Tutankhamun meets Downton Abbey in rural Hampshire
The separate Egyptian Exhibition in the castle cellars begins with a photographic trajectory of the life of the 5th Earl, George Herbert, whose penchant for automobiles left him victim of one of history’s earliest serious car accidents. Retreating to Egypt to convalesce in the early 1900s, Herbert was thrown into the orbit of archaeologist Howard Carter who he enthusiastically sponsored to search for ancient remains in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Despite a decade of digging, interrupted for four years by World War I, the work threw up little bounty, until, at a crux meeting at Highclere in June 1922, Herbert agreed to finance one last push focusing on finding the tomb of the fabled King Tutankhamun. The gamble paid off. In November 1922, Carter thrust his candle through a slit in an unearthed doorway and cast his eyes over the almost perfectly preserved 3,300-year-old tomb of Tutankhamun. “Can you see anything?” implored Herbert impatiently. “Yes, wonderful things!” shouted back the stunned Carter.
Today, the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb belong to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, from where they are periodically leased out to museums around the world. What you see at Highclere are mainly replicas, although the mock-up of King Tut’s golden coffin looks magically realistic to the untrained eye. While Herbert procured numerous original artefacts during his years excavating in Egypt, most of them were sold to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1923 to pay for his death duties. The few that survived were hidden at Highclere and forgotten about, until rediscovered by a butler in the 1980s. The originals now sit among the exhibition’s Tutankhamun replicas, spearheaded by a decoratively painted 3,500-year-old mummy case of a young noble lady found near Luxor.
Back in the daylight, Highclere’s extensive grounds, like numerous English country gardens, juxtapose the wild with the manicured. Dotted around 1,000 acres of rolling parkland are a secret garden, an arboretum and an attractive wild flower meadow. But, the real eye-catchers are the follies. These opulent mini-temples, whose function was entirely ornamental, were the wealthy 18th-century gentleman’s alternative to garden gnomes. Visitors can wander at will from the pillared Jackdaw’s Castle, to the hilltop Heaven’s Gate folly, to the Grecian Temple of Diana while pondering pharaoh’s curses, Maggie Smith’s Edwardian hat collection and the aristocratic sight of Highclere Castle winking in the distance.
The third season of Downton Abbey will air on PBS in North America starting on 6 Jan 2013.