancid oil and sweat, of onions, garlic, and radishes. The equivalent of about two million dollars was spent feeding the workers on the Pyramid of Cheops alone. They sighed and howled under the lash of the overseers as they toiled over the smooth flats of the great road of granite stretching up from the Nile to the construction site. They groaned under the ropes cutting into their collar bones as they dragged huge blocks of stone, each more than a cubic yard in size, loaded on sledges, which moved slowly along on rollers. Amid their cries, their weeping, and their dying rose the pyramid, tier on tier. For twenty long years it grew. Each time the Nile’s muddy flood overran the banks of the river, bringing all field work to a halt, the complement of a hundred thousand workers was filled with replacements, so that Cheops might have his tomb, which was calledEchet Chufu, or the Horizon of Cheops.

The pyramid’s bulk waxed tremendously. Using nothing but the power of human hands and backs, 2,300,000 blocks of stone were dragged to the site and piled one atop another. Each of the four sides of the base was more than 736 feet in length. When the last block was in place, the peak of the pyramid towered 467 feet in the air. The grave of this Pharaoh is almost as tall as the tower of the cathedral of Cologne, higher than the tower of St. Stephen’s in Vienna, much higher than the dome of St. Peter’s at Rome, largest church of Christendom. All of St. Paul’s in London could be comfortably accommodated within the pyramid. The total mass of masonry, quarried out of the cliffs and limestone beds on both sides of the Nile, contained 3,277,300 cubic yards of material, piled up on a surface covering 64,942 square feet.

Today Cairo’s street car Number 14 carries the visitor almost up to the pyramid. There, at the end of the line, he is met by shrieking dragomans, donkey-drivers, camel-drivers—all looking for baksheesh. The groans of the slaves have been silenced, the Nile wind has swallowed up the whistle of the whiplash and blown away the harsh odor of human sweat. Nothing but the huge structures themselves remain. Today we can climb to the top of the Pyramid of Cheops, highest and largest of them all, and to the south see another whole group of Pharaonic monuments rising in the distance, the pyramids of Abusir, Sakkara, and Dahshur. And near by we look down upon the pyramids of Chephren and Mycerinus, second and third respectively to Cheops’ in magnitude, and over to the left there is the Sphinx. Many others are visible as ruins. The upper mass of the Pyramid of AburÆash, to the north of Gizeh, has been largely removed, so that one can look down into the burial chamber, which at one time was hidden under thousands of tons of heavy stone. The Pyramid of Hawara and the Pyramid of Illahun, made of a core of stone sheathed over with unburnt bricks of Nile clay, have been weathered away. And the “false pyramid” at Medum—called by the Arabs “el Haram el-Kaddab” because it looked so different to them from the others—was most vulnerable of all to the assaults of wind and weather and flying sand, for this structure was never finished at all. Even so, it was raised to a height of 128 feet. Pyramids go back to the Oldest Kingdom, and were still built during the era of the Ethiopian rulers of Meroë. The north group at the Meroë site alone includes forty-one pyramids, housing the bodies of thirty-four kings, five queens, and two crown princes. Tombs for the chosen few who had their names written by the nameless many in stone against the sky, there to endure for an eternity! Was fame the barb that stung the Pharaohs on? Was it some urge to monumental self-manifestation? Was it only the hubris of the mighty who have lost all mortal restraint?

The meaning of the pyramids can be grasped only in terms of Egyptian religious beliefs. The urge to build pyramids was rooted in the basic Egyptian belief that after physical death the soul continues to exist through all eternity. There was a hereafter, a great beyond, a region apart from ordinary earth and sky. This beyond was peopled with the dead, who were permitted to inhabit the spirit realm provided—and this was the critical point—they were justified in the Last Judgment before the Divine Judge, knew the secret formulas, and could bring with them appurtenances proper to their earthly life. The post-mortem paraphernalia included absolutely everything used by the deceased during his daily life—for example, a substantial dwelling, food and drink, as well as servants, slaves, and officials. But above all other considerations the body itself had to be ensured against every destructive influence, to enable the freely wandering soul—ba in Egyptian—to find its way back where it belonged. Moreover, the body had to be safely preserved to provide a home, too, for the protective spirit, or ka, the innate élan vital of the personality. This ka, like the cognate ba, was immortal, and highly useful in providing energy for the deceased in the afterworld, where wheat grew eight ells high and had to be sown and gathered up like any other.

This conception of life after death had two related results: the practice of mummification and the construction of fortresslike pyramids. In other continents the Inca, Maori, Jivaro, and other cultures developed the art of mummification, but never to such extremes of refinement as the Egyptians. As for the pyramids, they represented a monumental device for providing the personality with double, quintuple, decuple security against all enemies who might desecrate it or disturb its rest.

Thousands of lives were sacrificed in forced labor in order to give the dead kings eternal security and eternal life. One Pharaoh, who spent ten, fifteen, twenty years on the building of his tomb, sapped the strength of the Egyptian people and weighed down his children and his children’s children with enormous debts. Even after death he continued to weaken the kingdom’s finances, for his ka demanded regular sacrifices and much priestly service. One self-providential Pharaoh signed away the revenues from twelve villages to the priests who were to celebrate the sacrifices to his ka.

Egyptian gods. Left: Ra, Horachti, Horus of the horizon, the morning sun. Middle: Osiris, the god of the dead. Right: Isis, his wife, the personification of the throne.

The power of belief prevailed over any political or moral consideration. The pyramids of the Pharaohs—and only theirs, for persons of lesser degree contented themselves with mastabas, and the common man with a grave in the sand—were the fruits of a tremendously hypertrophied egocentrism, a point of view in which the interests of the community simply played no part. The pyramid-building urge was the exact opposite of the inspiration behind the great architectural monuments of Christianity. The purpose of the cathedrals of Christendom was to serve the pious community. The stepped towers, or ziggurats, of the Babylonians were sanctuaries for the gods, publicly used shrines; but the pyramids served the Pharaoh and none other; his dead body, his soul, and his ka.

One thing is indubitable: the size of the monuments erected by the kings of the Fourth Dynasty forty-seven centuries ago overreached the standards imposed by belief and religion and security. Later we shall see how very soon after this period pyramid building on such a gigantic scale began to wane, and eventually stopped altogether. This occurred during a time when kings like Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus ruled over Egypt. These monarchs were no less absolute in power than those of the Fourth Dynasty. Actually, they were more godlike than the early tyrants, and, like Sethos I and Ramses II, separated from the enslaved masses by an even greater gap.

The materialistic reason for the cessation of large-scale pyramid building was the increasing boldness of the tomb-robbers. Indeed, in certain villages for centuries on end tomb-robbing was a regular occupation; the eternally hungry many rising in reaction against the eternally well-fed few. When the safety of the dead was no longer guaranteed by the pyramids, new and different protective measures became necessary, and consequently other types of tomb construction.

But another, more compelling, non-materialistic reason for the decline in pyramid building is suggested by the historicomorphological approach. From the morphological point of view, cultures exhibit analogies in rise and fall. For example, once the cultural soul has been awakened, a tendency to heaven-storming monumentality consistently appears. Despite all differences, there is a basic relationship linking the Babylonian ziggurat, Romanesque-Gothic churches, and the pyramids of Egypt. For all these works are identified with an early cultural phase, during which colossal edifices were built with lavish outflow of barbaric energies. With a power that knows no obstacles, a power that out of the dark regions of consciousness brings forth the statics needed in the art of architectural reckoning, and that, out of a laboriously achieved understanding of nature, invents the indispensable mechanics—thus the cultural eruption finds vent.

The nineteenth century, the era of technical advance, refused to believe that this could have been possible. The Occidental technician was incapable of admitting that such gigantic structures could be built without the use of “machines,” of block and tackle, windlass and crane. But the urge to monumentality had overridden all difficulties; the quantitative forces of an early culture accomplished as much in final result as the qualitative forces of later civilizations.

The pyramids were built with sheer muscle power. Holes were bored in stone in the quarries of the Mokattam Mountains, wooden sticks were driven into them, and these, swelling when soaked in water, cracked apart the rock. On sledges and rollers the resulting blocks were dragged to the site. The pyramid rose layer by layer. Candidates for a doctorate in archæology write theses on the question of whether one construction plan was used or several. Lepsius and Petrie occupy diametrically opposed positions in this controversy, but modern archæology inclines to support the Lepsian point of view. Apparently there were several plans of construction, drastic changes being necessitated by suddenly conceived additions. The Egyptians, forty-seven hundred years ago, worked with such precision that mistakes in the lengths and angles of the great pyramids can, as Petrie says, “be covered with one’s thumb.” They fitted the stone blocks so neatly that “neither needle nor hair” can, to this day, be inserted at the joints. The Arab writer, Abd al-Latif, remarked on this in wonder eight hundred years ago. Critics point out that the old Egyptian master builders misjudged their stresses and strains, as for example when they made five hollow spaces over the burial-chamber ceiling to reduce the downward pressure, when one would have sufficed. But these fault-finders forget, in our own day of electronically analyzed T-girders that it was not so long ago that we used to build with a safety factor of five, eight, or even twelve.

The pyramids will stand for a long time to come. The Pyramid of Cheops, for instance, is still largely intact, though most of the decorative surface of fine Mokattam limestone has slid away, baring the local yellow limestone used for the main bulk of the edifice. The tip, too, has crumbled away, making a square plateau at the top ten feet on each side. But that is the only damage inflicted by time. Cheops’ monument and others as well will endure for many more millennia.

But where are the kings who sought security within them, tranquil homes for their ka and ba?

Poetic justice has been done the Pharaohs; their hubris has come to naught. Those who chose to rest in less pretentious mastabas, or in rude graves of sand, have been treated less harshly by the years than the once mighty potentates of Egypt. Many of the humbler burial chambers have survived the depredations of the tomb-robbers, but the granite sarcophagus of the great Cheops is mutilated and empty—how long since, we do not know. In 1818 Belzoni found that the lid of the sarcophagus of Chephren had been smashed and the sarcophagus itself filled with rubble. When Colonel Vyse discovered the burial chamber of Mycerinus in the thirties of the last century, the cover was gone from the basalt sarcophagus. Parts of the wooden inner coffin were lying about an upper chamber, and with them, on the floor, were strewn pieces of the royal mummy. The sarcophagus was lost when the ship carrying it to England foundered off the Spanish coast.

Millions of stone blocks were used to protect the bodies of the dead kings. Walled-up passages, all sorts of architectural tricks to keep out predatory intruders, were devised. For the burial chambers concealed almost inconceivable treasures. The King, though dead, was still a king—and if the ka returned into the body to reanimate it for participation in the afterworld, obviously he would need the ornaments, the luxurious ritualistic and personal articles of frequent daily use, the trusted weapons of gold and other noble metals, decorated with lapis lazuli, precious stones, and rock crystal. Did the pyramids offer any real protection? It appears that intruders were attracted instead of being frightened off by their vast dimensions. Only too baldly they announced: “Behold, we have something hidden here.”

While the robbers—from oldest times to the present day—sought the hidden treasures, some of the respectable, learned men throughout the world theorized on another kind of secret the ancient structures might have held. For the past hundred years or more the so-called “mystery of the great pyramids” has periodically engaged the attention of Egyptologists, historians of the world’s civilization as well as laymen.

And no wonder—for wherever uncertainty exists, there is room for conjecture, which, however, can take the form of reasoned hypothesis or unbridled speculation. Hypothesis belongs to the working method of any science; it is a legitimate form of speculation proceeding from established results. Though it explores possibilities, it does not presume to remove the question mark hovering behind them. Pure speculation, on the other hand, knows no limits. Its premises are apt to be wishful, untested. As often as not its conclusions are mere fancy which, dreamy-footed, treads metaphysics’ most errant paths, mysticism’s darkest woods, and the most mysterious regions of Pythagorean and cabalistic misconstruction. Most dangerous of all, unfettered speculation can be couched in that smooth logic which the twentieth century finds so persuasive. The finds in Egypt, through the years, have occasioned all manner of wild speculation. Most long-lived of these is the message of the great pyramid.

The gist of the argument is this: The great Pyramid of Cheops was built in order to hand down a mystical number system known in older times. The mysticism of numbers, of course, hardly deserves consideration. Yet serious scientists capable of outstanding work in their own specialties have frequently become addicted to Egyptian number magic.

