Grave robbers through the centuries

Grave robbers have been with us for a very long time. From Ancient Egypt to the 20th century. But their motives have often differed. Some were looking for treasure while others simply wanted to desecrate the last resting place of a hated individual.

GRAVE ROBBERS: Ancient Egypt

The looting of ancient Egyptian tombs occurred frequently in ancient Egypt. Indeed, going right back to the early dynastic period when the pyramids were being built.

Everybody knew that wealthy elite Egyptians were buried with treasures they could take to the afterlife. It was just far too tempting to leave all that gold and those jewels locked away in a tomb with a decaying mummy.

The rich tried to ensure that theft of their belongings wouldn’t happen by placing blood curdling curses above the door to their tombs or constructing elaborate ways of protecting their grave. But it just didn’t seem to work.

Because many of the robbers – were the tomb builders themselves!

In 1115BC, a man called Amenpanefer and his mates went on trial for being grave robbers. He was a quarry worker and knew the tombs well. The ideal person to lead the operation. Unfortunately he was caught and more than likely executed in a particularly barbaric way. I suspect impalement may have been involved.

Sadly, looting of ancient Egyptian graves is happening on a pandemic scale today. And grave robbers are also systematically stripping archaeological sites from Latin America to China.

In Italy, tombs from the pre-Roman Etruscan civilisation have been plundered for so long, it’s almost a family business passed down through the generations.

One group of looters chanced upon an Etruscan tomb while building a garage for their home – and somehow neglected to tell the authorities of their good fortune.

But the forces of law and order caught up with them when they tried to sell their ill-gotten Etruscan gains on the black market.

DISCOVER: Gruesome body of a saint on display

GRAVE ROBBERS: A revolutionary act

Smashing up graves is not always about financial gain. Some grave robbers snatch the skeletons and artefacts of the dead to denigrate them. This is pretty much what happened to the kings of France after the 1789 French Revolution.

They were buried in the basilica of St Denis for centuries – but up they came and out the door their bones went in the revolution. I visited the basilica earlier this year to see what was left of the royal tombs after the revolutionary grave robbers had finished. This is a short film I made below.

GRAVE ROBBERS: To advance the cause of medicine (and make money)

The most infamous examples of grave robbers are those early 19th century ghouls who sold cadavers to dissecting rooms in London, Edinburgh and other cities.

All in the cause of science and getting their palms crossed with silver!

This was at a time when London’s graveyards were full to capacity. So much so that the dead were buried on top of each other and the most recent burials weren’t that far from the surface.

Two enterprising rogues in Edinburgh – William Burke and William Hare – took to selling corpses to the anatomist Robert Knox. Realising that fresher bodies sold for more, they started to murder their subjects. Eventually, they were both arrested and put on trial.

Hare gave evidence against Burke who was hanged and then submitted to the indignity of being publicly dissected in front of an audience of paying medical students. Gruesomely, the anatomist Professor Munro wrote a note confirming the dissection with Burke’s own blood drawn into a quill from the dead man’s head!

His skeleton is still on display plus death mask and a book bound with leather made from Burke’s own skin. Nice! Unsurprisingly, the tale of Burke and Hare has inspired movie makers.

GRAVE ROBBERS: Twentieth century celebrities

Grave robbers are still very active in the 20th and 21st centuries. Celebrities have been targeted in recent decades in the hope of securing a quick cash windfall. As was the case of the legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin whose coffin was stolen in 1978 and then ransomed.

His widow Oona refused to cough up the six-figure sum demanded and the two robbers were apprehended not long afterwards. They were two jobless car mechanics – Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev – who reportedly wanted to use the money to open a garage!

Another 20th century comedian to be exhumed by grave robbers was the British celebrity Benny Hill. He died in 1992 and not long after his funeral, grave robbers got it into their heads that his coffin included some of his personal jewellery.

He was re-interred but this time with a slab of concrete on top and the grave robbers did not attempt a second break-in.

The Shroud of Turin – genuine or fake?

For centuries the debate has raged – is The Shroud of Turin the real burial cloth in which the crucified body of Jesus was wrapped or is it a forgery?

What is the Turin Shroud?

In the cathedral church of Saint John the Baptist in the Italian city of Turin, you’ll find a long linen cloth with the imprint of a dead man. His hands and feet bear signs of having been nailed to a cross and there are blood stains along the folds of the cloth. The body has a ghostly appearance with a mournful bearded face that any Christian would identify as Jesus. This is the Turin Shroud.

But is it Christ? Science and faith have been at loggerheads over this in recent years.

Just when you think the Turin Shroud has been carbon dated and definitely proven to be a medieval fake, along comes another scientist or expert of some description to claim it could still be the real deal. Though I must say at this point that the overwhelming majority of scientists would be on the fake side of the argument – but not 100% of them.

Let’s start by taking a good look at the Turin Shroud – and by all means pull up the many images you can Google to see it in more detail. Remember, the view of those who believe is that this imprint was somehow made on the linen after Jesus had died on the cross.

A 3D image of Jesus as he may have looked like has even been produced using the Turin Shroud as this YouTube video shows. We’ll look at the evidence further below.

The Catholic church has always sat on the fence a bit when it comes to the shroud. You may have got the impression that the Vatican is totally on board with its authenticity as a literal representation of Jesus. But you’d be wrong. Read the small print. The church has authorised it as a devotional item – but not a bona fide relic of Jesus Christ.

The historian Charles Freeman thinks the Catholic church has boxed itself in over a piece of cloth that nobody believed was truly the shroud of Jesus when it was most likely created in the 14th century – a thousand years after the crucifixion. Freeman thinks the Turin Shroud was used as a theatrical prop in religious plays put on for simple folk at Easter time.

