The Fourth Earl of Carnarvon, 1831-1890.
Influential statesman and classical scholar.
The Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, 1866-1923.
Patron of Howard Carter. Financed five years of digging
in Thebes, followed by seven years of digging for King Tut’s tomb.
The Sixth Earl of Carnarvon, 1898-1987
Lord Porchester until he succeeded to the title in 1923.
International playboy who fell in love.
AH, THE EARLS … IF THE SIXTH EARL OF CARNARVON HAD killed his father, the fifth earl, as he’d planned to, it’s hard to say what would have become of Howard Carter.
The Fifth Earl of Carnarvon was one of many rich men interested in digging in Egypt. Carter had even worked for some of them during his early years—when he was still learning and developing—before he came into his own. But they were reasonable men engaged in reasonable endeavors. That is, they expected a reasonable return, in a reasonable amount of time, for a reasonable investment of cash.
The search for King Tut’s tomb was not such an endeavor. It was begun amid warnings from every side that the Valley of the Kings was now exhausted: Even Gaston Maspero (who brought Carter and Carnarvon together) warned the earl that every royal tomb to be found there had been discovered.
There were good reasons for this pessimism, a pessimism that seemed to be confirmed by the results of the Carnarvon-Carter effort. To universal laughter, the spectacle of the futile excavation dragged on year after year for seven long years. The mounds of excavated rubble, meticulously sifted, piled higher and higher. Foot by foot, the area Carter had marked out was exposed to the bedrock.
The costs accumulated, the earl spent a fortune, and nothing was found. But still Carnarvon toasted Carter each season with the best champagne as he good-naturedly shrugged off the past failures. His slouch hat worn at a rakish angle, the sun glinting on his gold cigarette holder, Carnarvon would invariably irritate the gloomy Carter with his unbounded, amateurish enthusiasm. This would be their year, the earl was always sure; there was no telling what, in the coming season, they would uncover.
Who else would have been so foolish? The other men backing expeditions and buying antiquities in Egypt, the Pierpont Morgans and Theodore Davises, were too hardheaded to invest their money so unwisely.
But even say Carter had found someone willing to stake him in his impossible venture, who else would have put up with the moodiness of the embittered digger? For by the time Carnarvon and Carter teamed up, Carter had a reputation for being “difficult,” to use the polite expression (many other, less polite adjectives were often applied to him).
By his own admission he had a “mauvaise [sic] caractère,” which over the years had become worse owing to the strains of his life in Egypt, both physical and psychological. As he wrote apologetically in a letter to Percy Newberry, one of the few colleagues who remained a friend until the end: “Living alone as I do, is inducive to one letting the milk curdle.” Which was putting it mildly: He was exacting, touchy, unjust, tyrannical, unkind—and brilliant. And what was worse, he knew it.
As Geanie Weigall (a famous beauty visiting her archaeologist brother, Arthur Weigall, in Egypt) wrote to a friend: “I do so dislike Carter. His manners are so aggressive and every word he utters is veiled with thin sarcasm.” This in a social setting (Luxor’s Winter Palace), and with a beautiful woman around whom men fluttered like moths. But on a dig—where Miss Weigall’s charm did not exercise its restraining influence—Carter’s “thin sarcasm” became rage at his colleagues’ stupidity and ineptitude, real or imagined.
“I worked in the valley this AM. Carter took measurements for me until his extraordinary notions about projections caused such a violent disagreement between us that he refused to continue his assistance,” a colleague (the draftsman Lindsley Hall) noted in his diary. “The man is unbearable,” complained another (Henry Burton, one of the great archaeological photographers of all time). “But I must admit he showed me how to take a photograph I thought impossible.”
In his dark moods, he could be terrifying. Even Carnarvon’s daughter, Lady Evelyn, an admirer, said years after his death: “In the beginning I was in awe of him. Later, he made me rather afraid.”
Carter was a diamond in the rough, a fact that the discerning earl appreciated. He understood his temperamental archaeologist and looked out for him as no one else would have during the lean years.
Who else but Carnarvon would have cut him into a sweet deal such as the treasure of the three princesses, for example? The cache, belonging to the Syrian wives of the warrior pharaoh Thutmosis III, was one of the most fabulous collections of ancient jewelry ever found.
Tomb robbers had scoured the desert after a flash flood, one of only three in the last thirty-five years. The streaming waters had dislodged many-ton boulders, tossing them aside as if they were pebbles. High up on the sides of the desert cliffs, a hiding place was exposed, where beautiful gold bracelets and earrings and necklaces had lain since the fifteenth century BC. After wrapping the treasure in dirty rags, the robbers carried it to an Egyptian dealer.
Normally, the collection (some 225 pieces) would have been broken up and sold discreetly to different collectors over a number of years. But Carnarvon put up a huge amount of cash, enabling Carter secretly to buy the entire find from the Egyptian fence and sell it to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Thus, thanks to Carnarvon, Carter received a hefty commission that took care of his financial worries. In addition, the deal established him as a major player on the antiquities scene until the end of his life.
But perhaps the most revealing moment in the relationship between the two men can be found at the time of the fifty-six-year-old Carnarvon’s death. For who else—after being ordered out of Carter’s house forever during a stormy quarrel—would have written a letter such as the one Carnarvon sent Carter:
Friday Evening. 
I have been feeling very unhappy today and I did not know what to think or do, and then I saw Eve [Carnarvon’s daughter] and she told me everything. I have no doubt that I have done many foolish things and I am very sorry. I suppose the fuss and worry [over the tomb’s discovery] have affected me but there is only one thing I want to say to you which I hope you will always remember—whatever your feelings are or will be for me in the future my affection for you will never change.
