A last-chance attempt to find archaeological gold paid off for Lord Carnarvon and his friend Howard Carter. We visit Highclere Castle to discover the mysteries of a forgotten tomb.
Highclere Castle has been home to the Carnarvon family since 1679. Built on an ancient site, the original house was recorded in the Domesday Book. The present-day castle was designed in 1842 by Sir Charles Barry, the architect who built the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
The castle’s history includes a fascinating connection with ancient Egypt, as the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, along with his archaeological colleague, Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. More recently, of course, Highclere was the location of the world-famous and much loved Downton Abbey series.
The path to discovery
Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter worked together for 16 years, planning their expeditions from the comfort of Highclere Castle. The exhibition in Highclere’s cellars explores the life and interests of Lord Carnarvon, his passion for cars, his talents as a pioneering photographer and his travels. Visitors can see what happened to the estate during the Great War from 1914 to 1918.
After 1918, Lord Carnarvon found his financial situation was becoming increasingly difficult. Both Lord Carnarvon and Carter had been ill and were becoming discouraged, with very little to show for long hours of effort and toil in Egypt. But they had been convinced there were yet more tombs to be found in the Valley of the Kings and had created a system of grids to cover the ground in an organised way. In June 1922, during a weekend at Highclere, Lord Carnarvon agreed that they would have one more excavation season in Egypt during the coming autumn and winter. There was one more grid area to cover. The decision had fateful consequences.
Later that year, Lord Carnarvon and Carter cleared the passageway down to the plastered sealed door which led into the antechamber of Tutankhamen’s tomb: “Together, the excavators stood in front looking at the seal impressions…Nervously, Carter made a small hole in the door, and reached up to hold a candle. The candle flickered as the air escaped.” The excavators widened the gaps in the plaster and Lady Evelyn, Lord Carnarvon’s daughter, Lord Carnarvon and Carter climbed in and everywhere “there was the glint of gold.”
Lord Carnarvon both discovered and purchased Egyptian artifacts. He created one of the most extraordinary Egyptian collections in the world, with exquisite works of art. Following his death in 1923, the collection was sold by his widow to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to pay death duties. Carter had cataloged it and commented that he had left a few items at Highclere. They were tucked away in cupboards until they were rediscovered by the family in 1987. The British Museum and Newbury Museum have lent back further antiquities, which had originally been loaned to them by the Carnarvon family.
Visitors to Highclere can observe the jewellery, the beautifully crafted jars and a coffin of a noble woman from 3,500 years ago, as well as photographs of Lord Carnarvon’s expeditions.
We are proud to sponsor the London leg of the Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh world tour, opening at the Saatchi Gallery in November.