Intriguingly, some images of the Turin Shroud from five hundred years ago shows that the cloth had a lot more blood and gore on it. There was apparently quite a fashion for blood-splattered religious relics from the 14th century onwards. Pilgrims liked to see the Messiah had suffered – I dare say Mel Gibson would approve having watched his horrific depiction of Christ’s death.

Scientists testing small samples from the cloth have dated it to the 14th century. However, there was one high-profile dissenting voice from one of the scientific investigations conducted in the 1970s. Barrie Schwortz was the official photographer on the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) in 1978. In his own words, even though he is Jewish – he’s convinced to this day that the shroud he photographed is the genuine article.

A fascinating Bloodstain Pattern Analysis was conducted on the shroud by two scientists in 2018 – Matteo Borrini and Luigi Garlaschelli – concluding that the flow of blood on the front of the body didn’t match the flow of blood on the back. More bluntly, the rivulets of blood on the front of the arms suggested a crucifixion at an angle of 80 to 100 degrees – so arms raised very high. While on the back it pointed to a 45 degree angle. In other words, the front and back of the shroud don’t agree with each other.

Bloodstains on the back and front of the Turin Shroud do not match

Another scientist is more optimistic about the veracity of the shroud. Stephen Mattingly at the University of Texas thinks the image was caused by decaying bacteria from the body of a man who had died very slowly. Or how about the theory that a kind of thermo-nuclear flash caused by the Resurrection of Jesus burnt his image into the shroud.

Others trying to prove its authenticity have argued that the weave of the material corresponds to cloth from the biblical period while pollen on the Turin Shroud has been traced to the Middle East.

Then we go to the really far out theories. I’ve heard it claimed that the Turin Shroud is actually the face of Jacques de Molay – the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar. Or a more popular assertion is that Leonardo da Vinci had a hand in its creation. Possible he used primitive photographic techniques to capture a human image.

Top five weird saints in the Catholic church

I’ve been visiting the shrines of some weird saints over the summer.

The stories, legends and myths attaching to these holy people can often be rather weird. Strange tales of how they were martyred in a gruesome fashion. At the shrines, you can find their entire body or a bone or a piece of cloth. Let’s look at some of the weird saints I encountered!

Saint Cassian is the oddest account of a martyrdom. A Christian in the Roman Empire who was teaching pagan children. This was during the reign of Julian the Apostate – who tried to turn the empire back to paganism after three decades of emperors who had converted to Christianity.

Cassian refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and his punishment was to be turned over to his own pupils who were told to kill him with their pens and clay tablets. This took a while by all accounts – but Cassian urged them on desiring to die for his faith!

Cassian takes a while to die

Saint Apollonia is said to have been martyred during a riot in Alexandria under the reign of the Roman emperor Philip. Before her death, it’s said she had her teeth pulled out. And so rather ghoulishly, she is depicted holding a pair of pliers with a tooth in its grip. Yuck!

Wilhelm Borremans, Saint Apollonia, 1717

There’s many horrible ways to die but being grilled is probably the worst. Saint Lawrence is often depicted holding what looks like an iron bed mattress but it’s actually the metal grid to which he was tied and cooked.

Saint Lawrence and his grid

FIND OUT MORE: Why were bodies de-fleshed in the Middle Ages?

Here’s the body of Saint Justina – a virgin woman from Padua in Italy. She converted to Christianity at a time when the Roman Empire was still pagan. The emperor Maximian himself tried to make her reject Christ but she refused. So she was martyred with a sword – which she holds close to her breast. Somehow, her body made it from Italy to Portugal and here it is…

Saint Justina – possibly!

And then there’s Bartholomew the apostle of Christ. He is said to have journeyed to India to convert people to Christianity but then came to grief in Armenia. There, he was executed by being skinned alive. Sometimes he’s also being crucified upside down at the same time. The depictions of him and his skin can be rather odd.

Bartholomew and his skin

Pompeii destroyed by a volcano!

It was 79 AD when a mountain near the Roman city of Pompeii did something rather unexpected – it exploded into life revealing itself as a volcano.

The green slopes of Vesuvius had hidden its true nature for centuries. But in that year, a cataclysmic eruption tore it apart sending a plume of fire far into the sky.

Pompeii volcano described: “Tree with a flaming trunk”

One contemporary account described it as looking like a tree with a flaming trunk and streaks of fire and smoke high above. That whole area of Italy was plunged into darkness only lit up by thundery streaks.

Death didn’t come instantly to thousands of people living nearby and many chose not to flee straight away. Instead, the stunned citizens of Pompeii decided to stick it out. Maybe they were still overcome with a degree of incomprehension – the sight before them was too much to absorb.

What happened next was the collapse of the enormous volcanic plume sending hot gas and rubble fanning out across Pompeii, Herculaneum and other the surrounding countryside.

At temperatures over a thousand degrees celsius, people were fried where they stood, sat or lay. It didn’t matter if they sought shelter – there was no escape from the Pompeii volcano.

DISCOVER: Victorian movies from the 19th century

Pompeii rediscovered

It took 1500 years for Pompeii to be accidentally rediscovered under many feet of solidified volcanic material. Gradually, over the centuries, streets have been uncovered as well as town houses, temples and bath houses.

By pouring concrete into the spaces left behind by vaporised human bodies, we’re even able to see the positions that people died in. Sometimes their hands are raised and you can certainly see their mouths open for one last gasp.

I just visited Pompeii and felt the need to share some great images with you. Hopefully, you will get the opportunity to travel to southern Italy and see it for yourself!