I’m a man with few friends and whatever happens nothing will ever alter my feeling for you…. I could not rest until I had written you.
Carnarvon’s tact—he forgave Carter under the guise of asking for forgiveness; he was so careful not to wound his friend’s dignity—would have been rare enough under ordinary circumstances. But when you consider that Carnarvon was a dying man at the time—he’d nicked a mosquito bite while shaving and had gotten septic poisoning—and consider his suffering when he wrote to Carter, it makes his loyalty to the irascible, solitary archaeologist all the more extraordinary.
In his own way, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, was as unusual as Carter was in his. They were both one of a kind. Which made it all the more fortunate for Carter (and for Egyptology) that Carnarvon’s son Lord Porchester did not act on the homicidal impulse he described sixty years later in his memoir, No Regrets.
For the most part, the memoir is ironic in tone, the incidents are all minor, the predominant quality is laughter and irreverence. Porchester describes his life, a life devoted to parties and practical jokes and love. But his childhood reminiscences are of interest in that, irony aside, we are able to see Carnarvon from the vantage point of his young son.
The grief of children! In their eyes, everything is raised to the tenth power. But in that exaggeration, there is sometimes more truth than in the view of less vulnerable adults.
As Porchester remembered, “Usually when I returned from school—accompanied by a very indifferent report—I would receive a summons to my father’s study. He would be sitting at his desk and, as I came in, he would look up and say, ‘My dear Porchester. As usual, your reports are very bad. Your writing is slovenly, your mathematics are appalling, and apparently you don’t pay sufficient attention. I intend to make a useful man of you. Now you’d better take heed of this warning. I expect a distinct improvement, d’you understand? Off you go.’ With that perfunctory statement, he would dismiss me back to the top floor where we children lived, ate, played and slept, using only the back staircase to make our escape to the outside world.”
The boy’s schoolwork didn’t improve, however, and one day he saw the head gardener making birch rods. “I guessed what was about to happen and was desperately frightened when I entered the room. I was told to undress and my hands were tied down to the brass bedstead. Almost immediately my father came into the room and, ignoring me, went over to the birch rods, picking up each in turn and swishing it through the air until he seemed satisfied with the one he had selected.
“Standing back he performed a little on-the-spot jig, as if tautening his muscles, and then suddenly brought down the birch as hard as he could on to my bare bum. After the sixth stroke, he threw down the birch and went out of the room.”
The tutor dressed the boy’s wounds with ointment and tried to comfort him, but he remained obstinate. “This episode had a deep psychological effect upon me which was to last for many years. From that day onwards, I planned to kill my father and when a few weeks later I found him alone, I concealed myself in some bushes nearby in order to observe him, unseen. I had brought with me a little dagger which seemed well fitted to the task in hand. But I was fearful of two things. Firstly, being caught and then, should I succeed, being sent to Borstal [prison]. So I forsook the project.”
We must remember that caning was common in England at the time, a standard practice, and that Carnarvon, despite some transcendent virtues, was very much a man of his time. The scene would have been typical down to Carnarvon’s insistence that he would make his son “useful,” a Victorian catchword usually coupled with “earnestness” in the categories of the day (an ideal that Oscar Wilde played with in the title of his wonderful farce The Importance of Being Earnest). The theory was that since the upper classes had been given so much, in return they had an obligation to accomplish something for the public good: noblesse oblige.
Poor Queen Victoria, however, had to face the fact that while this ideal was sometimes realized, just as often her nobility were pleasure-loving wastrels and bon vivants—including her own son Edward, who was always getting into scrapes. (To the end of her life, she reproached Edward for having killed his father. The typhoid was incidental, she claimed: Her beloved Albert had actually died from the shock of learning their nineteen-year-old son had lost his virginity—and with a French dancer to boot.)
Measured by Victorian standards, the life of the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon would have to be judged anything but “earnest” (at least the first half of it). At the time he was caning his idle son, he himself had achieved much that could have been written up in the society columns—His Lordship’s yacht, His Lordship’s horses, His Lordship’s cars, and so forth. But he had done nothing that could match his own father’s accomplishments. For Carnarvon’s father, the fourth earl, cast a long shadow. He had been a brilliant classical scholar and a principled statesman who had served first as colonial secretary and then as Irish viceroy, becoming a close friend of Charles Stewart Parnell’s and resigning when his liberal Irish policy was rejected by Parliament.
Perhaps in that cry of Carnarvon’s, “I intend to make a useful man of you!” we can hear something of his exasperation with himself, for he had his father’s enormous energy but not his intellect. He played no part in politics and “frankly detested the classics,” according to his sister, Lady Burghclere. Their father, the fourth earl, she adds, was “too sensible to insist on his son pursuing indefinitely studies doomed to failure,” so Carnarvon was left to follow his own interests. At Cambridge, his most notable achievement (besides the usual drinking bouts) was to find some beautiful wooden paneling in his rooms buried beneath layers of ugly wallpaper. The knowledge that would be important in his life was not scholarly or academic. If, as it has been observed, the Victorian gentleman would have been silent without the classics, then Carnarvon was mute.
Upon leaving school, he traveled widely. In Africa, he went in for the benighted sport of the upper classes then, big-game hunting (unsuccessfully: His life was saved at the last moment when he climbed a tree to escape a charging elephant). He crossed the Atlantic on his sailboat, the Aphrodite, and when he arrived in Argentina, he made plans to go around the Straits of Magellan. It was a suicidal project given the lightness of his craft and the waterway’s rough seas, as an experienced sailor finally convinced him.
