Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series.
We were concluding international media day at Highclere Castle, the 1,000-acre estate an hour north of London, where megahit PBS TV series “Downton Abbey” was filmed. It is estimated that 282 million people worldwide watched the six-year series.
The Milan reporter asked Alex, press rep for Highclere owners Lady Carnarvon and her husband the Earl, if we could see the Egyptian collection from King Tutankhamun’s tomb at Highclere.
“I’ll try to find a guide,” he said.
Shortly, Lord George Carnarvon himself appeared.
“I’d love to give you all a tour,” he said.
We were thrilled at the fortuity of viewing the antiquities items through his perspective as the great grandson of the man who funded the unearthing of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in November 1922.
Lord George Herbert, the eighth Earl, has the same name as the fifth Earl who, with his daughter Evelyn and archaeologist Howard Carter, unearthed the fabled tomb of “gold and bejeweled splendor;” one of the most magnificent archaeological discoveries in world history.
I was particularly interested because in 1970 in Egypt, I walked into tomb KV62 when visitation was virtually unrestricted.
But what I didn’t know then, or until Highclere, is that a woman was present at the discovery: Evelyn, the fifth Earl’s daughter.
Although Evelyn’s participation seems to have been largely omitted from general historical references, sepia-toned period photos show Evelyn in formal dress posing with archaeologist Howard Carter at the hot dusty Sahara desert site. And, according to the Highclere account, three people, not two, actually stepped inside the painted walls after more than 3,000 years. Evelyn was beside Carter and Carnarvon at the dramatic moment of discovery.
For our group, the Eighth Earl opened a “secret” door to the underground museum in the Highclere cellars. We crept along a short tunnel designed to replicate the ambience of Tut’s actual tomb, which Carter and Carnarvon spent 17 years hunting for and found just as they were about to give up the frustrating quest.
A thoughtful, low-key man with unforgettable eyes the blended green and pale blue color of the Caribbean Sea, he springs from shyness to animation at an opportunity to share his great grandfather’s legacy. The gallery items are a mixture of genuine and copies, beautifully displayed in cramped quarters like the real tomb. “Kids love that,” Lord Carnarvon said.
When the Fifth Earl died in 1923, his widow sold some Tut items to pay Britain’s infamous death taxes. But later, the British and Newbury museums lent back some items for display at Highclere. A surprise came in 1987 when the long time Highclere butler casually mentioned to the family that there were some additional Tut items concealed in a clever faux part of a doorway. They are part of the display, which includes jewelry, crafted jars and a noble woman’s coffin.
Lord Carnarvon, known as Georgie, explained that the mummy displayed is a replica, but so convincing that visitors jokingly posit that the Highclere mummy is real and the copy is elsewhere.
A Discovery Gallery explores the lifelong interests of the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon: “his passion for cars, his talents as a photographer and his travels and leisure in Edwardian England.”
As we were leaving, Georgie pointed toward a replica of Tut’s spectacular jeweled “death mask.”
“It is the oddest thing,” Georgie said. “My great grandfather died in April 1923 after a mosquito bite he got on his neck in March became infected from his shaving razor. On the boy Pharaoh’s mask, if you look closely, there is a small opening in the mask almost in the same place on the neck where my grandfather was bitten.”
Highclere Castle is periodically closed as it is now. It is scheduled to open for the “Summer Season” starting Sunday through Sept. 2. Online, tickets are sold out for about two years. However, keep checking the website for openings. You can try walk-ups, which sometimes result in entry. There are organized bus tours from London. But the most fun and most flexible is a train or bus from Paddington station to the village of Newbury.