One hundred years ago, it was the beginning of the “roaring twenties” with its connotations of glamorous beaded dresses and cocktails as so memorably portrayed by F Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. For the UK economy, however, it was actually the beginning of a period of depression and great hardship. Unfortunately, the politicians of the day remained wedded to a nostalgic aspiration to return to the pre WW1 value for the pound under the gold standard system. As a result, the value of the pound was increasingly overvalued, a key factor in contributing to deflation and lower economic growth.
In addition, taxation was steadily increasing and employees harder to find: household servants and traditional estate workers increasingly sought other types of work and the more liberal lifestyle which had emerged during the War, driven by rising levels of female labour in the arms factories.
Like many others, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon was facing escalating costs and a faltering income. Realising that he would have to focus on controlling expenditure, he knew that his excavation work in the Valley of the Kings would have to cease. Egypt had been part of his life since 1906 when he would leave Highclere every January, returning only in mid April. Thus, in the summer of 1922, he told his friend and colleague, Howard Carter, that he would commit to just one final season before abandoning Egypt. Determined to make the most of it, Carter set off earlier than previous years, to begin work in early November. The rest is history.
The first indication that their luck had changed was when rock cut steps were discovered. Carter immediately suspended work and waited for Lord Carnarvon to arrive which he did on November 22nd, one hundred years ago. His daughter Evelyn travelled with him, enjoying spending time with her adored father although she had had to part from her beau, Brograve Beauchamp, whom she would marry within the year.
Egypt was a world apart from Highclere in November. The warmth, clear air, the noise in the streets, the haunting songs of the muezzins calling for prayer and the focus on every day life, everything was so very different. It was good for his soul as well as Carnarvon’s physical health.
Like any discovery, the journey was made up of many small steps. At this point, Carnarvon and Carter were excited and on tenterhooks but had no idea if anything would come of it. Other excavation teams had found steps and even passageways only to face disappointment and empty spaces. Some of passageways already found in the Valley of the Kings were most elaborate. Perhaps they were tunneled in straight lines or constructed in various turns down through rock strata, often punctuated with deep wells for water run offs, which created dangerous drops over which later explorers clambered. Many of them would have beautiful painted walls, the very entrances marking the grandeur of their previous inhabitants, but would have been robbed in ages past.
Carter’s steps were particularly undistinguished: just rock and rubble and debris, no paintings but nevertheless unbelievably exciting. Lord Carnarvon stayed at Castle Carter, the house he had built for Carter, and made his way to the excavation each day on his donkey. Finally the steps and passageways were cleared and the little group stood nervously outside the doorway to the tomb – it was time. Howard Carter made a hole in the plastered door letting the gases from inside settle and peered in.
Dreams and hopes of treasure beyond imagination would have been in their minds but the reality must have surpassed even their wildest ambitions. The glint of gold was everywhere, the tomb a magnificent tumble of objects and treasure as far as the eye could see in the flickering candle light. All the pomp and paraphernalia of a pharaoh from the distant past. After the initial astonishment, the silence of Carnarvon, his daughter Evelyn, Carter, Arthur Callender as well as the Egyptian Reises must have been as profound as the silence of the tomb itself as they contemplated the work ahead of them. Wonderful things indeed.