He gave it up and instead threw himself into the life of the capital, lingering in Buenos Aires before continuing his travels. It was a pattern we can see in these early years. He seemed to be trying to prove himself somehow, anyhow, taking up one pursuit after another, restlessly, without fixed purpose…. He became passionate about boxing matches, then opera, then aerial photography. There were passing affaires de cœur, which he took lightly, and successes at the racetrack, which he took seriously.
Whereas his father had “played” against the great statesmen of Europe, Carnarvon mingled with the betting underworld. As a friend (Sir Maurice Hankey) later said of him, “He was known to have pitted his brains against and outwitted the toughest bookies and ‘crooks’ on the turf.” To which Hankey added mysteriously, “I do not know whether he is consistently cunning, or often ingenuous.” Which is to say, he wasn’t sure whether Carnarvon succeeded because he was shrewd or because he was a fool (with a fool’s luck!).
Either way, fortune was on his side. He won the Ascot stakes, the Stewards’ Cup at Goodwood, the Doncaster Cup, and the City and Suburban. He enjoyed the glory of leading his horses to the winner’s circle. And he developed uncanny gambling instincts that would stand him in good stead—on the turf and off—along with a gambler’s sangfroid, or cool.
“On one occasion in his youth,” his sister related in her adoring eulogy, “he hired a boat to take him somewhere off the [Italian] coast to his ship lying far out to sea. He was alone, steering the little bark rowed by a couple of stalwart fishermen. Suddenly, when far removed from land, and equally distant from his goal, the two ruffians gave him the choice between payment of a large sum or being pitched into the water. He listened quietly, and motioned to them to pass his dressing-bag. They obeyed, already in imagination fingering the English ‘Lord’s’ ransom.
“The situation was, however, reversed when he extracted, not a well-stuffed pocket-book, but a revolver, and pointing it at the pair sternly bade them row on, or he would shoot. The chuckle with which he recalled what was to him an eminently delectable episode, still remains with the hearer.”
In the many disconnected episodes of Carnarvon’s early life, we get the picture of a young man whose knowledge of the world is becoming broader and who was steadily becoming surer of himself. His travels brought him into contact with all sorts of people and made him a good judge of character. At first, all this accumulated experience seemed to be wasted. He put it to trivial ends—backing a dark horse or making a killing on the stock market. But in the long run, it all came into play in Egypt when he made the gamble of his life: a useful, earnest “bet” that even the fourth earl, statesman and classical scholar though he was, would have been hard put to match.
Not that Carnarvon originally had any such plan. After his death, high-sounding obituaries maintained that it was his love of history or archaeology that brought him to Egypt. But the truth is that two stubborn oxen brought him there.
Carnarvon was motoring in Germany at the time. The oxen, hitched to carts, stopped on a road across which a farmer was leading them. In his car—the third ever to be registered in England—Lord Carnarvon approached from the other side of a steep rise in the road. It was too late to stop when he saw them, so Carnarvon steered toward the edge of the road, trying to get around them. Some stones caught the wheels. Two tires burst, and the car turned over and fell on Carnarvon, while the servant accompanying him was thrown clear of the burning wreck.
As the unconscious earl lay half-crushed, his quick-thinking servant grabbed a pail of water from some passing workmen, dashed it over Carnarvon, whose clothes had caught fire, and then sent the workmen for help. Upon regaining consciousness—temporarily blinded, his legs burned, and his wrist broken—Carnarvon insisted first on knowing whether anyone else had been hurt (no one had); only after being informed of this did he allow himself to be taken to a town nearby.
So began a long period of invalidism. He developed problems with his chest and underwent many operations, which left him in a weakened state. His doctors recommended a warm, dry climate, and Egypt was a natural decision. “So much is Egypt the resort of the invalid,” wrote the archaeologist Flinders Petrie, “that the guide-books seem all infected with invalidism; and to read their directions it might be supposed that no Englishman could walk a mile or more without an attendant of some kind.”
Apart from the weather, Carnarvon chose Egypt because it was convenient, just across the Mediterranean, and had a large European community who welcomed the rich aristocrat. Cairo, with its opera house (built for the opening of the Suez Canal), its Gezira Sporting Club, its soirees and polo matches, offered Carnarvon all the distractions he was used to while he recovered his strength.
If the ruins entered into his decision at all, they were only another diversion Egypt had to offer. A visit to a “find” was more a social event than a scholarly one. “We had the whole Devonshire party to tea this afternoon to see the find,” read a typical diary entry of the day. “The Duke and Duchess, her daughter Lady Gosford, and Lord Gosford and their daughter Lady Theodora Guest—with Mr. Weigall…. The duke, now a very old and broken man, is of course a great personage. The Duchess, so celebrated in her way, was a wonderful old woman—painted and enameled, with reddish wig, an old black hat, with painted lips—very keen to see everything.”
Carnarvon fit in very well, along with his wife, Almina, who at that time was still in love with him. His feelings for her were more restrained, his attitude toward marriage being pragmatic. Or so it seemed from the fatherly advice he gave his son when the boy grew up and decided to marry for love. As Porchester recalled in his memoirs, his father took him aside and told him: “It seems to me totally unnecessary to go marrying an American, Porchester, and if what you tell me is correct, even more ridiculous to marry one with no money. If you are determined to do such a thing, I would have thought it much better to have picked a very rich one…. I can only tell you that before I consented to marry your mother, I got hold of Alfred de Rothschild and made some very stringent terms.”
