Carter and Carnarvon

The Tutankhamun Exhibition ‘Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh’ has just opened at the Saatchi Gallery in London for what is said to be the last time that these treasures will leave Egypt. My husband’s great grandfather, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, and Howard Carter were friends and colleagues, sharing a love for ancient Egypt and a passion for its works of art and architecture. It was a civilisation which had entranced everyone from the Romans to Napoleon and the Victorian era had seen an explosion of gentleman archaeologists in Egypt from both Europe and America.

By 1921, Lord Carnarvon and Carter were well-respected and long standing winter residents in Luxor and Cairo but were in fact about to draw stumps and not renew their concession to excavate in the Valley of the Kings wondering, like so many of their colleagues of that time, whether this area was played out and there was nothing more to find. However, they decided to undertake one more season during the winter of 1922/1923.

Carter left England for Egypt before Lord Carnarvon in order to begin their work at the entrance to the tomb of Ramses VI ahead of the usual Valley of the Kings tourist season, given that this tomb was the major attraction of that time. His diaries are held in the Griffiths Institute in Oxford, about 40 minutes drive from Highclere, and are always worth reading but his notes on this day in 1922 are rather terse, simply stating: “First steps of tomb found.” At that point in time could anyone have imagined what would follow?

Cat coffin discovered by Lord Carnarvon in 1906


Lord Carnarvon had remained in Highclere, planning to join Carter after Christmas. It was a challenging time in Britain with high unemployment and falling wages. The colliery he owned in Derbyshire was on strike and the coalition led by Prime Minister David Lloyd George collapsed in October, leading to a general election in November.

Lord Carnarvon had first travelled to Egypt in 1901, later applying for a concession to excavate in the Valley of the Nobles, where in 1906 he found a mummified cat coffin. Later he obtained a concession to work in the Valley of the Queens where, in 1909, Professor Gaston Maspero, Director of Antiquities, introduced him to Howard Carter. Lord Carnarvon offered him employment and helped him build a house, “Castle Carter”, using bricks shipped out from Highclere. It was the beginning of a great partnership.

Howard Carter had worked in Egypt since 1891 at a number of excavations, firstly under Newberry and secondly with Flinders Petrie, learning from the most highly respected Egyptologists of the time. Whilst winters were spent in a Egypt, in summer Carter was a regular visitor to Highclere where Lord Carnarvon welcomed experts and friends such as Alan Gardiner, Wilhelm Spiegelberg, George Moeller, Dr Wallis Budge and Georges Legrain, some of whom contributed to Lord Carnarvon’s book “Five Years at Thebes: a record of work done 1907-1911”.

Eventually, just as the First World War began, Lord Carnarvon was granted the concession to work in the Valley of the Kings so only began to work properly there from 1919. They were looking for the tomb of an obscure pharaoh, Tutankhamun, who was listed as one of the 18th dynasty of pharaohs all of whom had chosen to be buried in the valley and hillside dominated by the peak of al-Qurn, known to the Ancient Egyptians as ta dehent.

Preface to Lord Carnarvon’s book ‘Five years at Thebes’ published in 1911

These days, Tutankhamun, whose youth and reign were surpassed by both his successors as well as his antecedents, has become one of the most recognised icons throughout the world today.  His tomb was found more or less intact because his name and history were over- written. Yet his name is now often spoken thanks to the unsurpassed richness of his tomb, and its discovery by two Englishmen on November 4th 1922. Such are the vagaries of history.