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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King Tut Exhibit at Denver Art Museum Captures Spirit of Ancient Egypt

I celebrated the new year by getting tickets to the King Tutankhamun exhibit during the last days of its stay at the Denver Art Museum. (It closes January 9, 2011).

This canopic coffinette is a miniature of the gold coffin King Tut was buried in. About 15 inches tall, this one held his stomach.

What a way to indulge the senses! As a longtime ancient Egypt lover, I was dazzled, but even more important, I felt the exhibit embodied the artistic spirit of the Nile region 3,300 years ago—and in 1922 when Egyptologist Howard Carter opened the boy pharaoh’s tomb.

Witnessing stunning jewelry, solid-gold sandals, and even gold finger and toe coverings, I got a sense of how much the ancient Egyptians cared about the afterlife of their pharaohs, who were considered human embodiments of the gods.

Each time a pharaoh came into power, he (or she, in a few cases) immediately began building a tomb and commissioning the best Egyptian artists to carve statues, create fine beadwork, paint exquisite frescos and generally make beautiful items that would accompany the pharaoh in the afterlife. The result is a treasure trove of incredibly fine art that has endured for millennia.

This gilded-wood leopard head was worn during a ritual in which a priest magically opens the mummy's eyes, nose, ears and mouth so the owner could use his senses in the afterlife. Photo: Matthew Prefontain

The irony is that Tut took the throne at age 9 and died when he was 19—so he was just a youth who didn’t have time to become politically powerful—or to amass much funerary art.

One can only imagine the riches buried with pharaohs with more longevity and historical clout—yet their tombs have been plundered over the millennia. In fact, it was probably Tutankhamun’s obscurity that protected his tomb.

Fine Art for All Time

Though the King Tut exhibit bears just one famous pharaoh’s name, on display were artifacts from other Egyptian royals, courtiers and even tomb builders.

This collar necklace is a fraction of the jewelry buried with the pharaohs.

I had expected the gold items to be breathtaking, but I was also captivated by the graceful stonework and carving, including statues of Queen Hatshepsut and a sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose’s cat.

(Cats were much revered in ancient Egypt as my own purring feline likes to remind me.)

Suspense in Finding Tut’s Tomb

Also effective was the exhibit’s emphasis on Howard Carter’s experience of discovering and excavating Tut’s tomb in 1922—as it was the archaeological find of the 20th century. Vintage photos of how the tomb appeared when it was opened gave me the feel of how excited Carter’s team was at having found a relatively untouched site. Seeing the glimmer of all that gold must have been incredible.

Archaeologist Howard Carter examines King Tut's mummy in 1922.

Now my desire to visit Egypt’s wonders has intensified—the thought of going to the source of all this wonderful art pulls me there.

If you go to the museum exhibit—and you must—be sure to rent the audio tour, narrated by actor Harrison Ford (because of his film character Indiana Jones).

A canopic stopper found in Tut's tomb.

And if you can’t catch the exhibit in Denver, it travels next to St. Paul, Minn.

Don’t let long lines deter you! After all, if Tut’s tomb went unscathed for 3,300 years, can’t we moderns endure a few spellbound crowds?

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor