100th anniversary of Tutankhamun's tomb discovery: interview with Lord Carnarvon - Cruise International

100th anniversary of Tutankhamun's tomb discovery: interview with Lord Carnarvon

By Claire Benktander | 3 Nov 2022

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George Herbert, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon, outside the tomb of Tutankhamun, in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings

On November 4, 1922, Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in Egypt by Howard Carter and the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert – whose home was Highclere Castle, the filming location for the Downton Abbey TV series.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the discovery, we caught up with Herbert’s great-grandson, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon, about the anniversary and being Viking’s first godfather to new ship Osiris

Q. It’s the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb on November 4, 2022. How did your great-grandfather come to be involved?

A. My grandfather went out as a tourist to Egypt originally in the 1890s and then decided in about 1905 he was going to ask permission to do some early excavation. Luckily, he could speak French perfectly! His first area of excavation only yielded a sort of mummified cat among the thousands of tonnes of rubble. You can still see it in the Cairo museum in the animal mummies section.

He wasn’t put off by this fact, and then had another year out there where he made a discovery of the famous ancient Egyptian Tetiky, Mayor of Thebes. When I was there in the late 90s, we looked over that temple area, and it wasn’t far from there where my great-grandfather first worked.

After that he teamed up with Howard Carter, who rather famously lost his job as an inspector of antiquities by having a row with French tourists about access to the famous site. The two worked together from 1908 to 1912 – and published the well-known academic work Five Years of Thebes about their excavation work there.

When it came towards the sad beginning of the First World War, Theodore Davis, who had the concession for the Valley of the Kings, quit the area. He had had many years in the Valley and made discoveries that helped other Egyptologists – but he decided that the Valley had no more extraordinary secrets to unfold. My great-grandfather took over the concessions just as the First World War began – but he didn’t start with Howard Carter until the end of the war.

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George Herbert outside Howard Carter’s house

They made some minor but rather important discoveries – including something Davis had discovered earlier on – a shallow pit where a Cartouche of Tutankhamun was found, a few metres from the actual tomb. It was a clue to this king still being there somewhere, and so when great-grandfather and Howard Carter took over, they were on a bit of a quest. It was all costing a lot after the First World War – taxes were much higher in Britain at that time – and great-grandfather wanted to have his last year there in the 1922-23 season.

They were going to excavate an area which had been previously closed to them up until then – and extraordinarily for them, it was in this area where they found the rock cut steps leading down to the tomb in November 1922. An extraordinary discovery – and the biggest ever probably in archaeology of an intact Pharaoh’s tomb. Just the outer chamber had been disturbed and then resealed. That was probably a blessing in disguise because after it was resealed, a rock fall turned up and covered it all over. If it wasn’t found you could argue that even with all the technology in the world, it could still be unfound to this day. That’s up for discussion!

Q. How special is that connection to such a momentous event?

A. It’s a massively important connection of history and the past. My great-grandfather was one of the great travellers and adventurers of the Edwardian period and long before he had even gone anywhere near Egypt, he travelled on a small boat down to Argentina, as well as sailing around Africa and doing a lot of travelling in Europe.

He was also fascinated by the latest technologies of the time – he was involved with the first motorcars into the UK and was a passionate and very accomplished photographer – and of course, that become very important when he made his discovery. He decided he wanted to have a look at Egypt and the ancient world because although he was never a great academic at school, he turned himself into an academic person over his lifetime – he was always reading so much about everything.

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George Herbert inside Howard Carter’s house

Great-grandfather was a great collector and he adored the idea of the quest and finding objects of antiquity. He so respected the Egyptians and the extraordinary civilisation that lasted for thousands of years. He wanted to be able to bring their history to the world – and of course in the end he did that in spades, and it became a mass media event after the miseries of the First World War.

Most of my great-grandfather’s Egyptology, apart from Tutankhamun in Cairo, is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. My great-grandmother sold many of them in 1925, but they make up a very important part of the Met Egyptology collection. Luckily for us, a few less important items were left and they are now part of our exhibition here. My grandfather was so superstitious about the sudden death of his father that he hid lots of them away and we only discovered them after he died. That was interesting as a side story in its own right!

I remember as a small boy going to the Cairo museum in the 70s, when the exhibition came, and seeing it rather poignantly with my great-aunt who was at the tomb with her father when they discovered it. She had never seen the famous gold mask up until then because he died and she left the country.

Q. Did you visit the tomb and see the artefacts held in the museum in Cairo when you recently visited Egypt?

A. Recently on the Viking trip we went on, we were lucky enough to do both, including a very nice private visit to the Cairo museum. Many things have now been moved from the Cairo museum to the new museum which is not yet open, but not the Tutankhamun objects.

