April 15, 2009

The Greatest Grave Robbery

2009 1511 page24 caprave robbers have been around, parasitizing the dead, for as long as humans have consecrated material riches to the ground along with their revered loved ones. And as I reflected on this perennial search for treasure in the halls of the dead, it led me to think about another kind of grave robbery.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me first describe how I came to those thoughts.

Blazing Sun and Insect Bites
Sweltering under the hot, South-western sun, I paused from work for a moment to blot the sweat from my forehead and take my hundredth swat at the cloud of gnats hovering around my ears, their falsetto whining a persistent reminder of the source of the constellation of welts on my sunburned neck and scalp. I was crouched three feet deep in a 2-square-meter hole at an archaeological field site in southern Colorado, removing hard dirt with a garden trowel and whisk broom. One or two times during the course of a day, if I was lucky, the painstaking process of removing soil—a 2- to 3-inch layer at a time—would reveal a fragment of pottery lying askew in its matrix of dirt, where it had last seen the light of day more than 800 years ago.
Often I found as I lowered the substrate around an imbedded potsherd1 that it was only the first fragment and that there were other pieces underneath it, which together comprised a pot or bowl, usually crushed under the weight of centuries and tons of soil.
The potsherds, whether they were from a humble piece of cookware or a highly decorated ceremonial vessel, took my breath away with their beauty and their stamp of humanity.

Some fragments had human fingerprints clearly outlined in the fired clay, and it was a poignant thrill to press my fingertips against those prints and imagine the life of the ancestral Puebloan girl who would have been the vessel’s maker. It was worth every hot, insect-bitten hour to find a simple crushed vessel.
Such is the life of an archaeologist!
I am not an archaeologist by profession, but my interest in the past and in a people who lived in a geographical area that I love—millennia before me—had prompted me to join an ongoing excavation in the Four Corners area of the American Southwest.2 Despite teasing from friends about spending hard-earned vacation time sifting through soil and moving rock, I reveled in the learning process and in the sheer wonder of discovery that results when you uncover and hold in your hand some fragment of daily life, a cup handle or perhaps a corncob, left behind by a person who stood where you stand (or stoop) a millennium ago.
About Looters and Robbers
Working with the professional archaeologists and academicians, I also learned about looters and grave robbers. With their bulldozers, shovels, and haste they not only damage an archaeological site but also diminish or destroy outright the information that careful, methodical excavation might have revealed. It’s a loss that is even greater than the loss of the artifacts themselves.
2009 1511 page24Of course, grave robbers are not after information. Rather, they’re looking for artifacts to sell in illicit trade. In the case of these sites in the Southwest, unbroken pots are the plunder the robbers are after. The beauty of the vessels, together with the fascination many have for prehistoric Indian cultures, make unbroken or carefully repaired pots very valuable. At sites in South America and Egypt precious metals and jewels may be unearthed along with cultural artifacts.
As I mentioned at the top of the article, grave robbers have been ravishing tombs throughout the centuries. Grave robbers in ancient Egypt appear to have been at work contemporaneously with the pharaohs they buried, and were likely at work looting the tombs soon after the occupants were interred. Engineers of the pyramids and burial complexes attempted to foil such desecration by making the burial vaults hard to find inside the pyramids, and by blocking tunnels with huge portcullis stones or backfilling them with gravel and stone.
Nevertheless, when modern scientists find tombs located even in the most labyrinthine of tracts, deep inside the pyramids, they have nearly always been plundered by grave robbers hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of years before. Even on pain of death, grave robbers have always plied their dangerous and unsavory trade.
I didn’t uncover any potsherds that day, but chipping away in my site near the bottom of a canyon left me plenty of time for thinking. But as I reflected on the search for treasure in the halls of the dead, I was reminded of another kind of grave robbery.
Robbery of a Different Kind
The greatest treasure ever buried was the precious body of Jesus Christ. How tawdry is the luster of gems and metals, elements scratched from the earth, next to the resting form of earth’s very Maker! How misplaced our focus to relish the recovery of a piece of pottery from the ground and overlook the gleaming holiness of the Omnipresent One who conceptualized and created not a vessel, but a human, out of clay. What shoddy goods are pots and figurines, however old or intricately crafted, compared with the gift of sacrifice made by a holy God for an erring but beloved race!
Satan must have enjoyed a few moments of exultation in the hours after Jesus’ body had been brought to the tomb, wept over, and finally left alone. As the heavy stone was rolled into place with a grating sound and the seal was placed over the tomb’s entrance, it would have grown dark and quiet in that sepulchre in the rocks. With Pilate’s soldiers in their places around the tomb, the keening sound of weeping would have faded into the distance as the mourners gradually left the graveyard and returned wearily to their homes. The dust stirred up by the recent activity inside the tomb would have slowly settled, in silence and darkness.
How final it must have seemed, to the despair of His followers and the satisfaction of the wicked one. Yet how ineffective this act of entombment!
In the cool predawn hours two days later, Mary Magdalene’s fear upon discovering the absence of Jesus’ body from the tomb was that it had been stolen. As this assumption took hold, it must have delivered an additional stab of pain into an already broken heart.
Yet as she queried the quiet individual whom she assumed to be a graveyard caretaker, she eventually recognized the voice speaking to her, and astonished joy took the place of grief as she looked up into the face of Jesus. What overwhelming joy as she realized the Savior had risen, slipped away from the embrace of the death shroud, and walked forth into the light of an earthly day!
A robbery indeed!
It was not a matter of treasure merely being removed from an earthen tomb, but rather that the tomb itself and Satan, its landlord, were the injured parties. Satan knew with certainty that the robbery of that tomb meant that someday all tombs would stand gaping and empty, their contents removed with no permission on his part.
Jesus had already shown His mastery over the tomb in raising Lazarus from the dead sometime before. He had used the resurrection of Lazarus to demonstrate His love for humanity and the power of faith in God. But when Christ took on death and removed His own person from the tomb, He robbed death for all time of its fearsome permanence and its power over humanity. As the sun continued to rise that morning and the word of His resurrection spread, the mourning of His followers first turned into incredulous disbelief, then into rejoicing and wonderment as they absorbed the glorious reality.
Grave robberies frustrate the work of archaeologists the world over. They disturb the final resting places of human beings and the belongings peculiar to the time and place they occupied in history. Still, the only treasure that has ever really mattered is available to us because a grave was “robbed.” That that particular disturbance took place from the inside, and not the converse, is a distinction that makes all the difference in the world to the human race.
From my hot, dusty site in a sandstone canyon where I worked to unearth objects of intellectual value as a pastime, I took a moment to close my eyes and thank God that backbreaking excavation and toil are not needed to claim the incomprehensible treasure of a relationship with Him. That treasure is priceless and free to any who would possess it because of the inestimable kindness and love of a God who delights in the holy admixture of justice and mercy. 
1A potsherd is a piece from a broken vessel made of fired clay.
2Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Cortez, Colo.
Kim A. Sprayberry is a veterinarian and equine internal medicine specialist. She writes from Lexington Kentucky.