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.

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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.

A warning to anti-vaxxers from history

In my collection of vintage books going back three hundred years is a leather-bound volume containing editions of The Saturday Magazine from the year 1840 – and one story carries a warning to anti-vaxxers.

You may think that the movement against vaccination is a relatively modern phenomenon. But it seems that ill-founded suspicion of immunisation has existed for a long time. In this 1840 book of mine, it details how vaccination was introduced to the British province of Ceylon (now the independent country of Sri Lanka) in 1802.

This was about forty years after British doctors first realised that the best way to immunise somebody against the terrible disease of smallpox was to infect them with something called cowpox. This discovery resulting from observing that milkmaids who were exposed to cowpox didn’t seem to develop smallpox. And in 18th century England, smallpox was a massive killer – leaving those who contracted it covered in disfiguring fluid-filled pustules.

Edward Jenner – developed the smallpox vaccination

A doctor called Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine in 1798 and just four years later, it was brought to Ceylon. This large island colony off the southern coast of India had been ravaged for centuries by smallpox. So much so, that according to The Saturday Magazine, the natives would flee their villages and homes to get away from it.

Yet within five years, thanks to the arrival of the vaccination, smallpox was all but eradicated. Something that anti-vaxxers should note. A disease that nobody thought could ever be defeated was made a thing of the past within a few short years.

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But then the people of Ceylon became complacent. After about 1819, they stopped vaccinating their children thinking the disease was a thing of the past. But it then it struck back – even worse than before. As the magazine describes in very 19th century Victorian language!

This, however, was a fatal calm for parents had neglected to use for their offspring that means of protection which had secured themselves from the ravages of this frightful disorder, and in July 1819, the smallpox returned with redoubled violence. As security had begotten apathy, so now, danger and death frightened the poor Ceylonese into using the easy alternative, vaccination.

So please note anti-vaxxers that when the Ceylonese stopped vaccinating, smallpox returned. Much as we’re now seeing measles making an unwelcome comeback. The Saturday Magazine warned those who had not vaccinated to get on with it.

“We give these simple facts of history without one word of comment, believing that they must tend to ally the fears of those who have already sheltered their home, under this great discovery, and hoping that they will excite the fears of those who, from whatever cause, still neglect to use the proper means of safety to themselves and others, means by which can do no harm…”

In his own lifetime, Jenner was regarded as a hero. What on earth would he make of anti-vaxxers today in developed countries who refuse to protect their children and put them at risk of diseases we thought had been conquered?

The 1840 edition of The Saturday Magazine in my library

2019 – a busy year for me on history TV programmes!

In the last two weeks, I finished filming for a new series of Forbidden History and for a new documentary series on the History channel that will accompany The Curse of Oak Island. There’s great Templar related content on both programmes and I think you’re going to have some amazing viewing in 2020. I’ll tell you when those programmes appear – of course!

Plus – three months ago I was up in Scotland filming with broadcaster and top comic talent Rob Riggle for a brand new series for Discovery called Rob Riggle Global Investigator. As with the other programmes above, I’m sworn to secrecy on the content but needless to say, more Templar secrets will be revealed.

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American visitors to the blog may have seen me on the last series of Strange Evidence and NASA’s Unexplained Files – where I covered an extraordinary breadth of topics. Plus there was my outing with Scott Wolter on America Unearthed where Scott and I investigated a possible Templar link at Rosslyn Chapel back in January of this year – which has now been aired on the Travel channel.

So, all in all, 2019 has been a good year for taking history on to TV and hopefully making it accessible and fun for global audiences. If there are any subjects you think I should be covering on TV in 2020 – please do tell me and comment in the usual way.

Tony McMahon – the bearded historian – is coming to a history TV screen near you!

Did aliens from outer space civilise us?

When I was a kid back in the 1970s, I devoured a hugely popular book by the Swiss author Erich von Däniken called Chariots of the Gods. You may have read it too.

His contention was that ancient monuments, carvings and stories clearly evidenced the presence of alien beings amongst us in ancient history.

One famous example in his book is a carving on the sarcophagus lid of the Mayan king Pakal Votan (603-683 CE). He was a long lived ruler in central America and Von Däniken speculated that the Mayan had experienced contact with superior alien technology (as the image above shows):

In the centre of that frame is a man sitting, bending forward. He has a mask on his nose, he uses his two hands to manipulate some controls, and the heel of his left foot is on a kind of pedal with different adjustments. The rear portion is separated from him; he is sitting on a complicated chair, and outside of this whole frame, you see a little flame like an exhaust.

