A hundred years after Lord Carnarvon found Tutankhamun’s dazzling tomb, Eleanor Doughty talks to his great-grandson
It must be peculiar to have one of the last century’s most remarkable events associated with your family.
This is something George ‘Geordie’ Herbert, 8th Earl of Carnarvon, knows a lot about. In recent years, the Carnarvons have been best known as the custodians of Highclere Castle, the Hampshire stately home at which Julian Fellowes’s ITV drama Downton Abbey was filmed.
But a century ago, ‘Carnarvon’ meant ‘Egypt’, rather than Sunday-night television. That’s thanks to the 5th Earl’s involvement in the discovery of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of Kings, near Thebes.
This year is the centenary of that miraculous event. In November 1922, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and the archaeologist Howard Carter made a hole in a sealed door that would open the world’s eyes to a golden reality.
‘Can you see anything?’ Carnarvon asked.
‘Yes, wonderful things,’ said Carter.
Howard Carter is well known, but the 5th Earl of Carnarvon has passed into historical oblivion. This, says his great-grandson, from an armchair in the morning room at Highclere, ought to be put right. ‘People have written books about Carter, and he deserves the respect he gets, but Great-grandfather often misses out.’
Lord Carnarvon says, ‘He funded it, but he also started doing the job himself first. He wasn’t sitting here sending money to Egypt – he was actually in Egypt. It was a pretty brave thing to do. He took himself out to the middle of nowhere down the Nile, and just started digging.’
Since 1793, earls of Carnarvon have been called Henry or George with no exceptions, and this George Carnarvon was born in 1866. In 1895, he married Almina Wombwell, the daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, and the couple had two children – Henry, the 6th Earl, and a daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, who was with her father at the time the tomb was discovered. He succeeded to his father’s title aged 23, and was, writes his son in his 1976 memoir No Regrets, ‘a great tease’, ‘one of the best shots in England’ and a keen golfer.
Most importantly, he was a pioneer of motoring – and it would be this hobby that would lead to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. When, in 1903, he was involved in a serious motoring accident, he had to be ‘nursed back to life’, explains the current Lord Carnarvon. ‘His doctors advised that, instead of persisting with motor cars, he ought to enjoy a warm climate in the winter.’
And so off he went – to Egypt. After he’d been allocated an area for excavation, in the first season he was there in the early 1900s all he found was a mummified cat.
Lord Carnarvon chuckles. ‘Can you imagine having all those people working, with all the dust, stone, and rubble – it would have gone on for weeks – and all you have at the end of it is this creature?’
Nevertheless, Carnarvon persisted and, in 1907, he joined up with Howard Carter, who had been working in Egypt since 1892.
Discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb was ‘very poignant for Carter’, says Lord Carnarvon. ‘He started at Amarna [the city built by Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s father, in 1346 BC], and ends at Tutankhamun’s tomb, which was full of Amarna-style art. When he first looked into the antechamber, he could barely believe what he was seeing.’
It seems almost bizarre now that a county aristocrat could just happen upon one of the world’s most important archaeological finds. His great-grandson seems almost reluctant to take seriously his family’s legacy, though this could be modesty. When I ask him when he first learned about Tutankhamun, he says ‘at school’. I try again, asking whether as a child he was aware that it was his family’s discovery.
‘Yes, I was, but there were three sets of amazing things going on at once in Great-grandfather’s time – the cars, Egypt and de Havilland. He encouraged [the aviation pioneer] Geoffrey de Havilland’s work on his first flight, which took off in September 1910 from one of our fields.’
Is it surreal, that link with history? ‘It is strange, but there are tons of families who have got connections with things around the world,’ Lord Carnarvon demurs.
Still, he is ‘very proud’ of his great-grandfather’s work with Carter, and their tenacity. ‘It shows that if you persist at something long enough, it may not work but you can pull off something amazing.’
It’s sad, he says, that his great-grandfather ‘died in the hours of his triumph’. This came in April 1923, after Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito and the bite became infected.
Lord Carnarvon doesn’t make much of the so-called ‘mummy’s curse’, and the speculation that this is what killed Carnarvon. ‘It was bad luck, really – pneumonia is what is on his death certificate.’
Carnarvon’s death came as a blow to his son. He recalls in his memoir how he felt the next day: ‘I awoke early to the sudden realisation that my name was no longer [Lord] Porchester but Carnarvon… it dawned on me that my soldiering days must come to an end and with them a life of comparative freedom.’
Returning to Highclere with some items from Egypt, he shut them away.
The current Lord Carnarvon says, ‘You would think that the story of his father finding Tutankhamun’s tomb is the most romantic thing of all, but he never talked about it. It was somehow just an annoying subject. I find it very strange, but it was something that caused his father to die, and gave him all the grief of running Highclere.’
When, in 1987, he too died, his son, the Queen’s former racing manager and Lord Carnarvon’s father, was surprised to learn that Highclere was a repository of Egyptian artefacts.
The current Lord Carnarvon says, ‘When the inventories were being done after my grandfather’s death, the butler said, “M’Lord, there is of course the Egyptian stuff.” My father said, “What Egyptian stuff?” and they found all of these objects that my father just didn’t know about.’
Lord Carnarvon has no desire to discover any tombs. With his wife Fiona he has built a permanent Egypt exhibition at Highclere, and the couple visit the country when they can. The exploring bug hasn’t been completely lost. He is just a different kind of adventurer.
‘I’m interested in new technologies – I’m an investor in some fintech companies. Fiona and I try to use the latest ideas to tell people about Highclere. While it’s not digging up tombs, some of that gene has been inherited.’