The incorrigible Porchester, though, followed his heart (and ended up living happily to an old age with his penniless sweetheart). Carnarvon’s marriage, by contrast, was a mere matter of form by the time he met Carter. Almina was not at her husband’s side when the great discovery took place; and she was “difficult to locate,” as the gossip columnists would say, when he fell sick afterward. She finally arrived at his bedside at the last minute in a small Puss Moth airplane, an emergency mode of transportation.
But whatever emotional reversals took place in the Carnarvons’ marriage, the financial benefits to the earl were lasting. For the Countess of Carnarvon, Almina, formerly Lady Wombwell, was actually the illegitimate daughter of a Rothschild, who could well afford Carnarvon’s “stringent terms.”
These included discharging his huge debts (150,000 pounds) and providing a dowry of 500,000 pounds (given its purchasing power at the time, an enormous sum), along with other financial settlements. On his death, Rothschild left Almina the bulk of his large fortune, including his London mansion and several country estates. Yet despite all this wealth, the prodigal Almina ended her days in poverty in a small apartment in Bristol—the court placed her in protective bankruptcy—forbidding any mention of Egypt to be made in her presence until the day of her death.
All of this was in the future, however. When in 1905 the wellheeled countess set out for Egypt in the company of her husband, she had no thought of her future poverty (or of her future lover, the tall, gaunt Tiger Denouston, charming, penniless, and also an invalid). And Carnarvon had no inkling that he would discover a royal tomb filled with art and treasure and the body of a boy-king lying in state for thirty-three hundred years.
One last glimpse of Carnarvon in his “pre-Egyptian” phase, though, reveals an important link connecting his past to his future. And again, this view of him was provided by his son. The boy, having accidentally knocked over the king at a children’s party, was sent to a small attic room in disgrace.
The room was over the bedroom where Carnarvon’s séances and palm readings and table rappings were held. If the strange voices and cries did nothing to soothe the boy, they shed an interesting light on his father. For Carnarvon was fascinated by the occult. He not only experimented with séances and levitation, but had his personal “supernormalist,” Velma,1* a well-known psychic who had given readings to such figures as the bandit president of Mexico, Pancho Villa, and the last czar of Russia. He would later claim that he had warned Carnarvon of his fate from the beginning. Which may or may not be true.
But Velma was only one of many to have issued such warnings. A member of London’s Spiritual Alliance, Carnarvon often consulted psychics of many different descriptions. The famous medium and palmist Cheiro delivered messages to him from the Egyptian princess Meketaten (who died in childbirth in the fourteenth century BC). For effect, the medium could even produce the mummified hand that had scrawled them, though whether the severed limb was “the real thing” is anyone’s guess. As is the whole question of communications from the other side, Egyptian magic, curses, and “supernormalism,” as it was called at the time.
The one prediction that was beyond dispute, however—a matter of public record—was the one about Carnarvon made not by a psychic or medium but by Carter’s colleague and enemy Arthur Weigall. Carter hated him, perhaps, more than all his other enemies put together. He was everything Carter was not, eloquent, sure of himself in society, handsome—a ladies’ man and a romantic, who married first a beautiful American woman wandering throughout Europe (with whom he had five children) and then a brash composer of popular musical songs.
In 1923, Weigall, watching Carnarvon laughing and joking at Tut’s tomb, dreamily predicted that the earl had six weeks to live. His words were recalled—and created a sensation—when, almost six weeks to the day, Carnarvon died in agony and delirium.
Weigall had uttered his prophecy without thinking; he could give no explanation for its accuracy. But if he had premeditated some sort of plan to revenge himself on Carter, he could not have come up with a better one. Nothing upset Carter more than such speculation, which he would always indignantly dismiss as “tommyrot!” For unlike his patron, Carter was not a “believer” in the supernatural—at least not in a literal, simple sense.
Egypt always held mystery for Carter, but that mystery derived from understandable causes—the country’s beauty, the stark deserts and ancient ruins, the awe that came over him in the tombs and temples.
Nowhere else was one as aware that “we stand between the eternity of the past and the eternity of the future,” as Amelia Edwards, founder of the Egyptian Exploration Fund, put it. Living for long periods of time on such intimate terms with the past—as Carter was to and as Ms. Edwards had before him—magnified this feeling many times over.
An excavator’s state of mind was necessarily altered, call it psychological, call it mystical. As Weigall described it, descending into an Egyptian tomb that had been sealed for thousands of years was like walking through a tear in the curtain of time: The dried flowers strewn over the broken coffins, the leavings of the last funeral meal, and the bodies ravaged by ancient robbers all produced an impression that was uncanny and oppressive. In fact, more than one excavator who had had the experience—Jones, Ayrton, Weigall, Carter, for example—stated that at first he was overcome with the feeling of being an intruder, of committing sacrilege. This, together with an almost physical impulse to get out, to rush back through the winding passages and into the light of day.
1*All that is known of Velma’s identity is that he was a psychic and a palmist. He himself often consulted Cheiro, Count Louis 1 Warner Hamon, 1866-1936, the most famous medium of the day.
BUT EVEN ABOVEGROUND, IN EGYPT THE LIGHT OF DAY WAS darkened with memories. During the time of the pharaohs, its barren wastes had been the setting for meditation, prayer, and magic. First came pharaoh’s sorcerers and the temple recluses. For three thousand years they roamed the desert, seeking visions from the oracles of Hathor, Amun, and Ptah.