The great Pyramid of Cheops has often been called a Bible in stone. We know how farfetched Biblical interpretation can be; the exegesis of the Cheops Pyramid does not lag far behind. The whole history of mankind has been deduced from the ground plan of the structure, from the dimensional relationships of entrance, corridor, hall, and burial chamber. On the basis of a pyramidal theory of history one expert dated the beginning of the First World War in 1913, and believers jubilantly pointed out that he had erred “by only one year.”

Still, the numerologists have some material at their disposal that can yield bewildering results if twisted out of normal context. For example, the pyramids are oriented with the four cardinal points of the compass. The northeast-southwest diagonal of the Pyramid of Cheops, if extended, coincides perfectly with the analogous diagonal of the Pyramid of Chephren.

Most claims of this nature, however, arise from faulty measurements, or from the exaggeration, or arbitrary extrapolation, of the possibilities offered by any large architectural work that has been closely measured. Meanwhile, since Flinders Petrie’s initial measurements, almost exact dimensions have been assigned to the great Pyramid of Cheops. But even modern measurements are approximate, for the original form of the pyramid has been lost through the destruction of the tip. On this account any Egyptian numerology that adduces evidence in terms of centimeters or inches is a priori discredited.

It is not difficult to get spectacular mystical results if very small measuring units are applied to a very large piece of architecture. If the cathedrals of Chartres or Cologne were measured in inches, almost certainly all manner of unsuspected analogies with numbers of cosmic import could be derived by appropriate addition, subtraction, and multiplication. It is very probable that the claims to the effect that the pyramid builders were the first to discover the value of π is a misconstruction of this nature.

Even if it could be proved that the Egyptians actually did project into the dimensions of the pyramids important astronomical and mathematical information of a kind not known to science until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, still there would be no reason for reading mystical connotations into such numerical values or for deducing from them large prophecies. In 1922 the German Egyptologist Ludwig Borchardt published the findings of his intensive study of the great Pyramid of Cheops, under the title: Gegen die Zahlen-mystik an der Grossen Pyramide bei Gizeh (Against the Mystical Interpretation of the Numbers on the Pyramid of Cheops), in which he finally cut the ground from under the mystics.

Petrie was one of those archæologists who refuse to be downed. Stubborn, unyielding, tenacious on the scent, in 1889 he dug a shaft into an unidentified brick pyramid along the Nile, unaware that he had hit on the tomb of Amenemhet III, one of the infrequent men of peace to rule over Egypt. Not being able to discover the entrance to the tomb, Petrie dug diagonally straight through the masonry.

When he had first made up his mind to attack the pyramid—it was located some twenty-three hours on donkey-back from the village of Jauwaret el-Makta—he had looked for the entrance in the usual place—that is, on the north side—and, like so many other archæologists before him, he failed to find it there. Nor did he have any better luck on the east side. He then decided to dig a tunnel slantwise into the masonry rather than fritter away any more time.

The decision was excellent, but Petrie’s technical facilities were limited. Though he realized that he was faced with a formidable task, he had no idea that he would be digging for many weeks. Petrie suffered a crushing disappointment when he finally removed the last piece of wall shutting him off from the burial chamber and discovered that others had got there first. But these others had not been interested in studying the marvels of bygone epochs; their purpose had been plunder. Petrie’s grueling labors in the heat of the Egyptian sun, with inadequate tools and an unwilling crew of workmen, had all gone for nothing.

Again we encounter that frustration which only too often has been the culmination of archæological effort, a terrific letdown that would cripple all but the strong. (Exactly twelve years later a similar fiasco occurred, which, in so far as it entailed the discomfiture of others, for a change, must have given Petrie some wry satisfaction. Modern tomb-robbers broke into the burial chamber of Amenophis II, who died about 1420 B.C., and, seeking royal treasure, cut open the winding cloths about the mummy. But they, too, were disappointed—more bitterly, no doubt, than Petrie, their purpose being what it was. Others of their thievish kind had done their work three thousand years before so well that not a single thing remained to reward their predatory exertions.)

The hole that Petrie had driven into the side of the pyramid was too narrow to admit the full width of his shoulders, but he could not wait until it had been widened enough to let him in. He lowered an Egyptian boy, equipped with a light, down into the vault on a rope. The warm, flickering candlelight fell on two sarcophagi—both plundered and empty!