Chariot of the Gods – Erich Von Däniken

Von Däniken wasn’t the first person to speculate along these lines. Imagining contact between humans and creatures from outer space began to emerge in 19th century as the shackles of religion were thrown off and science increased our knowledge of the cosmos.

In 1897, the British author HG Wells wrote The War of the Worlds where resource hungry Martians invade southern England. A later movie version with Tom Cruise moved the action to the United States.

But Wells imagined aliens as hostile and warlike with no interest in helping humanity. That jaundiced view of extraterrestrials has been hugely influential in science fiction ever since.

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But others conjectured a more benevolent relationship. Aliens as our friends and mentors. The most notable proponent of this view was a woman normally referred to as Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891 CE).

She was convinced that humans in ancient history had made contact with highly advanced alien life forms on the planet Venus. Christianity, obsessed with putting humanity at the centre of the universe, had hushed this up.

It’s been hypothesised that there are stories in the bible that point to first contact with aliens and the inability of humans two thousand years ago to understand what they were seeing. So many of the visions of people ascending into the sky and fiery lights all relate to aliens and UFOs.

In popular culture the idea of more primitive species being influenced in weird ways by more advanced beings has even been dramatised in sci-fi classics such as Star Trek and Doctor Who. The Ridley Scott movie Prometheus also dabbles in the notion of an advanced species calling humanity into existence for its own dark purposes.

The belief in aliens creating humanity or turbo-charging our civilisation has been derided by a number of scientists including the late Carl Sagan. In a nutshell, they argue that the alien-human contact theorists are relying on a kind of “god of the gaps” intellectual approach. Where religious fundamentalists insert God into gaps in scientific knowledge, the first contact brigade place aliens.

Needless to say – opinions on this subject are sharply divided!

C’mon America – was King George really a tyrant?

It wasn’t just American colonists who though King George III of England was a tyrant. Many English radicals thought he was too. And that’s before we canvass the opinion of the French!

King George the tyrant – in American eyes!

I’ve now been to see the musical Hamilton twice and what’s not to like. Alexander Hamilton as a morally compromised hero. Thomas Jefferson as a vicious piece of work. And then there’s the hilarious figure of King George III – who prances on to the stage to rile the audience.

He loathes democracy. Thinks America won’t be able to handle everyday life once he’s forced from their stage. They’ll be crying to have him back soon – he jibes at the theatregoers. And we love it of course. Everybody adores a villain. Especially a villain with a big crown and velvet breeches.

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King George – not such a tyrant

I appeared as a contributor on the TV series Private Lives of the Monarchs presented by the co-curator of the Royal Palaces, Tracy Borman. We did one programme looking at King George III and posing the question – was he really THAT bad?

He was certainly a lot more complex than he’s given credit for. His correspondence points to a man who took kingship terribly seriously. In fact, he was very keen to be seen as a “good king” and a constitutional monarch.

Compared to monarchs in continental Europe, he was fairly benign. He had to work with a democratically elected parliament (well, elected by property owners at that time) and couldn’t make arbitrary judgments in the way that kings were able to in France – or the Tsar in Russia.

His Prime Minister imposed a stamp tax on the American colonies. The reason was to pay for the war that had just been fought against France in the Americas. Not only the cost of that war but also the continued stationing of troops in the colonies had to be paid for. Not that the English expected to see all that tax revenue as America had a shaky record on actually coughing up its taxes due to the British crown.

Well, as we know, Americans of an independent spirit saw things differently. They rebelled and achieved their independence. So how did King George the tyrant react to the loss of the United States?

George wrote a long letter on the subject full of remorse and sadness. Interestingly, his main point was a warning to British politicians that no overseas possession could be retained if those living there didn’t support British rule.

Americans had clearly turned their back on the king and Mother Country. But George wrote that he hoped they could remain friends – if for no other reason than mutual trading benefits.

I’m not going to completely whitewash King George III here or let him off the tyrant hook completely. But we’re all grown ups here and capable of a bit of nuance and acceptance of shades of grey in history.

George III’s main claim to fame was the onset of madness. Now we wouldn’t mock the insane today. Yet George’s mental illness was treated with hilarity at the time in a way that would make most of you squirm. For example, he was referred to by one English satirist as “Your Mad-jesty”.

The tyrant King George did end up talking to plants and addressing Lords as peacocks. The man’s condition was made worse by being treated with toxic substances like arsenic. Still, he did have an unusually long reign from 1760 to 1820 and very much shaped the era in which he ruled.