Then came the Christians: monks living in the ruins of pagan shrines (Christian monasticism began here); hermits practicing fantastic forms of self-denial; and stylites—half-mad holy men living exposed for decades on the tops of pillars, their food hoisted up by means of palm-frond ropes.
The Muslims followed, with mystical Sufi orders and mosques rising in the midst of pharaonic temples—in fact, built from the ancient stones. And finally the archaeologists arrived, lowered into their tombs by means of these same palm-fiber ropes, as Ms. Edwards recounted in her memoir. Writing the year Carter came to Egypt, she described this daily encounter with another reality. At every step in Egypt, the excavator is aware of the bejeweled and mummified dead “just below the surface, waiting to be discovered. Whether you go up the great river [the Nile], or strike off to east or west across the desert, your horizon is always bounded by mounds, or by ruins, or by ranges of mountains honey combed with tombs.
“If you but stamp your foot upon the sands, you know that it probably awakens an echo in some dark vault or corridor untrodden for three or four thousand years. The exploration is a kind of chase. You think you have discovered a scent. You follow it. You lose and you find it again. You go through every phase of suspense, excitement, hope, disappointment, exultation.
“With the keenness of a North American Indian, [you must use your] wits, your eyes. You sight a depression in the soil, splinters of limestone, perhaps the wreck of a tomb? Baskets are loaded at the bottom of a tomb and hauled up, spilling half their contents on the way up…. [The workers,] the children and their parents go home but you remain in the dark hole, with nothing to eat since seven o clock in the morning and a furious headache….
“The next morning [it is the same] again and again, one, two, three weeks … [in Carter’s case, for years]. You descend into tomb pits, one hundred or one hundred and fifty feet deep, crawl through subterraneous passages…. There is a rope you must trust to: a flimsy twist of palm fibre which becomes visibly thinner from the strain and goes further down as if into a mine … and you find Nobles from the time of Thutmoses II? [1500 BC] Ramses II? [1260 BC] lying in three coffins … alabaster vases, libation vessels—or only a broken coffin, a handful of bones with the jewels, amulets, papyri gone! There is an inscription on one of the walls of the passages…. Perhaps a new [hitherto unknown] chapter of The Book of The Dead…. Or a genealogical table. A link in the royal family of a dynasty, or [the records of] a Greek or Roman tourist….”
There was no telling what would be found next. This sense of anything being possible, of continual suspense, was shared by Carter. He experienced it almost from the beginning, and nowhere more strongly than in the Valley of the Kings. Over the course of decades, he developed a special feeling for the Valley. For him, it had a nature, a personality, all its own: It was capricious, disappointing the most strenuous efforts and then suddenly revealing some long hidden secret when one was at the point of giving up. The Valley had, Carter would say privately, a “mystical potency”: an uncanny power to which he became attuned over many years of digging. He worked at many sites, but no other place had the same draw.
What saved him was his strong grip on reality: His love for the Valley had no admixture of superstitious dread. Weigall, by contrast, gave complete rein to his imagination. At the end of 1911, Weigall’s breakdown began on a train returning to the Valley, where he had been living for many years. He turned around and fled to Cairo, unable to face yet another encounter with the stark cliffs sheltering the ancient royal tombs. Soon afterward, he left Egypt on sick leave.
Weigall was not alone—this susceptibility was an occupational hazard. Georges Legrain, for example, the service archaeologist who spent some twenty years working at the Karnak temple, also gave way. About the time that he discovered the “Karnak cache”—some six thousand huge statues hidden under the temple ground—rumors began to circulate about his erratic behavior. Scandalized, Maspero rebuked him for participating in ancient rituals. “Legrain is a fool—I will wash his head!” Maspero fumed in a letter to a colleague. “He has gone out of his mind!”
Apparently, Legrain had practiced his indiscretions in a side chapel of Karnak, the three-thousand-year-old temple to the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet. It was a small structure with a tiny opening in the granite ceiling shedding a dim light on the goddess with her enigmatic smile. Cracks could be seen near her shoulders where her statue was restored. Two basket boys had died during its excavation (buried by a sudden cave-in), and their father, blaming Sekhmet, vented his rage on her image.
Chanting before the goddess, Legrain had recited the ancient spells as if he were a priest of the goddess, while two visiting Frenchwomen kissed her feet.
In a letter dated March 1911, Maspero wrote to Legrain: “Everyone—natives and foreigners—ridicules both you who indulge yourself daily in these eccentricities and the Department that allows you to do so.”
But mad or sane, Legrain managed to stay at his post and perform valuable restoration work. The young Oxford-trained archaeologist Edward Ayrton was not as fortunate. Joseph Lindon Smith, a painter of archaeological scenes, remembered that “Ayrton was not popular at night. By consensus, his cot was placed a long distance away from the rest of us. He had dreadful nightmares in which he shrieked in fluent Chinese.” The Chinese was incidental (Ayrton was brought up in the East by a diplomat father), but the nightmares were perhaps a sign of what was to come. Eventually Ayrton quit Egypt, his nerves overstrained and his personality warped. In a letter to a friend, Smith related that at the opening of Pharaoh Horemheb’s tomb, “Ayrton had suddenly gone mad…. We think he has gone off his head really.”
