Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Downton Abbey meets King Tut!

Inspired by our trip to Egypt, I'm enmeshed right now in research on the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb.  I'm also pretty captivated by Downton Abbey--I'm nearly finished with Season One.  But here's the really cool part:  they are the same story.

Highclere Castle plays, if you will, the role of Downton Abbey in the series.  It's the big, beautiful, otherworldly-to-North-American-eyes home of the fictional Crawley family and the Earl of Grantham.  But Highclere also remains the real home of the Earls of Carnarvon: the 8th Earl and his wife live there now.

The 5th Earl and Howard Carter discovered King Tut's tomb.

Carter was not a gentleman at a time when that mattered greatly.  The eleventh child of a painter, he first went to Egypt at age 17.  The 5th Earl was a reckless man who'd married a wealthy American in order to shore up the family fortune (sound familiar?).  After he was badly injured in a car accident and his health permanently affected, the 5th Earl took to spending winters in Egypt, where the climate suited his condition.  Eventually, for lack of anything better to do, he became interested in Egyptology, which was at the time all the rage.

Meanwhile, Howard Carter had become well-known for his archeological skills.  He'd also become convinced (the reasons why would be too long to explain here) that the Valley of the Kings still contained one possibly untouched Pharonic grave:  King Tut's.  He convinced Lord Carnarvon to purchase the right to excavate in the Valley of the Kings and to finance the digging.

They searched for six years and found nothing.

Lord Carnarvon was done, and said so.

Now picture Howard Carter, hat in hand, on the steps of Downton Abbey.  Picture him in the Earl's vast beautiful library, unrolling a map of the Valley of Kings, pointing to one spot, one last spot, where he wanted to dig.

When Howard Carter found the entrance to the tomb, still sealed, he covered it over and wired England.  Lord Carnarvon left Highclere and sailed for Egypt immediately.  Two weeks later the two men walked by candlelight through the glorious splendor of the only intact Pharoh's tomb ever found.

Unfortunately Lord Carnarvon had a fresh cut on his cheek, where he'd nicked a mosquito bite with his razor.  And, unlike all the other tombs, which had been open to the dry desert air since antiquity, King Tut's tomb, sealed while its plaster walls were still damp, was covered with fungus.   Lord Carnarvon's cheek became infected.  Within a week he'd been taken to Aswan for medical care; with six weeks he was dead.  He only saw King Tut's treasures once.

Lady Almina sold most of Carnarvon's Egyptian artifacts, collected prior to the discovery of Tut's tomb, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in order to pay death taxes.  Other items are still on display at Highclere.  Carter and a team of experts spent ten years cataloging and restoring the artifacts from Tut's tomb.  Nearly all of them are on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
You can't take photos of King Tut's tomb (or any of the other tombs) or inside the Egyptian Museum.  This is the Temple of Hathor; the Valley of the Kings is over that mountain to the right.  The topography looks the same.

You understand the full meaning of all of this, don't you? When I'm watching Downton Abbey, I'm actually doing research.  Sweet.