Wonderful things - Highclere Castle

PUBLISHED: 13:02 20 August 2010 | UPDATED: 16:00 20 February 2013

A detail from the magnificent throne in the exhibition.

A detail from the magnificent throne in the exhibition.

A stunning new visitor attraction at Highclere Castle recreates the marvel and the mystery surrounding the most magnificent Egyptian tomb ever found and highlights the part played by the fifth Earl of Carnarvon

On Sunday November 26, 1922 the fifth Earl of Carnarvon stood behind Howard Carter as he cautiously made a small hole in the door of what was to become the most famous Egyptian tomb of all time. What he saw next is recorded vividly in his diary. He wrote: "Presently my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, gold....everywhere the glint of gold...for the moment an eternity...I was struck dumb with amazement and when Lord Carnarvon enquired anxiously, "Can you see anything?' It was all I could do to get out the words: 'Yes, wonderful things.'"

And so a story began to unfold that enthralled the world and still fascinates both experts and the general public alike today. It is this enduring appeal of the tale of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun and a desire to tell of the fifth Earl's part in it that has prompted the current Earl and Countess of Carnarvon to launch a stunning new exhibition and visitor attraction at Highclere Castle, near Newbury. "The fifth Earl is usually written off as just the financier of the expedition which really wasn't the case," says Lady Carnarvon, who has spent countless hours trawling through the castle's huge archives to create the exhibition. (There are 6,000 photographs alone, nearly all taken by the Earl, who was a hugely accomplished photographer and president of the Camera Club.)
"We want this exhibition to redress the balance," she adds.

For nearly 20 years the grand gothic-style castle, designed by Charles Barry, whose work also includes the Houses of Parliament, housed a small museum in its cellars which contained several artefacts that were actually found hidden at Highclere in 1988. The fifth Earl brought many pieces back with him from Egypt but the room in which many of them were stored was blocked up by his son. It was only reopened after the latter's death to reveal several items taken from King Tut's tomb. Among them were metal objects and beads packed in old cigarette tins and boxes hidden in secret cupboards. Subsequent searches to revealed several more artefacts and Lord Carnarvon's old darkroom turned out to be a treasure trove in itself with a bronze model of an axe head and a cartouche of Tuthmosis IV.

Says Lady Carnarvon: "The discovery here made the front page of The Times again. It's extraordinary how the whole story grabs people." In 1989 the finds went on display to the public and proved particularly popular with schools over the years, but last year's successful Tutankhamun exhibition at the O2 in London galvanised the Earl and Countess into creating a visitor attraction at Highclere in a different league.

Lady Carnarvon had already written a book to accompany the exhibition and had undertaken a great deal of research into the life of the fifth Earl - she is currently writing his autobiography. "There is so much fascinating material here and the castle has such a unique involvement with the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb that we decided to do something major." So the Carnarvons embarked on a hugely ambitious project to excavate the cellars to house a new and much larger exhibition. Says the present Earl: "It's quite fitting that Great Grandfather had to excavate in Egypt to find the tomb, and we've had to do our own serious mining here, cutting into limestone to create space."

While looking through previously unseen archives Lady Carnarvon found Charles Barry's original plans and saw that there was a large void space in the cellars. This they decided to utilise, and after consulting with structural engineers, they found they would have to excavate by hand because any heavy machinery might well damage the castle's foundations. Excavations had to be carried out by hand which literally involved digging with pick axes and shovels and taking the spoil to the surface in buckets - very much like Carter's excavations in the Valley of the Kings - points out the Earl.

A month of back-breaking work eventually resulted in the joining of the cellars to form a circular space through which the visitor can tour. "We've recreated a journey," explains Lady Carnarvon. "We wanted to show people what it might have been like right from the expedition's planning to discovering the actual tomb and all that it held."

So we first come across Carnarvon and Carter poring over plans of the Valley of the Kings. In the next room we are given an insight in the life of the fifth Earl and find that he was an accomplished photographer, scholar and motor car enthusiast. In fact it was because of his numerous injuries sustained in car crashes that his doctor recommended he winter in warmer climes. Hence he turned his considerable intellect to archaeology in Egypt.

The lights are then dimmed and we go through a darkened tunnel and come out into
a gallery where we are invited to look through flaps into the "chamber" where Carter first saw the "wonderful things." The scene, complete with chariots and beasts carved in gold, is recreated in minute detail according to photographs taken at the time.

Our journey into the tomb continues into the next gallery. As we walk through the darkened entrance a replica of the great golden wall of the first shrine that had been hidden for three millennia is suddenly illuminated. Carnarvon and Carter found the original walls had been painted yellow with various scenes from the myths progressing Tut from this world to the next and artist Eleanor Fane was called upon to recreate these on the cellar walls. This she has done to stunning effect. Over a six-month period she worked without natural light to produce the amazing Egyptian walls paintings and hieroglyphs that adorned the chamber walls. They depict scenes from the Book of the Dead.

One of the highlights of the display - and there are many - is a replica of the Middle Coffin - there were three golden coffins - and next to it a replica of the young Tut's mummified body, complete with funereal jewellery. It was the first royal mummified body ever found. Other stunning objects include the Golden Throne, described by Carnarvon as "one of the most marvellous pieces of furniture that has ever been discovered." A large painted box depicts scenes from Tut's life and reign and there is a magnifcent statue of Anubis the jackal. There are also canopic jars, boats, boxes, burnished gold masks, alabaster ornaments and several shabti or small carved figures that helped the deceased into the next world.
In one gallery we even hear the sound of a 2,000 year-old trumpet being sounded by a British bandsman. Explains Lady Carnarvon: "The recording was made by the BBC in 1939 and straight afterwards the trumpet collapsed and disintegrated." It remains in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Such wonderful touches bring the whole exhibition to life and the personal passion which has gone into the project is clearly evident. The Carnarvons have devised the whole project themselves and their special involvement makes the experience an intimate yet throughougly professional one, recreating the momentous events of 80 years ago that have such resonance at Highclere today.

In creating the exhibition the Carnarvons have worked closely with the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of New York. "We have always maintained a good relationship with the museums," says Lady Carnarvon. Hence several important exhibits are now on loan, including fascinating film footage of Carter and Carnarvon in Egypt after discovering the tomb. It shows the Earl in high spirits, giving a playful jump in the air. No doubt he would also be delighted that at long last he will receive the recognition that he deserves.

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