Highclere Castle, seat of the earls of Carnarvon, was built by the architect of London's Houses of Parliament in the 1840's.
Considerably less ancient than many English stately homes, it is nevertheless unique. For Highclere, opened to the public for the first time this July, is at the center of one of the world's most fascinating stories: the search for the tomb of Tutankhamen, and the legend of the pharaoh's curse.
Until last year, Highclere also kept an Egyptian secret of its own. For 65 years after Tutankhamen's tomb was found, the castle concealed within two cupboards the final chapter of the search: a cache of important Egyptian antiquities, part of a magnificent collection of art excavated and purchased between 1907 and 1923 by the pharaoh's discoverers.
Highclere's links with ancient Egypt were forged by one man: George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, fifth earl of Carnarvon. Succeeding to the title in 1890 at the age of 23, the new Lord Carnarvon passed the following decade traveling the world in pursuit of adventure. In 1901, however, he suffered a serious automobile accident and never fully recovered. A weakened man weighing a mere 58 kilograms (128 pounds), vulnerable to the cold and damp of England, Carnarvon was obliged to seek a more congenial climate. In 1903, Egypt became his winter home, and here the two dominating passions of his life - discovery and collecting - found a common outlet in his newfound fascination with Egypt's pharaonic civilization.
Egypt's past spurred the fifth earl into taking a more active interest in archeology, a subject he'd long enjoyed. By 1906 he had persuaded Gaston Maspero, the French director-general of excavations and antiquities for the Egyptian government, to allow him to dig in the vast necropolis of ancient Thebes, on the bank of the Nile opposite modern Luxor. Maspero, the supreme diplomat, had no wish to offend this English lord, but neither was he prepared to sacrifice a site of archeological significance to the whim of an untrained amateur. He therefore compromised. Carnarvon was given permission to excavate on a much turned-over area of Shaykh 'Abd al-Qurna, where he could do minimal damage and where a shortage of finds would, Maspero hoped, deter him from further work.
So far as finds were concerned, Maspero's intuition proved correct: Six weeks of intensive clearance yielded little more than a mummified cat. Flushed with pride at his discovery, however, Carnarvon found his enthusiasm heightened rather than dampened. But he had learned an important lesson. Keenly aware of his limitations as an archeologist, he determined to secure a more promising concession by presenting a less amateur face to the authorities: he employed a professional Egyptologist to supervise his work.
Howard Carter, a talented if somewhat difficult Englishman, had worked with the Egyptian antiquities service for some years; his first excavating experience in Egypt had been with Flinders Petrie, who established scientific guidelines for archeology and invented sequence-dating. Carter was with Petrie at Tell al-Amarna, where the 14th-century-BC city of Pharaoh Akhenaten and other wonders were brought to light. By 1899, Carter had been appointed inspector-general of monuments of Upper Egypt and, in 1903, of Lower Egypt, but he resigned from the antiquities service after quarreling with a party of French tourists. By 1907 he was scraping a meager living as a watercolor artist. Carnarvon's need proved to be Carter's salvation.
With Carter's experienced eye to guide him, Carnarvon applied for and secured a concession to excavate in the private cemeteries of Dra Abu'l Naga, Asasif and al-Dair al-Bahri (See Aramco World, July-August 1978). The seasons from 1907 to 1911 were extraordinarily productive. The results were published in 1912 as Five Years' Explorations at Thebes, a book that established Carnarvon's reputation as a serious and successful excavator.
In 1912 and 1913, while continuing work at Thebes, Carnarvon ventured farther afield to make trial soundings at the Delta sites of Sakha (ancient Xois) and Tell al-Balamun. The results of this Delta foray were not to his taste, however, and Carnarvon decided to focus his efforts once again on Thebes.
Carter and Carnarvon's keenest interest was in royal burials of Egypt's 18th to 20th Dynasties. Carter had helped excavate several royal tombs of the New Kingdom (1540-1075 BC) through his association with the antiquities service and with the American archeologist Theodore Davis. Davis's discoveries included the 18th-Dynasty tombs of Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis IV in the Valley of the Kings. When Davis died in 1914, Carnarvon eagerly took up his concession.
