The fifth Earl of Carnarvon had been a sickly child. He
loved to travel, was interested in technology and
collected antiquities. In 1889, he had made his first
trip to Egypt and discovered that the dry climate was
good for his health. The visit sparked a lifelong
obsession, and he returned for the winter every year.
When the Egyptologist Howard Carter planned his
excavation in the Valley of the Kings, the earl was a
natural choice for supporter.
The outbreak of the war had meant a five-year wait to
begin excavation. Almina and her daughter Eve
stayed at the Winter Palace Hotel in Cairo, while Lord
Carnarvon stayed with Carter at his house, which was
closer to the dig site.
On February 26, 1919, they discovered 13 alabaster
vessels at the entrance to the tomb of King Merenptah,
son of Rameses II. “Lady Carnarvon knelt in the sand
to help dig them out with her own hands,” Lady Fiona
writes. “This was exciting, but it wasn’t the
breakthrough discovery the men were longing for.
They would have to wait another two years for that.”
Due to the chaos in Egypt, Lord Carnarvon sent
Almina and Eve home while he stayed on in Cairo.
On October 27, Carter sent him the follow telegram:
“At last have made wonderful discovery in the Valley. A
magnificent tomb with seals intact. Recovered same
for your arrival. Congratulations.”
After sending it, he returned to the Valley of the Kings
to refill the stairway down to the entrance to secure the
site and prevent robbery.
Carter left for Cairo on November 18, only to find that
Carnarvons' ship had been delayed. He used the
time to assemble a team of experts to assist them.
On November 24, Lord Carnarvon and his daughter
Eve arrived in Luxor. Almina had stayed at home
nursing a problem with her jaw.
The two men cleared the rubble from the staircase,
and on the afternoon of November 26, they reached
the doorway. “We wondered if we should find another
staircase, probably blocked, behind this wall or
whether we should get into a chamber. I asked Mr.
Carter to take out a few stones and have a look in,”
“Can you see anything?” Carnarvon asked.
“Yes, wonderful things,” Carter replied.
They had discovered the burial chamber of King
Tutankhamun. As Carter wrote, “Three thousand, four
thousand years maybe, have passed and gone since
human feet last trod the floor on which you stand, and
yet . . . you feel it might have been but yesterday.”
The space was cramped and hot, and the objects
were delicate. As Carnarvon and Carter assessed the
task before them, they realized that they would need
an army of experts to help remove, catalogue and
preserve the glories laid out before them. They also
had to provide security.
It took a while for the enormity of the find to sink in on local
and British officials, but soon The Times published the first in
a series of news items. Never had a story taken more news
space. The public enthusiasm made it difficult to work.
Carnarvon and Eve arrived back in Britain as celebrities, and
Carnarvon reported to the King and Queen. They spent
Christmas at Highclere, returning to Luxor on January 25.
Carnarvon signed an agreement with The Times, stipulating
that articles be passed on without charge to the Egyptian
press but other news outlets be charged to help fund the
project. Arthur Merton, assigned to cover the story, wrote, “It
is impossible not to be impressed with the extremely friendly,
even affectionate attitude of the Egyptians towards Lord
Carnarvon. He likes them and he likes Egypt.”
When the antechambers were emptied, only two black and
gold-kilted guardian statues remained, on either side of the
sealed entrance to the burial chamber. Carter began to
remove the stones that blocked the entrance from the top
down. There they discovered a large golden shrine, as big
as the anteroom they were standing in. The walls were
brightly painted with larger-than-life figures from the Book of
Another gold shrine, containing the sarcophagus, was inside
the first one. They decided to leave the sarcophagus in its
resting place. Carter stayed at home, while Lord Carnarvon
and Eve took a restful cruise to Aswan. On the way, the earl
was bitten on the left cheek by a mosquito. Then he nicked
the bite when shaving back in Luxor.
His doctor advised rest. Eve nursed him with growing
concern. The glands in his neck began to swell, and he had
a high temperature. It was blood poisoning or septicemia.
Almira chartered a plane and flew to Egypt with the family
doctor. Carnarvon rallied, then relapsed. By the time Porchy
arived, he had developed pneumonia and was delirious.
When he died on April 5, the press began to speculate about
the Curse of the Pharaoh.
He was buried in a simple grave at the top of Beacon Hill
looking out over his beloved Highclere. It was the site he had
chosen. Memorial services were held at Highclere church,
St. Nicholas’s Church in Newbury, St Margaret’s,
Westminster, in London and All Saints’ Cathedral in Cairo.
"The Treasures of Tutankhamun" became the most traveled
exhibit in the world. Our family and my sister Barbara and her
family from Lubbock, Texas, were among the million people
who were able to see them when they were exhibited at the
Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1978.
Though the larger pieces were breathtaking, I appreciated
the artistry of some of the smaller pieces and some of the
more personal items, like combs and mirrors and makeup
pots. I also loved the serene expressions of the goddesses
around the four sides of the gilded wooden shrine housing
the chest of Tutankhamun’s mummified internal organs.
My nephew Brad, who was three at the time, was upset that
we wouldn’t get him a 20” alabaster unguent jar shaped like
a standing lion with ivory teeth and tongue. To him, it was
obviously a toy, with its red tongue hanging out, and he
couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t buy it for him.
Eve (left) with her father, Lord Carnarvon, Howard Carter and
Carter's assistant; antechamber of the tomb (above).