Following this, Ayrton left Egypt, unable to bear the solitude of the sites, worn out by the intense pressure of his patron, Theodore Davis, to find royal tombs, and unable to descend any longer into the underground passages. Ayrton died soon afterward in Ceylon during a hunting expedition—the circumstances of the young man’s death being, it goes without saying, suspicious to some, perfectly normal to others.
In an essay entitled “The Malevolence of Ancient Spirits,” Arthur Weigall cataloged a long list of strange incidents—of mummies being removed from houses where desperately sick children then recover, of mummified animals bursting as their live counterparts suddenly appeared nearby, and so on—incidents that the skeptical may dismiss as coincidence or hearsay.
One story, however, was especially noteworthy in that it needs no supernatural sanction. With or without sorcery, it reveals the way the daily work of the diggers had the potential to induce a kind of madness: “We were engaged in clearing out a vertical tomb-shaft,” Weigall recalled, “which had been cut through the rock underlying the sandy surface of the desert…. At sunset I gave the order to stop work for the night, and I was about to set out on my walk back to the camp when the foreman came to tell me that a mummied hand had been laid bare, and it was evident that we were about to come upon an interred body.
“By lamplight, therefore, the work was continued; and presently we had uncovered the sand-dried body of an old woman, who by her posture appeared to have met with a violent death. It was evident that this did not represent the original burial in the tomb, the bottom of the shaft not yet having been reached; and I conjectured that the corpse before us had been thrown from above at some more recent date—perhaps in Roman times [that is, 30 BC-AD 342, considered recent by Egyptian standards]—when the shaft was but half full of debris, and in course of time had become buried by blown sand and natural falls of rock.
“The workmen were now waiting for their evening meal, but I was anxious to examine the body and its surroundings carefully. I therefore sent all but one of the men back to the camp, and descended into the shaft by means of a rope ladder, carrying with me a hurricane lamp to light my search. In the flickering rays of the lamp … the old woman lay upon her back, her arms outstretched upwards, as though they had stiffened thus in some convulsion, the fingers being locked together. Her legs were thrust outwards rigidly, and the toes were cramped and bent. The features of the face were well preserved, as was the whole body; and long black hair descended to her bony shoulders in a tangled mass. Her mouth was wide open, the two rows of teeth gleaming savagely in the uncertain light, and the hollow eye-sockets seemed to stare upwards, as though fixed upon some object of horror…. [Despite the passage of thousands of years, the faces of mummies are often extraordinarily expressive. One has only to compare the peaceful, dignified expression on the face of Seti I with the agonized features of Pharaoh Se’qe’enre, who died of horrible wounds in battle.]
“Just as I was completing my search I felt a few drops of rain fall, and at the same time realised that the wind was howling and whistling above me. A rain storm in Upper Egypt is a very rare occurrence, and generally it is of a torrential character. If I left the body at the bottom of the shaft, I thought to myself, it would be soaked and destroyed; and since, as a specimen, it was well worth preserving, I decided to carry it to the surface, where there was a hut in which it could be sheltered…. I called out to the man whom I had told to wait for me on the surface, but received no reply. Either he had misunderstood me and gone home, or else the noise of the wind prevented my voice from reaching him. Large spots of rain were now falling, and there was no time for hesitation. I therefore lifted the body on to my back, the two outstretched arms passing over my shoulders and the linked fingers clutching, as it were, at my chest. I then began to climb up the rope ladder, and as I did so I noticed with something of a qualm that the old woman’s face was peeping at me over my right shoulder and her teeth seemed about to bite my right ear.
“I had climbed about half the distance when my foot dislodged a fragment of rock from the side of the shaft, and, as luck would have it, the stone fell right upon the lamp, smashing the glass and putting the light out. The darkness in which I found myself was intense, and now the wind began to buffet me and to hurl the sand into my face. With my right hand I felt for the woman’s head and shoulder, in order to hitch the body more firmly on to my back, but to my surprise my hand found nothing there. At the same moment I became conscious that the hideous face was grinning at me over my left shoulder, my movements, I suppose, having shifted it; and without further delay, I blundered and scrambled to the top of the shaft in a kind of panic.
“No sooner had I reached the surface than I attempted to relieve myself of my burden. The wind was now screaming past me and the rain was falling fast. I put my left hand up to catch hold of the corpse’s shoulder, and to my dismay found that the head had slipped round once more to my right, and the face was peeping at me from that side. I tried to remove the arms from around my neck, but, with ever increasing horror, I found that the fingers had caught in my coat and seemed to be holding on to me. A few moments of struggle ensued, and at last the fingers released their grip. Thereupon the body swung round so that we stood face to face, the withered arms still around my neck and the teeth grinning at me through the darkness. A moment later I was free, and the body fell back from me, hovered a moment, as it were, in mid air, and suddenly disappeared from sight. It was then that I realised that we had been struggling at the very edge of the shaft, down which the old woman had now fallen, and near which some will say that she had been wildly detaining me.”
To this suggestion—that the murdered old woman was trying to drag Weigall into the pit into which she had been thrown so long before—Carter would have snorted his usual line: “Tommyrot!” Though he himself was a man of much imagination, it was just this kind of speculation he hated. And it was just this kind of speculation that would dog his footsteps from the moment he made his great discovery.
Again and again, he would be forced to refute occult theories about Tut’s tomb. He fought “the good fight,” citing authorities that ranged from chemists and scientists (who confirmed that the tomb contained no ancient poisons, powders, or deadly metals) to the pope (who declared that the excavation of Tut was not a blasphemous exhumation, but a resurrection).