The tomb he chose to explore first was that of Amenophis III, who had ruled from 1390 to 1353 BC. It is situated in an annex to the Valley of the Kings and has stood open since at least 1799, when its existence was noted by the scholars of Napoleon's expedition. In 1915 the tomb was still encumbered with debris which, Carter thought, might well conceal objects of artistic interest. He was not to be disappointed. Carter's work at the entrance uncovered four of an original five groups of items placed at the time the tomb was founded. By the inscriptions associated with these foundation deposits, it was clear that work on the sepulcher had begun not under Amenophis III himself but during the reign, from 1400 to 1390 BC, of his father, Tuthmosis IV. Among the superb, though broken, objects recovered from the well and well-chamber of the tomb were inscribed wooden panels; faience vessels; beads, sequins and amulets; and wood and stone shabti figures - funerary servants for the afterlife.
Carnarvon's enthusiasm for clearing royal tombs was truly fired, and in 1917 the excavator turned to the Valley of the Kings proper. For five years, with brief interruptions, he and Carter systematically cleared to bedrock in search of a single tomb: that of Tutankhamen, who ruled Egypt between 1332 and 1323 BC. Evidence of the tomb's existence had been turned up by Theodore Davis a decade before, but finds of any kind were few, apart from ostraca: flakes of limestone on which ancient quarrying teams had jotted their lists and accounts, and which interested Carnarvon hardly at all. The monotony was broken only rarely, most notably in February, 1920, by the discovery of 13 calcite jars at the entrance to the tomb of King Merenptah; Almina, Lady Carnarvon, insisted on digging these out of the ground herself.
Despite the importance of this material, of which the Egyptians conceded a generous share, Carnarvon had come to expect more. By 1922 his interest was flagging, and he began to suspect that Davis had been correct in believing the Valley to be exhausted. Only with difficulty did Carter manage to persuade Carnarvon to let him search one last season.
And of course, Carter's instincts proved correct. On November 4, 1922, the morning of the third day of the renewed search, Carter's men uncovered a step cut into the rock of the valley floor. This step was the first in a staircase that led down to a plastered doorway bearing the imprint of large oval seals. Beyond lay a rubble-filled corridor and a second sealed doorway.
It was the tomb of Tutankhamen - an almost intact royal burial dating from one of the richest periods in Egyptian history. The beam of Carter's torch reflected gold in every direction: The tomb was crammed to the ceiling with funerary equipment, preserved whole and in almost pristine condition. Carnarvon and Carter even recovered the foodstuffs intended to sustain the dead king in the afterlife: emmer wheat, coriander, fenugreek, black cummin, sesame, almonds, dates, juniper berries, grapes, mimusops, jujubes and other provisions, untouched since the day they had been packed into their storage boxes and baskets in the spring of 1322 BC. A selection of these foodstuffs was recently brought to light at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London, where they had lain in boxes for more than 60 years. Like the Tutankhamen textiles in the Victoria and Albert Museum, these were samples brought back to England for study in preparation for the definitive publication of the tomb.
Carter and Carnarvon had made one of the most magnificent discoveries in the history of archeology. Yet, sadly, it was a find with which the fifth earl was to have all too fleeting an acquaintance. Lord Carnarvon aggravated a mosquito bite while shaving; the bite became infected, and he developed first erysipelas, then blood poisoning and finally pneumonia. He died on April 5, 1923, amid rumors of a curse (See Aramco World, November-December 1981), never having seen the face of the Egyptian king with whom his name will always be associated.
After the death of the fifth earl, his son, estranged since childhood from his strict and distant father, severed the family's links with Egypt and even banned from Highclere any talk of his father's passion. Servants speculated that the sixth earl was simply afraid of the curse. His son, the present Lord Carnarvon, suspects that he more likely resented the fact that, after long legal battles, the Egyptian government denied the Carnarvon estate rights to any part of the Tutankhamen finds. At any rate, the fifth earl's own superb collection of Egyptian art at Highclere was listed and packed by Carter for shipment to the Bank of England in November, 1924, pending its eventual sale to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
But, as events now reveal, the collection which Carter shipped was not complete.
