Carnarvon and the search for Tutankhamun

In the summer of 2011, I had the pleasure to visit Highclere Castle with a tour group I was guiding together with a friend and fellow Egyptologist from the Huis van Horus foundation. Upon arrival I was impressed by its rolling lawns (lazy pheasants included), charming garden temple and majestic façade reminiscent of London’s Houses of Parliament. Inside the enormous hallway we were treated to the pinnacle of British civilization: tea and biscuits. While we were shown around the mansion I escaped twice to visit the most down-to-earth part of the ‘upstairs’ environment: the bathroom. I pride myself in the fact that I may have shared a seat with the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who financed the excavations leading to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. With its splendid library, damask wallpaper and Napoleonic desk standing somewhere in a corner, I could imagine myself in the golden age of archaeological discovery. Highclere’s basement contains a glimpse of such discovery, housing Egyptian artefacts and a replica of Tut’s famous tomb. While we were eagerly observing these remains, the present Lady Fiona Carnarvon herself came down to pay us a visit.

Highclere Castle on a not so sunny day

It was only later that I got hooked on the now finished series of Downton Abbey, which begins with the sinking of the Titanic and ends with the retirement of the mansion’s old butler. It depicts a slowly changing world, of which the stately remains still dot the British countryside and live on in obscure titles and heritages. There is not a single event that brought about this social change, although WWI played a major part, but it is always a treat to watch vanished worlds with a thick romantic sauce in the form of BBC dramas. In the series itself, only subtle reference is made to the real Lord Carnarvon of his day. Robert Crawley, ‘7th Earl of Grantham’ is fond of a pet dog called ‘Isis’. At the end of the series, he calls his new dog ‘Teo’, after the wife of Amenhotep III and mother of Akhenaten, Queen Tiye. Lord Carnarvon, although failing at Eton and Oxford, spent long hours reading, as is Robert Crawley usually to be found in his splendid library. Both Lords were in great debt until they married, Carnarvon with Almina Wombwell, Crawley to the American Cora Levinson. If they were for love, these marriages were surely also very lucrative.

Lady Almina (© Highclere Castle Archive)

Two of the real Earl’s favourite activities were horse racing and automobiles. Besides he was an avid gambler. To these he would soon add the passion of archaeology. How this came about is vividly described in Brian Fagan’s Lord and Pharaoh: Carnarvon and the search for Tutankhamun (2015). In it, Fagan tries to show parallels between the lives of Carnarvon and Tutankhamun. Although this comparison doesn’t entirely make sense, the Carnarvon bits are quite interesting. ‘Porchy’, as he was nicknamed, suffered from bronchitis and frequently spent the winter in Egypt’s dry climate together with his wife. It seems his interest in digging up antiquities were primarily brought about by boredom. Having sailed to Aswan on a dahabeeyah, and having visited the pyramids of Giza and temples of Luxor, the couple met Theodore Davis who had just discovered the tomb of Yuya and Tuya, the parents of Queen Tiye. Archaeology in those days must have appealed to his hobbies of racing and gambling, for in 1906, while staying at the Shepheard’s Hotel, Carnarvon went looking for a concession.

fagan

Director-General of Antiquities at the time was Gaston Maspero, who appointed inspector Arthur Weigall to work together with the inexperienced Earl. Carnarvon was directed to an uninteresting portion of the Theban Necropolis that had been previously worked over, but wasn’t bored in the least. He was overjoyed finding a mummified cat, and this – rather than experience – is perhaps what marks the true archaeologist: the enthusiasm for finding ancient man-made objects hidden in the sand. Every day, the Earl would wake with Almina in the splendid Winter Palace Hotel, engage a ferry to the West Bank, and ride a donkey to his allotted space in the Sheikh Abd el-Qurna necropolis. Dozens of tomb robbers and treasure hunters had been there before him, and for weeks on end, no spectacular finds were made. The evening hours were spent at the balls and dinners characterizing Luxor’s wintertime social life. Unaware of it, Carnarvon did make an interesting find: what is now called the Carnarvon Tablet contains the (embellished) account of Kamose’s rebellion against the Hyksos. Realizing his ignorance, the Earl decided he would need an experienced archaeologist to help him. This man would be Howard Carter.

Carter and Carnarvon, an unlikely pair

Howard Carter was both obstinate and competent, as well as currently unemployed. The two men took a liking to each other. Supervising (if such a thing is possible) 300 men, they worked in an area of Dra Abu el-Naga, clearing numerous tombs dating to the Middle Kingdom and early 18th dynasty. In total they recovered 64 coffins (a few of which were painted), wooden furniture, cosmetic implements and a silver statuette. An automobile accident almost killed the Earl in Germany, but he insisted on returning to Egypt to oversee the dig. Carter was minute in his recording of the work by hand and photography. After a few years of cooperation, they published a first account of their diggings (Five Years’ Exploration at Thebes: A Record of Work Done 1907-1911). The pair now turned to the Delta, but the costly work there led to little results. Theodore Davis finally gave up his concession in the Valley of the Kings, which he deemed to be fully exhausted, and it was turned over to Carnarvon in 1914. Now Carter was a systematic planner, and the Earl enjoyed a gamble. Together they were determined to uncover a royal tomb. However, WWI was on its way and their ambitions had to wait.

(Here parallels with Downton Abbey resume, as Lord Carnarvon/Grantham was deemed unfit for military service, and Lady Almina/Cora insisted on turning Highclere/Downton into a military hospital. Funny is also that Highclere was never a castle nor an abbey, but simply a country house with a very impressive façade.)

After the War, excavations resumed in the Valley of the Kings. Carter’s long-term plan was to clear the ground down to bedrock, in order to hopefully make new discoveries. He lived in his own ‘Castle Carter’, next to the road leading to the Valley. During the summer of 1922, the two men had a serious talk at Highclere. Carnarvon wanted to try their luck elsewhere. Carter pointed to an area near the tomb of Ramesses VI that might still prove to be fruitful. Carnarvon at last agreed to this final attempt. After only three days of digging, the small area was cleared down to bedrock, and a rock-cut step appeared. After clearing the stairway, a sealed doorway was revealed bearing the necropolis seal. Carter refilled the stairs with rubble and sent a telegram to Carnarvon, who was still back in England: “At last have made wonderful discovery in the Valley. A magnificent tomb with seals intact. Recovered same for your arrival. Congratulations. Carter”. The rest is history.

The unbroken seal of Tutankhamun’s tomb

The narrative of Lord Carnarvon, the young king Tutankhamun and that pivotal moment in history when the two men meet makes for great storytelling. Fagan recounts the tale with ease and understanding, making it a pleasure to read. Although much of the Tutankhamun part is fictional, and everyone is still debating the poor boy’s cause of death, the combination of settings in 18th dynasty Egypt and early 20th century England/Egypt makes it an interesting read. The tone is a bit, well, American, and the word ‘sepulcher’ is used slightly too often (what’s wrong with good old ‘tomb’?). Names are not always consistently written. The main narrative ends somewhat abruptly, and then a chapter is presented on the need for archaeological storytelling in general. Can you end a book with the words ‘Enough said’? The book’s greatest merits are that it focuses on Carnarvon instead of Carter, and tries to engage recent insights in the study of Tutankhamun’s remains.

If you are ever in Hampshire, and are fond of historical mansions, Egyptological history or BBC dramas, go visit Highclere Castle. Whenever the flag is waving, you will know the Lord and Lady are at home. The now quiet hallways, when not frequented by TV crews and tourists, still whisper of an era that has passed – of butlers, Lady’s maids, grand dinners and unrivalled archaeological discoveries.

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