If there was a single statement that sums up Carter’s position, it was the one he made at the end of his career: “Imagination is a good servant, but it is a bad master.” Weigall fell under its spell and had a nervous breakdown. But Carter was conscious that it was he himself who summoned up whatever spirits inhabited the tombs. For him, they were part of the dreamlike interplay of light and shadow that made Egypt eternally intriguing.
This attitude was in evidence from the very beginning. Carter was sensitive to his surroundings; they worked on him, but he was never overwhelmed. In his abandoned autobiographical sketch, he described how he felt when he arrived at his first assignment: “The warm, dry and motionless atmosphere [of the tomb where he slept] made me conscious of a strange sensation as I lay somewhat bewildered in my new surroundings, endeavouring to sleep upon a roughly made palm-branch bedstead. That first night I watched from my bed the brilliant starry heavens visible through the doorway. I listened to the faint flutterings of the bats that flitted around our rock-chamber and, in imagination I called up strange spirits from the ancient dead until the first gleam of dawn when, from sheer fatigue I fell asleep.”
There were not many sleepless nights after that. Very simply, he worked too hard to sit up listening to the bats—or to summon strange spirits. He was exhausted by the end of a day that was filled with difficult, practical tasks. Perhaps this was the element in his character that grounded him—his practical orientation. In reading the scores of inspection and excavation reports he filed over the years, one is struck by two facts: first, how good he was at what he did; and second, how often his work required purely technical skills.
To pick an example almost at random, take his Report of Work Done in Upper Egypt, 1902–1903, Edfu Temple (the most complete example of an ancient temple standing since antiquity). The report is typical in its precision, its specificity—and its misspelling: “Many of the roof slabs in this temple have long been cracked, their excessive span having in the long course of centuries proved two [sic] great a strain on the sandstone of which they are made.
“May 1901. Temple strutted with timber until the necessary girders and stirrups could be obtained each stone slab pierced by a 0m.05 cent. boring machine. Iron stirrups passed through, though bolted below by a nut and plate and fixed above to iron girders etc.
“159 L.E. [Egyptian pounds] prices for girders, stirrups, timed and year wages to workmen freight and transport … etc.”
He may confuse the spelling of “two” and “too” (his letters and reports are filled with misspelled English words—next to Latin and French phrases, affectations picked up from his gentlemen colleagues). But he made no mistakes when it came to the technical side of his work. Or, for that matter, its artistic one. His drawings, watercolors, and paintings far surpass his colleagues’ work not only for accuracy, but in their feeling for ancient Egyptian line and color.
His portraits of the ancient royal Thutmoside family brought them to life. His studies of the temples and tombs were evocative and panoramic. And the details he captured were amazing: Beneath the weight of a crouching cat, we see the papyrus plant bend in the ancient swamps, birds fluttering overhead. A vulture carved in a temple wall, its wings outstretched, hovers over a modern bird perched in a crevice of the ruined wall. Row upon row of ancient workmen are recorded down to the last man, forty-two in a gang, with the foreman, arms outstretched, standing high above them.
He was not a great artist; connoisseurs (such as Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1970s) may find fault with this or that aspect of his work. But for what it was meant to be, a record of the ancient ruins, it was wonderful.
It can be imagined, then, how such a man as Carter, someone possessed of artistic temperament as well as practical intelligence, could be driven to exasperation by a sensation-seeking public. From the moment of Carnarvon’s death, he was barraged with questions from reporters dwelling on curses and ancient poisons and doom.
Tut’s mummy was found to have a scar from a healed lesion. As the medical report from the first autopsy reads: “On the left cheek, just in front of the earlobe, is a round depression which has slightly raised edges, the skin is discoloured. It is not possible to say what the nature of this lesion may have been….” Carnarvon was fatally bitten on his cheek as well—but on which one? By the time Dr. Derry performed the autopsy on Tut, no one could say for sure. Half a year earlier, Carnarvon had been buried in the hills overlooking Highclere (as a Daily Express reporter flew overhead, taking pictures of his widow, Almina—for once without her lover, Tiger—as she knelt beside the grave).
Undeterred, the tragic chorus crying, “The curse!” pointed to other “phenomena,” from the inexplicable to the ludicrous: Cairo’s lights suddenly went out as Lord Carnarvon died. They were always going out, it may be objected! Yes, but consider this, comes the believer’s imperturbable reply: All four Cairo districts were affected at once, an unusual occurrence. Moreover, one to which Lord Cromer drew attention by announcing that the engineer on duty could offer no explanation.
A Paris couturier (Léon Bakst) planned a showing of his “Isis collection” (designs à la Tut) and died the night before its opening.
Carnarvon’s private secretary, Sir Richard Bethel, aged forty-six, was found dead at his club. It was a punishment, proclaimed the famous psychic Cheiro, for his having taken objects from the tomb.
But even saying we accept the supernatural viewpoint, there is still another way of looking at events. For according to Egyptian beliefs, to be forgotten, to die and be consigned to oblivion, was a terrible fate. Ramesses II, perhaps the most megalomaniacal of the pharaohs, built monuments from one end of Egypt to the other. Determined that his name should live forever, he covered them with cartouches carved so deeply in the stone that no one could usurp them. And even humbler Egyptians put great emphasis on being remembered, on their names echoing until the end of time.
Unlike the impious Greeks, who would sometimes mirthfully record that the deceased was a boozer and a mad dog, lustful beyond belief, someone who never said no to a wager, and so on, the Egyptians were concerned for the fate of their souls. Wandering among their graves, one is continually beseeched by the long dead to utter their names or to pour out some water or wine for them before the gods.
