King Tut Meets “Downton Abbey” at England’s Highclere Castle

What do King Tut and Downton Abbey have in common? England’s Highclere Castle, the film site for the costume-drama TV series that airs on PBS and the Downton Abbey film.

Highclere Castle is the ancestral home of the Carnarvon family, and during the early 20th century, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon became fascinated by ancient Egypt when he traveled to its warm, dry climate for health reasons. Soon the Earl began to fund archaeological digs in Egypt—including Howard Carter’s excavations, which eventually resulted in the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

In my last post about my visit to Highclere Castle, I didn’t say much about the Egyptian exhibit, so I thought I’d share some impressions.

First, this exhibit is modest compared to the one not far away at London’s British Museum, where you can see the Rosetta Stone. That said, at Highclere Castle, I felt a more emotional connection to the Egyptian artifacts than ever before—even when the King Tut exhibit came to Denver two years ago and I saw actual artifacts from the pharaoh’s tomb.

I believe there’s a certain intimacy—or maybe it’s history—you sense when you’re in a place with an actual physical connection to something or someone. Knowing I was standing in the same house where Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter pored over maps of the Valley of the Kings—the greatest Egyptology discovery in history—gave me goose-bumps.

The Carnarvons: Avid Amateur Egyptologists

Lady Almina and Lord Carnarvon in England, 1923. Archival photo courtesy Highclere Castle

Highclere’s Egyptian exhibition is very personal for the Carnarvon family. The Fifth Earl’s family—especially his wife, Lady Almina, and their daughter, Evelyn—often accompanied him to Egypt and sometimes helped with excavations.

After reading Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, written by the current Countess Carnarvon about her family’s ancestors, I felt a kinship with Almina. So it was delightful to see exhibited a beautiful calcite jar (dating to the reign of pharaoh Ramses II) that Almina helped dig from the ground.

(Or so the story goes. Wearing a corset and heavy, long skirts during the early 1900s, Almina’s contribution might have amounted to brushing off the last of the sand from the calcite jar after someone else did the painstaking hands-and-knees job of unearthing it. But I rather like the idea of Almina getting her hands dirty to excavate a jar that might have been held by an Egyptian pharaoh/god 3,200 years ago.)

The Ramses II calcite jar that Almina reportedly helped excavate. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

Another exhibition highlight was a 3,500-year-old painted coffin of a 35-year-old noblewoman named Irtyru, that Carter and Carnarvon excavated from Deir el-Bahri in 1908. The paint on this wooden coffin was so brightly colored that it almost looked fresh. The feet on her coffin showed a lovely pedicure—rendered in gold paint.

The exhibition also displayed recreations of Tutankhamun artifacts, including a convincing reproduction of Tut’s mummy, wrapped in hieroglyphic-covered cloth with jewelry and amulets tucked into the folds. His mummy wears gold sandals, and each of his toes were encased in gold toe covers so that the boy-king could walk in the afterlife. (Tut died at about age 19; he was on the throne for nine years from roughly 1333 BC to 1323 BC.)

What stays with me about seeing these artifacts is their artistry, rendered with exquisite skill. Although we think of the ancient Egyptians as being obsessed with death, I started wondering if they weren’t really more interested with the afterlife. Pharaohs were buried with models of ships that would bear the departed king or queen on their journey across the sky to the afterlife.

These shabti figurines were discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter, who was funded by Lord Carnarvon. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

Figurines of workers were included in tombs; they accompanied the pharaoh into the afterlife so they could perform the manual labor needed to live for eternity in the luxury to which the royalty had become accustomed. (Remember, the pharaoh was not just a ruler but a god.)

At Highclere Castle, I noticed that these figurines had been created with sensitive, expressive faces. The artists didn’t fill the tombs with work they cranked out for the masses; they did their best work—even though Tutankhamun died suddenly and unexpectedly, probably of an infection from a fractured leg. Tut had a genetic bone disorder and probably other genetic defects, because Egyptian royalty were famous for marrying close relatives, often siblings. (Tut himself married his half-sister.)

Seeing history through the lens of the Carnarvon family was exciting. Lady Evelyn was the first woman to step into King Tut’s tomb, as she accompanied her father to Egypt in November of 1922 when Howard Carter wired about his find. (Due to illness, Lady Almina was unable to travel for the tomb’s opening.)

The Pharaoh’s Curse

After Carter and Carnarvon opened Tut’s tomb, the event became a media circus with enough drama that it would have rivaled the Lady Mary/Mr. Pamuk sex scandal on Downton Abbey.

At the entrance of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 (from left to right): Lady Evelyn Carnarvon; her father, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon; archaeologist Howard Carter; Carter’s assistant.

The discovery of the tomb was followed by many squabbles among the English archaeologists, accusations (unproven) that Carter and Carnarvon stole artifacts from the tomb, rumors that Lady Evelyn was enamored with Howard Carter, and bitter fighting between the Egyptian government and Carnarvon and Carter about who owned the tomb’s treasures.

And then there was death of Lord Carnarvon, less than five months after the Tut discovery, which fueled the legend of the Curse of the Pharaoh. In reality, Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito on his cheek and nicked the bite while shaving. The wound got infected, and Carnarvon became seriously ill from blood poisoning. Weakened, he contracted pneumonia and died in Egypt in April of 1923 at age 57.

Supposedly, the lights went out in Cairo when Carnarvon died. And there’s a story that at the same moment in England, the Earl’s pet terrier howled and dropped dead. Thus the hysteria over Mummy’s curses mounted.