Then we had this glorious trip on the river Nile on the new Viking Osiris, which is an extraordinarily comfortable, well-appointed river cruise boat for those kind of trips – and because you’re on the river, you can more easily access certain temples, which was great.

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Valley of the Kings, Egypt. Credit: Tom Podmore via Unsplash

Q. What were your highlights of that Nile cruise?

A. We did go back to the Valley of the Kings and that’s always special, but for me, visiting the Temple of Dendera, which we haven’t visited before, was a highlight. That’s a later period and has the famous relief of Cleopatra on the back of the temple as well as glorious colours on the inside. Other places like that were among the highlights, places you only get to if you’re on a boat, rather than driving, because it’s so much easier.

Admittedly, we were doing it in the summer, when it was 40-42 degrees – a little bit too warm! But nevertheless, it was all so beautifully organised, and it was very special to be there seeing the glorious sites. The Nile is fascinating anyway, and really, what better way to do it?

And of course we did a hot air balloon. I have been in a balloon once before with a film crew in a tiny basket – which was a little bit dangerous! It was just the camera guy and myself all over the place, but we got some amazing shots! This time it was much more civilised in the big basket, it was fantastic.

Q. Your wife, Lady Carnarvon, has just released a book, The Earl and the Pharaoh. Could you tell us a little more about that?

A. Plenty of books have been written about Howard Carter and of course his great excavation as an archaeologist, but hardly anything has been written about the fifth earl, his collaborator.

This is about more than just the find, this is about his background – his young life at Highclere, how his mother died, who he really was, his early school life, and how in his youth he became this adventurous type of person. He was an eccentric maverick and loved his cars and photography – and he actually helped promote Geoffrey de Havilland’s first effort in taking off from his plane at Highclere.

He was around very interesting people, and married to Lady Almina, a Florence Nightingale type who visited hospitals during the First World War. He was a great one for bringing people together – he had the Egyptian leaders back to Highclere to meet with them.

George Herbert, the eighth earl of Carnarvon, and the countess of Carnarvon, outside Viking’s newest Nile River vessel, Viking Osiris, in Luxor, Egypt

George Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, and the Countess of Carnarvon, outside Viking’s newest Nile River vessel, Viking Osiris, in Luxor, Egypt. Picture: Adam Hillier

Q. You’re the first to be given the godfather accolade on a Viking ship – how did that feel?

A. It’s a great honour. My wife Fiona was very honoured to be godmother of Viking Mars so it’s all very special. I wish Osiris all the best next summer – she’s booked up for quite some time I believe!

Q. What was your first ever Viking cruise?

A. I’m not an expert, but the first longer cruise I did went from Venice to Istanbul and that was an amazing trip. That was some years ago now but it was very memorable, going across the Mediterranean, looking at famous places – and my younger son Edward visited the Gallipoli landing and battle sites. That was a fantastic trip.

Viking Osiris on the Nile, near Luxor, Egypt

Viking Osiris on the Nile, near Luxor, Egypt

Q. Do you have any favourite places to travel that you go back to frequently? Where’s still on your wish list?

A. I’d love to join one of the new expedition ships right down to the Antarctic, I’ve never been down there before. Or even parts of South America – start there and go all the way down.

My mum is from the United States and I love going out there – she comes from a very remote bit of America, in Wyoming. I’ve seen the Mississippi boat and it’d be great to get out on that magnificent river too.

Q. Guests can visit Highclere on Viking cruises – what surprises them most about the estate?

A. I think people don’t always quite realise we have such an interesting exhibition of Egyptology here, both real and replica objects – the latter look like the real thing, I always think the two can’t be told apart!

The castle is set in the most extraordinary landscape, with beautiful parkland, trees and gardens. I don’t get bored of any of the gardens and the park areas all around the castle. The smoking rooms are amazing inside the castle, all their colours – and the paintings in the dining room like the glorious van Dyck of King Charles. The bedrooms have these extraordinary views out over the countryside; it’s a special place.

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Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed. Credit: Tim Alex via Unsplash

Q. How are you planning to mark the 100-year anniversary?

A. Hopefully we’re going to go on a little trip to Egypt and have a look at the tomb again – and there will be a launch of my wife’s book in conjunction at the Egyptian Embassy, which is nice. And then it’s launching in the United States. She’s been out in America lots recently talking about her books; she’s written a number of books on Highclere and its history.

Very recently we also had a whole Tutankhamun weekend. We had more than just the exhibition, we had explanations of life in the 1900s here at Highclere, camels and classic cars. That was a very successful weekend – over 800 people a day came – it was fantastic!

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