The Life of Lord Carnarvon

Lord Carnarvon

by Jimmy Dunn

A painting of Lord Carnarvon by William Carter, Howard's brother

Lord Carnarvon, prior to his death, was more than a silent financial partner in the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Were it not for him, Howard Carter would not only have lacked the financing and the concession to dig in the Valley of the Kings, he would have also lacked the political clout for what was, in the early 1900s a very publicly visible pursuit. The English Earl of Carnarvon apparently did not grow up with a fascination for Egyptology. Rather he stumbled into it much like many others of his day.

George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was born in his family home, Highclere Castle, near Newbury England on June 26th 1866. He succeeded to the Carnarvon title in 1890 and married Almina Victoria Maria Alexandra Wombell.

Lord Carnarvon's early interests seem to have been race horses and the infant sport of motoring. Though he considered himself a careful "automobilist", he was certainly given to speeding, a habit that brought him before various magistrates on more than one occasion. One report in "The Autocar" described how, "like a flash", he had whizzed past pedestrians and cyclists at terrifying speeds of up to 20 miles an hour. Then, in 1901 while in Germany, he suffered an automobile accident that would change his life. While saved from death, he was left appallingly weak, a condition that would make him increasingly vulnerable to the cold and damp of the English climate. Thus, he began to winter abroad, visiting Egypt for the first time in 1903.

The Old Winter Palace in Luxor, still going strong today

Cairo seemed perfectly suited to his delicate health, but he also found it to be rather dull. He therefore took up Egyptology as a hobby to help him pass away the winter days, little realizing at the time how much it would come to dominate his life, and for that matter, his future fame. He soon moved into the Winter Palace in Luxor from where he might oversee the excavations of a small concession he had been given, based on a request of Lord Cromer, in the area of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, an unpromising site assigned to him in an attempt to cool his amateur archaeological ambitions.

Howard Carter, an unidentified woman stand next to Maspero and his wife. The photograph was taken by Lord Carnarvon himself, but shows the rather fancy dress of visitors to the excavations.

Thus, in this time prior to all of our modern entertainment, he would seat himself in his large, screened cage, protected from the flies and the dust, to watch his men work, sometimes joined by his wife "dressed for a garden party rather than the desert, with charming patent-leather, high-heeled shoes and a good deal of jewelry flashing in the sunlight". This effort resulted in little reward after six weeks of frantic digging, save for a mummified cat, still contained in its cat-shaped wooden coffin.

This did not much squash Lord Carnarvon's enthusiasm for Egyptology, though this initial experience at excavation did convince him that more expertise was needed. Consulting Lord Cromer, who in turn made inquiries of Maspero, it was suggested that he meet a young Howard Carter, who apparently, hit it off with Lord Carnarvon very nicely. Lord Carnarvon needed a scholar, and Howard Carter needed a financier for his work.

Carnarvon extended his Theban concession and even applied for permission to work at Aswan. "I thought I would have two strings as I am not sure I will get my wife to stay another whole 2 months at Luxor", he wrote, and later he added, "If I get what I want I shall bring out a learned man as I have not time to learn up all the requisite data".

Lord Carnarvon relaxes

However, that first season with Howard Carter was confined to the West Bank of Luxor (ancient Thebes). Though a small excavation centered the work at "Gurneh" was immensely successful. Carter managed to turn up not only the decorated tomb of Tetiky, an early 18th Dynasty mayor of Thebes, but another tomb containing two wooden tablets. Of these, the more important one was inscribed on one face with the precepts of Ptahhotep, a series of instructions for moral guidance. The other side was inscribed with text recording the initial steps in the expulsion of the Hyksos by the 17th Dynasty King Kamose.

The following few years were equally successful. Carter, under Lord Carnarvon's sponsorship, unearthed a whole series of important private tombs dating from the end of the Middle Kingdom to the beginning of the New Kingdom, as well as two "lost" temples of Queen Hatshepsut and Ramesses IV. Unfortunately, the success of this work provided them with the opportunity to expand the concessions into the Delta, where their luck would fail them. While still excavating at Luxor, Lord Carnarvon and his entourage including about fifty workers, moved on to Sakha (ancient Xois), but work there had to be abandoned after no more than a month "on account of the number of cobras and cerastes (horned vipers) that infested the whole area".

