Downton Abbey and Tutankhamun

Lord and Lady Carnarvon with Howard Carter in Egypt

The internationally famous television series Downton Abbey was filmed at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, ancestral home of the Earls of Carnarvon. The present house was designed in 1842 by Sir Charles Barry, who also worked on the Houses of Parliament. The first written records of the estate date back to 749 AD when an Anglo-Saxon King granted the estate to the Bishops of Winchester. But Highclere also has links to a much earlier date – the 14th century BC – and the reign of the famous Egyptian ‘boy pharaoh’ Tutankhamun.

Highclere Castle, TV and film location for Downton Abbey

The Valley of the Kings

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, born in 1866, became an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist and visited Egypt several times with his wife. In 1907 he agreed to fund excavations in Deir el-Bahri, near Luxor, and employed the archaeologist Howard Carter to undertake the work. In 1914 Lord Carnarvon received the concession to dig in the Valley of the Kings, with Carter again leading the work. Many tombs had been found by others in the valley but most had been empty, plundered by grave robbers as far back as ancient times.

Excavations began in 1914 but were interrupted by the First World War and resumed in late 1917. By 1922 Carter had found little of significance and Lord Carnarvon decided to withdraw his financial support. Carter was also frustrated and disappointed at the lack of progress but remained convinced that there must be at least one complete and undisturbed tomb somewhere in the Valley of the Kings.  He persuaded Carnarvon to fund one more season.

Tutankhamun’s tomb

In 1922 Carter began digging under the remains of a row of ancient workmen’s huts. By chance, a waterboy stumbled over a stone under the sand and reported the incident to Carter. Digging revealed a set of steps leading downwards to a sealed doorway. This was a very promising development. As Lord Carnarvon had returned to England, the excavations were filled in again and on 4 November 1922 Carter sent Carnarvon a telegram saying: “At last we have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations”.

Lord and Lady Carnarvon with Howard Carter in Egypt

Carnarvon returned to Egypt with his wife and on 29 November 1922 he and Carter entered the tomb. Carter crawled through a short tunnel filled with debris, which indicated that the tomb had been opened and possibly plundered by grave-robbers. The tunnel ended in another sealed door, in which Carter made a small hole. He held a candle through the hole to allow any foul gases to escape and then looked inside. “Can you see anything?” asked Carnarvon and Carter replied, “Yes, wonderful things.”

Golden thrones, a chariot and other objects in the anteroom of the tomb, disturbed by grave-robbers

The treasures of Tutankhamun

The discovery of the tomb is one of the most important in the history of archaeology. More than 5,000 objects were found including statues, gold jewellery, chariots, model boats, wall paintings and the magnificent sarcophagus containing Tutankhamun’s mummy with its superb golden funerary mask.

The famous golden funerary mask of Tutankhamun, now in the Cairo Museum

Today the tomb is open to the public and most of the objects found there, including the king’s sarcophagus and the famous golden mask, can be seen in the Cairo Museum and in occasional “world tours”. But not all …

During interior restoration work at Highclere Castle at the end of the 20th century, workmen discovered hidden cupboards in a passageway. The cupboards contained an enormous collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts, including many from Tutankhamun’s tomb, which had been brought home by Lord Carnarvon. These are now on display in an Egyptian Exhibition housed in six rooms in the cellars of the house. The exhibition tells the story of the boy pharaoh and the discovery of his tomb by Howard Carter and the 5th Earl.

Items from Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Egyptian Exhibition at Highclere Castle

The mummy’s curse

And what of Lord Carnarvon himself? On 19 March 1923 he was bitten by a mosquito and the bite became infected when he then cut himself shaving. Blood poisoning led to pneumonia and he died on 5 April in the Continental-Savoy Hotel in Cairo. Lady Carnarvon had his remains brought back to England and his tomb can be found, appropriately, on top of Beacon Hill, an ancient hill fort which overlooks Highclere Castle.

Newspapers in the 1920’s were just as sensationalist as they are today and had soon invented the “Mummy’s Curse” which would supposedly strike down anyone who had entered Tutankhamun’s tomb. This didn’t seem to bother Howard Carter, who lived until 1939.

Today, Highclere Castle contains more than 250 rooms and visitors can see the main state rooms and some bedrooms, as well as the Egyptian Exhibition in the cellars and old staff quarters. The house is set in 1,000 acres of gardens and parkland, designed by the famous 18th century landscape gardener “Capability” Brown. Of additional archaeological interest are the Iron Age fort and a number of tumuli, ancient trackways and field systems. A visit is highly recommended!


Wikipedia pages on Tutankhamun, Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter

Text       Alun Harvey


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