“HOWARD, IS THAT YOU? What do you think you’re doing in here?” asked Lord Amherst, swinging open the library doors. “These artifacts are irreplaceable. I’ve told you that before. You are a stubborn boy.”
Thirteen-year-old Howard Carter quickly turned his head toward His Lordship. He was caught! He had been warned repeatedly about this room. He was definitely a stubborn boy.
It was the middle of the day. Young Carter was supposed to be helping his father, who was painting a new commission for His Lordship. In a moment of boredom, the boy had slipped away to the most forbidden and imposing room at Didlington Hall: the library.
He couldn’t help himself. The room was utterly fascinating, its silence augmented by the startling, massive stone statues situated about the room, imported straight from the sands of Egypt. To gaze at them allowed Carter to see into the history of the known world. These pieces truly wereirreplaceable.
Didlington Hall was a palatial fortress eight miles south of Swaffham. It was the county seat of Lord Amherst, a member of Parliament with a penchant for styling his hair in the foppish manner of Oscar Wilde. Seven thousand acres and sixteen leased farms surrounded the great home. There was a large, pristine lake, a paddock, a falconer’s lodge, a boathouse, and a ballroom that had been host to grand and important parties for more than a hundred years.
But it was the library that Howard Carter loved most, and he couldn’t stay out of the room.
Fortunately, Lord Amherst was a nice man with five daughters; Carter was the closest thing to a son he’d ever had. He recognized the slender, strong-jawed young man’s innate, sometimes fierce curiosity and saw in him something of himself.
He and young Carter both wanted—no, that would be too soft a description—demanded answers about what had come before them. They were obsessed with the ancient past.
So rather than kicking Carter out of the library, Lord Amherst proceeded to walk him through the wood-paneled room, patiently explaining the significance of the more notable books.
There was a priceless collection of Bibles, for example, many printed centuries earlier. There was a section devoted to incunabula, books printed shortly after the invention of the printing press. There were books with fancy bindings, first editions by famous authors, and so forth and so on.
And then there was the Egyptian collection.
In addition to owning tome after tome detailing the known history of ancient Egypt, Lord Amherst had rather obsessively decorated the library with Egyptian relics. The taller statues were bigger than a man and loomed like sentinels among the overstuffed wingback chairs and oil reading lamps. There were dozens of smaller statues too, and rare texts printed on papyrus that had been sealed behind glass so human hands like Howard’s couldn’t damage them. Amherst had bought the collection from a German priest two decades earlier and had added to it every year since.
“Not only is it one of the largest and most important collections of Egyptology in all of Great Britain,” he told Carter, “it is the joy of my life.”
“And mine as well,” Carter chimed in.
The tour concluded with a history-changing announcement: Lord Amherst was hereby offering the young man unlimited access to his collection. Never mind that something as simple as bumping into a statue could cause thousands of pounds’ worth of damage—Amherst had seen the passion in Carter’s eyes as he told him of the mysteries of Egyptian culture, with its strange alphabet and belief in the afterworld and the amazing burial chambers.
Amherst encouraged Carter to immerse himself in Egyptology. And that was precisely what Howard Carter did—until the day he died.