The following year, the team turned their attention to another Delta site at Tell el-Balamun. There, they had some success, discovering a hoard of Graeco-Roman silver jewelry, but otherwise the work was uninspiring.

Nevertheless, the association between Carnarvon and Carter continued. They had, from the very outset, had the aim of ultimately working in the New Kingdom royal necropolis known as the Valley of the Kings. Regretfully, that was a concession then owned by Theodore Davis, who no one seemed to much like. Still, they needed additional recognition to be considered for that contract, which came in the form of the discovery of the possible tomb of Amenhotep I. This was a tomb that the locals of Luxor had been plundering secretly for some time, and which had been initially robbed during antiquity. Nevertheless, this joint tomb, prepared for the pharaoh and his mother, Ahmose-Nofretiri, still contained a number of grave goods. Carter's clearance of the tomb brought to light a mass of inscribed vessel fragments, a large heart-scarab of blue frit and a collection of fragments from the Third Intermediate Period burials which had been introduced to the tomb at a later date. This was Carnarvon's first royal tomb, and it would fortify his interest in Egyptian archaeology.

Some months before his death on February 23rd, 1915, Theodore Davis abandoned his Valley of the King's concession, believing it to be exhausted, which gave Carter and Carnarvon the chance for which they had been longing. They abandoned their plans for work at Hawara and the pyramid complex of Amenemhet III and by February 8th, 1915, Carter was at work on the tomb of Amenhotep III in the Valley of the Kings. This choice was Carnarvon, influenced by the acquisition by Carter on the Luxor antiquities market in 1912 of three fine bracelet plaques of carnelian which appeared to have once adorned the king's mummy. Carnarvon supposed that the tomb might produce other pieces of artistic interest.

Indeed, Carter was able to salvage much from the smashed debris left behind, even though the tomb had been dismantled during antiquity. He found four of the original five foundation deposits, and clearance of the well and well chamber within the tomb unearthed fragments of serpentine, calcite, faience and wooden shabtis, broken vessels, pieces of a superb pectoral ornament of blue faience, quantities of beads, sequins and amulets, and one corner of a bracelet plaque in blue faience from the same series that had started Carnarvon and Carter on their search.

Unfortunately, World War I was making its effects felt in Egypt. Carnarvon was stranded in Egypt during this period, and Carter's own energies were diverted more and more with the war effort as a diplomatic courier. However, by 1917, Carter was able to start work in the Valley of the Kings in earnest, with a focus on finding the elusive tomb of Tutankhamun. However, while thousands of tons of limestone rubble were removed from various sites, this was a time of disappointment upon disappointment for the Carter and Carnarvon which would tax the financier's patience.

Costs were beginning to really mount for Lord Carnarvon and, by the end of a bleak 1921-1922 season, his enthusiasm was on the wane. Much as he hated to admit it, it seemed to Carnarvon that Davis might have been right in his observation that the Valley of the Kings had been exhausted as an archaeology site. Carter was summoned to Hieghclere to receive the bad news that Carnarvon was giving up. Carter had been expected as much, and he made an appeal to finance from his own pocket one final season of work. Any find would still belong to Carnarvon, as holder of the concession. Impressed by Carter's commitment, Lord Carnarvon relented, even agreeing to finance the final season.

Thought Carter started the next season perhaps with little optimism, that all changed on November 4th,1922, just three days after starting what he must have thought would be his last season with Carnarvon. He discovered the top of a sunken staircase that by the end of the day would reveal 12 steps and the upper part of a plastered blocking, stamped over its entire surface with large oval seals. Carter could not read the name on the seals, but biting his tongue, he ordered the stairway to be refilled and the next day dashed off the now famous telegram to Carnarvon who was still in England.

Lord Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn herbert arrive at Luxor station on November 23rd, 1922 and met by Howard Carter and the Governor of the Qena Province

Carnarvon made it to Egypt with his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, about two weeks later and work began in earnest on the tomb on November 24th. After the stairway was completely cleared and the full expanse of the plastered doorway could be seen, it was clear that Carter had indeed discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. At first, their enthusiasm was somewhat dampened, for at the top left-hand corner of the blocking were signs of re-closure, suggesting that the tomb had been entered during antiquity. They began by clearing the descending corridor, which also showed signs of a robber's efforts. By 4:00 pm on the afternoon of November 26th, the corridor was cleared and the team found a second door, again faced with plaster, stamped over with oval seals, and re-closed at the top left-hand corner. Not knowing what lay behind this doorway, Carter made a small hole in it and inserted a candle to test for foul gases. He then peered into the void beyond, reporting:

"At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold".