Wonderful Things to See

This all goes to prove that the true stories of people can be more compelling than fiction—and in the case of Highclere Castle, they added layers of color to my visit there.

Highclere Castle in 2012: 90 years after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. © Laurel Kallenbach

Would I have enjoyed a tour of the historic house if I didn’t care about Egyptology or had never seen  Downtown Abbey? I’m sure the beauty of the Saloon, Library and Music Room would have impressed me, but aside from that and the magnificent exterior of the building, would Highclere Castle glow in my memory? Because I had read the Lady Almina book, am an Egyptology buff, and became passionate about the PBS series, the halls of Highclere were alive and filled with wonder.

Our glimpse into the treasures of this English estate house brought to mind the famous quotes from Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon when they first opened King Tut’s tomb. As Carter chiseled a hole in the sealed entrance and peered in, Carnarvon asked, “Can you see anything?” Carter replied with the famous words: “Yes, wonderful things.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer/editor

Originally posted April 2013

Updated September 2019

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Antiquities Under Attack: After the Tunis Museum Shooting

When I heard about the March 18, 2015, terror attacks on tourists at Tunisia’s National Bardo Museum, I was saddened and horrified that people died while appreciating the history and magnificent art of the ancient world. Then it sank in: I visited that museum on my first-ever trip abroad.

This lion mosaic is one of the treasures at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Photo courtesy Bardo Museum

This lion mosaic is one of the treasures at the Bardo Museum in Tunis.    Photo courtesy Bardo Museum

Back in my teens, my high school Spanish club journeyed to Spain and Italy—with a stop in Tunisia to tour the ancient ruins of Carthage and wander through Tunis’ vibrant and colorful Arab souk (market), which made quite an impression. However, the highlight of my first foray into North Africa was a visit to the Bardo Museum where the mosaics and statues from the ancient world were protected and displayed.

At 16, I’d never seen ancient art in anything but a book; in person, it was dazzling. I could hardly believe I was seeing the genius of talented artists thousands of years before. In fact, the Roman-era mosaics and sculptures I gazed at—and that survived the shootings—are among the best-preserved works of their kind in the world.

Thirty years ago, the Bardo Museum was not as sleek and sophisticated as it looked in the post-shooting photos. Indeed, the museum was remodeled and redesigned in 2012 to be the cornerstone of Tunisian heritage that would help attract millions of tourists. Although damage to the artwork was minimal, the loss of human life was tragic. And the aftershocks of the attacks will be felt for years.

Tourism is an important part of Tunisia’s economy; on a recent NPR report I heard that people in the streets begged international journalists to tell people to please come visit their country. Even though the Bardo Museum has reopened—and presumably has heavy security—attendance is sure to suffer for several years.

A floor mosaic of Poseidon, Roman god of the sea, on his chariot. It dates to the 2nd century CE. Photo courtesy of the Bardo Museum

A floor mosaic of Poseidon, Roman god of the sea, on his chariot. It dates to the 2nd century CE. Photo courtesy of the Bardo Museum

Annihilation of Cultural Treasures

In the past 15 years, wars and terrorism have taken an appalling toll on ancient art in the Middle East, including the region often called the “cradle of civilization.” in 2001, the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan, sixth-century figures carved into the sandstone cliffs in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley. Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the National Museum was shelled and plundered, resulting in many antiquities destroyed or stolen. In 2014 and early 2015, Islamic State terrorists have been bulldozing and sledgehammering works of art across Iraq, annihilating the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria.

The loss of human life in terrorist attacks is horrible. And, for me, a museum lover and Egyptology fanatic, the loss of antiquities is inconsolable. Watching videos of thousands-year-old Assyrian statues being toppled off pedestals and broken is as heart-breaking to me as seeing footage of a person being killed. During WWII, the Monuments Men, a special unit of art experts from the Allied Forces, risked their lives to rescue looted artwork of Europe from the Nazis. I’m hoping UNESCO, which has spoken out against the destruction of antiquities in the Islamic world,  can create some kind of similar unit or special forces to help protect ancient treasures against future attacks. Their decimation is rightfully being called “war crimes” and “cultural cleansing.”

A sculpture of a winged bull with a human head guards the palace gates at the ancient city of Nimrud (in northern Iraq), which was destroyed by Islamic State terrorists.

A sculpture of a winged bull with a human head guards the palace gates at the ancient city of Nimrud (in northern Iraq), which was attacked in March of 2015  by Islamic State terrorists. Photo courtesy UNESCO.

What can we do? After the September 11 attacks on New York and the Boston Marathon bombing, these cities asked visitors to return—to show solidarity and support through tourism. New Yorkers and Bostonians exhibited great pride and resilience in the wake of those disasters. I hope, too, that the people of Tunisia, of Iraq, of Syria, and of Afghanistan feel great pride in their cultural heritage.

All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Egypt to see the antiquities I’ve adored since I was a kid—but honestly, concerns about political upheaval in the country have prevented me from going. Yet, I believe that when travel lovers experience the wonders of the world—past and present—they reinforce the pride of the descendants of those cultures.

Yes, travel is an act of bravery; it’s also an act of peace and solidarity with the world. It’s time for me to be brave and start planning a trip to Egypt—and back to Tunis. There are treasures there I want to see and welcoming people I want to meet.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. Would you consider traveling in north Africa or the Middle East? Why or why not?

For information on traveling in Tunis, visit Come to Tunisia.

An early Christian baptismal font on display at the Bardo Museum.

An early Christian baptismal font on display at the Bardo Museum.