Before the discovery of his tomb, Tutankhamun was one of the least known of the pharaohs, his name familiar to perhaps half a dozen scholars. Afterward, he eclipsed even Ramesses in fame. Looked at in this way, Carter could truthfully claim that he deserved a blessing, not a curse, for having brought about the boy-king’s resurrection.
But if Carter was too practical to greatly concern himself with such speculation, he was also practical enough to humor the superstitious Carnarvon during their years of working together. During a return visit to England, Carter was a guest at Highclere, where he shot, rode—and attended séances in the East Anglia bedroom. Carnarvon’s son, the naughty Porchester, now a grown-up and a soldier on duty in Mesopotamia, was home on leave.
This time Porchester did not listen from the attic; he was invited to attend. As he remembered: “I watched [Lady] Helen Cunliffe-Owen put into a trance on an occasion when Howard Carter was also present. It had been an eerie, not to say unpleasant, experience which had shaken me considerably. One moment she had been her normal self, the next her features had become strained and white. Suddenly she had started talking in an unknown tongue which, to everyone’s astonishment, Howard Carter had pronounced as being Coptic.”
Carter would probably not have been able to distinguish Coptic, the last form of ancient Egyptian, from Celtic. He knew a little about the written form of ancient Egyptian, the hieroglyphs—but only what was useful in his excavations (when it came to any question about inscriptions, he turned to such experts as James Breasted or Sir Alan M. Gardiner, who were both working in Egypt during this time).
The pronunciation of the hieroglyphs (which ceased to be written in the fourth century AD) was and remains a disputed matter, the language having been written without vowels. Though as a spoken language, Coptic lingered on until the eleventh century AD, that still leaves us with the question of where Carter would have heard its sounds.
The only possible answer would be in church, where Coptic is still sometimes used in the Egyptian orthodox liturgy: an unlikely answer, since Carter’s religion was digging. Letters, journals, diaries, and reports show him at the sites (even at Christmas), not listening to the chanting of monks.
A more likely explanation is that he was too polite—or too politic—to disappoint his patron. It is revealing to consider this question in the light of another incident, also from his early years, the years when he was still struggling to forge a career: the visit of Emma Andrews to Amenhotep II’s tomb, which Carter was restoring. Ms. Andrews asked Carter about some hieroglyphs covering a coffin, and Carter, perhaps not wanting to disappoint her, perhaps wanting to be seen in a more authoritative light, “translated” the inscription as an ancient Egyptian curse. However, there was no such curse on the coffin lid!
The fact of the matter is that Carter was not above lying when it suited his purpose. It is a side of his character that we will encounter with a shock of surprise later on, when much more is at stake.
Even with the whole world watching—after the discovery of Tut’s tomb—he could be deceitful. He could secretly enter the inner burial chamber and then replace the blocking for the official opening. He could not only pocket “small” objects from the tomb (his niece would secretly return them after his death), but also attempt to steal one of its great masterpieces: the wooden portrait bust of the young king emerging from a lotus.
Such actions should not serve to indict him. They only remind us of his complexity as a human being. They are a caveat—do not take the man at face value. He was like one of the desert cliffs or Delta mounds he excavated. More was going on beneath the surface than you saw.
He wrote in his autobiographical sketch that sometimes he became discouraged at the hardships of his life as an excavator; sometimes he questioned his own wisdom in choosing a profession other than that of his father. It was more than a new profession he was trying to achieve, though, it was a new identity. He was trying to reinvent himself but felt ill equipped for the part he wanted to play in life. He knew his manners were gauche and his education poor, but still he would not give up. A gentleman colleague wrote in a letter: “He [Carter] doesn’t hesitate to pick his last hollow tooth with a match stalk during dinner, bite bread that is so hard you can hardly cut it with a chopper, and help himself to whisky in an absent minded fashion, emptying half the bottle into his tumbler, then laugh and say he wasn’t thinking and pour it back again into the bottle, spilling a lot.”
“I have never accepted Carter as a colleague,” wrote another, the respected archaeologist George Andrew Reisner, at the time digging in Egypt for Harvard University and the Boston Museum.
Carter knew there were those who disliked and scorned him, but from the beginning he was determined to beat them at their own game. After the discovery, when he became a public figure, there were unkind comments about his “plummy” accent (Americans would say “fruity”): It was Carter’s version of an upper-class accent, of course, which he affected along with the silk breast pocket handkerchiefs and the cigarette holders and even the body language that he copied from Carnarvon. In terms of Carter’s new identity, Carnarvon’s aristocratic style was just as important to the excavator as what he learned on the ancient mounds. For the earl served not only as Carter’s patron, but as a role model, a way of presenting himself to the world.
If Carnarvon could be irritating to Carter, sitting down in the desert to dine aristocratically on bacon, tongue, curried fowl, wine, biscuits, and Oriental pickles—courtesy of Fortnum & Mason—and in the middle of the day to boot; if Carnarvon’s enthusiasm in the face of dismal failures could likewise get on Carter’s nerves—if the earl’s séances and table rappings had to be borne—Carter could not have achieved what he did without him.
The genial earl came to Egypt for his health; the gloomy excavator was there to find his livelihood—purposes that grew in scope and depth by the time their paths crossed. It was a meeting that, in retrospect, seemed fated. It was as if they had been summoned by the boy-king, who, underground, waited for them in all his unresurrected splendor—a mystical notion that would have pleased Carnarvon no end but that would have made poor Carter suffer.