Even Thieves Can Do Some Good Now And Then

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If only by being caught in the act. Some would-be tomb robbers began digging into a previously undiscovered tomb near the Step Pyramid of King Djoser. They were spotted and arrested, but authorities, realizing they were onto something, kept digging and uncovered the tomb of three dentists.

The thieves launched their own dig one summer night two months ago but were apprehended, Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, told reporters.

That led archaeologists to the three tombs, one of which included an inscription warning that anyone who violated the sanctity of the grave would be eaten by a crocodile and a snake, Hawass said.

A towering, painted profile of the chief dentist stares down at passers-by from the wall opposite the inscription.

The tombs date back more than 4,000 years to the 5th Dynasty and were meant to honor a chief dentist and two others who treated the pharaohs and their families, Hawass said.

Their location near the Step Pyramid of King Djoser — believed to be Egypt's oldest pyramid — indicate the respect accorded dentists by Egypt's ancient kings, who "cared about the treatment of their teeth," Hawass said.

Although their services were in demand by the powerful, the dentists likely did not share in their wealth.

The tombs, which did not contain their mummies, were built of mud-brick and limestone, not the pure limestone preferred by ancient Egypt's upper class.

"The whole point of a tomb was to last forever," said Carol Redmount, associate professor of Egyptian archaeology at the University of California at Berkeley. "So you wanted to make it out of materials that would last forever. And mud-brick … didn't last forever."

During a visit to the site, Hawass pointed out two hieroglyphs — an eye over a tusk — which appear frequently among the neat rows of symbols decorating the tombs. He said those hieroglyphs identify the men as dentists.

Hawass believes that only about 30% of what is buried in Egypt has been uncovered so far. Apparently, the tomb robbers are trying to do their part to help find the rest.

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