There was nothing left for Petrie to do but try to find out whose tomb it was he had invaded. New difficulties cropped up. Ground water had seeped into the pyramid. When the first hole had been widened enough to let Petrie in, he found the burial chamber deep in water. Using a shovel, he cleared away the floor inch by inch. Finally he found an alabaster vessel with the name Amenemhet inscribed on it, and in a second chamber innumerable funerary gifts, all bearing the name of Princess Ptahnofru, daughter of Amenemhet III.

Amenemhet III, a king of the Twelfth Dynasty, reigned, according to Breasted, from 1849 to 1801 B.C. His family was in power for some 213 years. The period during which Amenemhet III wore the two crowns of Egypt was one of the happiest the land ever saw. For centuries the country had been periodically devastated by wars waged with barbaric borderland peoples, and by internal conflict between the central government and the chronically rebellious provincial princes. Amenemhet was a man of peace. His countless construction projects—among other things he dammed up a whole lake—served profane as well as religious ends. His social measures, from the modern standpoint, are scarcely worth mentioning, but within the context of the rigid Egyptian class division and slave economy they were actually of revolutionary import.

He makes the Two Lands verdant more than a great Nile.

He hath filled the Two Lands with strength.

He is life, cooling the nostrils.

The treasures that he gives are food for those who are in his following;

He feeds those who tread his path.

The King is food, and his mouth is increase.

Merely to have found this great King’s tomb was a feather in Petrie’s cap, and archæologically, at least, his results gave him some satisfaction. Still, as excavation, his work was far from being an unqualified success. How had the tomb-robbers ferreted a way into the tomb? Where was the real entrance to the pyramid? Had the robbers discovered the door, which he and other investigators had not been able to find? The robbers had evidently solved the architectural riddle built into the pyramid by the Egyptian architects; Petrie set to work retracing the robbers’ trail.

This involved a major tunneling project. Ground water had risen high within the Pyramid. Dirt, brickbats, and rubble had puddled together into a tough muck. Petrie, the indefatigable, had to crawl through some of the passageways on his stomach, hardly able to breathe, mouth and nose clogged with mud. His aim was to find the real entrance, and finally he did. Contrary to all previous experience and to all Egyptian tradition, it was on the south side! Somehow the robbers had known this. Petrie was amazed. Had the robbers succeeded through pure ingenuity, or simply by sheer persistence? Petrie had an idea that he took pains to check very carefully.

Systematically he retraced the path used by the robbers. They had run into all sorts of obstacles. Every time this happened to Petrie he tried to put himself in the robbers’ shoes and figure out what he would have done had he been they. Several times he was driven to admit that he would not have been able to solve the situation as the robbers had. What mysterious instinct, if instinct it was, had led the thieves safely through the innumerable pitfalls, tricks, and dodges incorporated into the pyramid by the Pharaonic architects? When stairs ended abruptly in a blind chamber, the robbers, it appeared, had quickly discovered that the way forward was up through the ceiling. One whole ceiling had been a tremendous trapdoor. Laboriously the thieves had broken their way through, much as safecrackers today force their way, little by little, through the thick steel door of a safe. And then where were they? In a corridor filled with massive blocks of stone! Petrie, the technician, could appreciate what infinite labor they had had to expend in clearing out this corridor. He could also appreciate the robbers’ feeling when, having done so much, they again found themselves in a doorless chamber, and after surmounting this fresh obstacle, in still a third blind room. Petrie, who by this time had begun to admire the robbers, hardly knew whether to credit their consistent success to superior knowledge or to bull strength. Unquestionably they must have dug for weeks, months, even a year or more—and under what conditions! They must have worked in constant dread of being surprised by watchmen, priests, pilgrims who came with offerings for the great Amenemhet.

Or did they? Petrie had seen for himself how much acumen and experience were needed to overcome the obstacles deliberately planted by the ancient architects to confuse intruders and guard their kings. He doubted that the wits of those ancient Egyptian grave-robbers could have triumphed unaided over such deterrents. Was it possible—Egyptian literature offered some support for such a thesis—that the robbers had expert assistance? Could they have been tipped off and otherwise abetted by priests, guards, corrupt members of an already corrupted class of officials? This brings us to the colorful subject of the grave-robbers in Egyptian history. Its beginnings are lost in antiquity; it unfolded dramatically in the Valley of the Kings; and it came to a climax not so long ago, in a rather modern kind of criminal case.

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