When the sixth earl became gravely ill in the summer of 1987, the present Lord Carnarvon, known as Lord Porchester until his father's death, brought in a team from Sotheby's to produce a new inventory of the valuables that fill every room at Highclere. He also" called upon his father's retired butler, Robert Taylor, to help.
"That appears to be everything," Porchester said to Taylor as they came to the end of the long task in July, 1987.
"Yes, my lord," Taylor replied, "except for the Egyptian stuff."
The "Egyptian stuff" turned out to be an extraordinary collection of antiquities that fills the gaps in the complex story of Howard Carter, Tutankhamen and the fifth earl.
Taylor led Porchester to the doors between Highclere's drawing room and smoking room. The doors were separated by the one-meter (three-foot) thickness of the wall, into which were set two cupboards as deep as a man's arm. Crammed into the cupboards were the finds: metal objects and beads that had been carefully packed in old cigarette tins and boxes, labeled in Carter's handwriting; larger pieces were individually wrapped in cotton and tissue paper.
Taylor had first come across the material 15 years earlier. In 1972, when the touring Tutankhamen exhibition opened at the British Museum in London, the story of the famous find was being revived everywhere (See Aramco World, September-October 1972). The sixth earl set his supposed resentment aside, reacquainted himself with his father's achievements, and enjoyed a brief stint in the limelight. In that same year, while making arrangements for a party at Highclere, Taylor discovered the cupboards and their contents, but didn't give them another thought until the 1987 inventory. Highclere, after all, was full of treasures of many kinds.
But the material astounded Porchester. So far as he and the rest of his family had known, no Egyptian antiquities had been left at Highclere. But once he saw the cupboards and their contents, he had the house painstakingly searched over the ensuing months for more pieces – and more pieces turned up. From the muniment room came one of the 13 large alabaster jars unearthed by Lady Carnarvon in 1920. Carnarvon's old darkroom turned out to be full of treasures - on the window-sill, a bronze model axehead; under the radiator, a cartouche of Tuthmosis IV And the housekeeper's room yielded a stone fragment with hieroglyphs.
Carter himself had provided a brief hint, long ago, that Highclere still held Egyptian artifacts: When he sent Carnarvon's collection to the Bank of England and made a list of the objects it comprised, at the bottom of the list he'd scribbled, "A few unimportant antiquities not belonging to the above series I left at Highclere." Like the objects, the list, with its telling note, had lain forgotten at the castle for 65 years.
Scholars interested in the early Carnarvon-Carter seasons had long puzzled over the fate of the finds. The material from Carter's excavations at Thebes and in the Delta had been legally divided between Carnarvon and the Cairo Museum, but only a portion of Carnarvon's share could be accounted for in the museums that had benefited from the dispersal of his collection. With the discovery of the Highcelre cache, the mystery has been solved.
Why did Carter hold this material back? Presumably he had looked upon the bulk of the objects as study material which he intended to publish at some later date, or else he believed they might provide useful parallels when the definitive report on the tomb of Tutankhamen came to be written. Following the death of the fifth earl however, and with his time taken up with the clearance of Tutankhamen's tomb and the enormous publicity it received, Carter visited Highclere less frequently - his last entry in the guest book is dated April, 1933. By the time of Carter's death on March 2, 1939, he may well have forgotten that the objects existed.
The British Museum, contacted by Porchester the day Taylor revealed the cupboards packed with antiquities, was the first to identify the Highclere material and to recognize its archeological significance. Detailed study will take some time, but when the objects have been fully sorted, we may hope for a clearer picture of the nature, results and significance of the excavations carried out by the fifth earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter in the years leading up to the discovery of the Tutankhamen tomb. In the meantime, some long-standing queries have been resolved, and the science of Egyptology has recovered several items of immense intrinsic appeal - thanks largely to the sharp eye and unfailing memory of a retired English butler.
Nicholas Reeues, a curator in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities of the British Museum, is presently classifying the collection of Egyptian artifacts at on College, Windsor.