The Pus Moth airplane must have made for a rather uncomforatble trip to Egypt

Unfortunately, Lord Carnarvon would not live long enough to enjoy much of his success. Following the official opening of the tomb's burial chamber and all of the excitement that surrounded it, Lord Carnarvon departed for Aswan on February 28th for a few days rest. About this time, he was bitten on the cheek by a mosquito, which he inadvertently opened up while shaving. Despite treating the wound, it became infected and he was soon running a temperature. He allowed his daughter to confine him to bed rest, which seemed to help, for two days later he was up and about again. However, he suffered a relapse almost immediately, and arrangements were made for him to be moved to the Continental-Savoy in Cairo. Now, he contracted pneumonia, which was to mean his end. There was enough time for Lady Carnarvon, accompanied by her husband's physician, Dr. Johnson, to arrive by air in a Puss Moth from England, soon to also be joined by their son, Lord Porchester. But on the morning of April 5th, it was all over. Carter records in his diary that, "Poor Ld. C. died during the early hours of the morning".

One of the most famous discoveries ever unearthed in Egypt was not all that Lord Carnarvon left behind when he died. Early on, Carter came up with a business suggestion which appealed to Carnarvon's pocket and added a little spice to their adventures. According to Carnarvon's successor,

"Carter suggested... that some of the expenses of the work might well be defrayed by buying antiques in the bazaar in Cairo or elsewhere to sell them to collectors at a handsome profit. Carter proved very adept at this business and I...heard them talk of many good deals brought off in this fashion."

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum both benefited from this arrangement, though the scheme may or may not have ever realized much profit. For one thing, 's salary seems to have been a very good one for the times, and secondly, much of their "stock" seems to have passed directly into Lord Carnarvon's own collection. Carnarvon's taste for Egyptian art was developing rapidly, and by the time of his death, what had started off as a somewhat random assortment of purchased and excavated pieces ranked as one of the finest private collections of Egyptian artifacts in the world.

When Carter listed the objects in November of 1924, they numbered some 1,218 objects or groups of objects. According to the terms of his will, the antiquities, should his wife choose to dispose of them, should be offered to the nation, and therefore the British Museum, for 20,000 pounds sterling, which was far below their true value. If the British Museum refused them, he suggested that they be offered to the Metropolitan Museum in New York at a price to be negotiated and fixed by Carter.

Lady Carnarvon was unenthusiastic about offering the collection to the nation at a discount price, but did so anyway, giving the director of the British Museum until 4 pm on the same day to make payment. Of course, they could not meet this deadline, so she then offered the collection to the Metropolitan for $145,000, which they quickly snapped up.

Also, Lord Carnarvon left behind the mummy's curse. Several weeks before Lord Carnarvon's death, popular attention was focused on a warning by novelist Marie Corelli that "the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb." Of course, this warning would not have garnished attention for long had it not been for Lord Carnarvon's death. The public chose to ignore the fact that Lord Carnarvon was not in good health, and that indeed his annual pilgrimage to Egypt was primarily for this reason. About this time, a number of other people who, though sometimes distantly could be identified with the tomb also died, rumors became rife. In reality, most of those who were closest to the excavation lived out long, often rewarding lives, but of course, the curse continues to inspire movie magic even now.






Reference Number

Complete Tutankhamun, The

Nicholas Reeves


Thames & Hudson, LTD

ISBN 0-500-27810-5

Masterpieces of Tutankhamun

Silverman, David P.


Abbeville Press, Inc.

ISBN 0-89659-022-4

Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen, The

Howard Carter


Cassell & Company, Ltd

ISBN 0 7156 3075 X

Treasures of Tutankhamun

Metropolitan Museum of Art


Metropolitan Museum of Art

ISBN 0-87099-156-6

Treasures of Tutankhamun

British Museum


Thames & Hudson Ltd

ISBN 0 7230 0070 0

Tutankhamun (His Tomb and Its Treasures)

Edwards, I. E. S.


Metropolitan Museum of Art; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

ISBN 0-394-41170-6

Tutankhamun's Jewelry

Edwards, I.E.S


Metropolitan Museum of Art

ISBN 0-87099-155-8