Discovering Tut – Carnarvon Never Got to See the Golden Death Mask

When you think of King Tut, do you see a young boy, struggling with the enormity of his power; a slender adolescent in control of the world’s greatest empire? Of course not, because you’re like me: you see the magnificent death mask, the coffins, shrines, shabtis, daggers, beds, decrepit mummy(with or without penis) et al. We ancient world-lovers are just magpies with laptops really.

But do you ever wonder why, when Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvonburst into the tomb in 1922, they could see so many ‘wonderful things’? Why wasn’t Tutankhamun’s funerary procession made ancient swag, like those of nearly all of ancient Egypt’s kings?

In fact even this isn’t strictly true, as Lady Carnarvon points out to us from the cellar-cum-Egyptian exhibition at Highclere Castle: “Howard Carter estimated that around 60 per cent of the jewellery which (sic) would have been in the tomb…was possibly stolen by grave diggers of ancient times.” Not a motto modern grave diggers will be thrilled about, but it does explain why the legs of the otherwise dazzling golden throne of King Tut are so bare.

“Tutankhamun wasn’t a great general, just a boy who’d married a girl.”

Yet the swathes of stunning objects in the Cairo Museum today are largely thanks to Tutankhamun’s anonymity as a leader. His grandfather Amenhotep III is widely seen as having led Egypt into her cultural and international peak. Yet Amenhotep III’s successes in life would prove his downfall in death: “Because he was a more successful, more renowned pharaoh, people knew to look for his tomb,” says Lady Carnarvon, “whereas Tutankhamun was the minor pharaoh.” Does this mean King Tut, for all his obscurity, is the most powerful pharaoh in the afterlife?

The Golden Throne found in Tutankhamun's Tomb (KV62) was one of a few artefacts Lord Carnarvon saw. Image Copyright - Sandro Vannini.

“Just a boy”

One of the tomb’s most famous treasures, the Golden Throne was mercifully one of a few artefacts Lord Carnarvon saw before his tragic death in 1923 aged just 56. And while most pieces stress the king’s authority, power and dominance, the throne (shot beautfully by Sandro Vannini) sheds light on Tut as a tender young man, gripped by the love of his wife Ankhesenamun. “He wasn’t a great general,” says Lady Carnarvon, “just a boy who’d married a girl.” The touching scene serves to highlight the throne’s ‘indescribable beauty’, points out Lady Carnarvon.

Lady Carnarvon is showing us a replica of the throne, and other items, at Highclere. Another replica on show is that of the king’s chest, a multicoloured homage to Tut’s kingship, and Egypt’s prowess over her neighbours. Tutankhamun is seen on a hunt astride a magnificent chariot drawn by plumed horses. “He’s wrapping the reins round his waist,” says Lady Carnarvon, “which looks blooming dangerous to me! Health and safety would say no.”

A Crusher of Nations

Yet there’s a grander purpose to the hunting scene than a few juicy racks of meat: both sides of the chest are decorated with Egypt’s two greatest enemies. Protected by the Sahara to the east and west, Egypt was only at risk at its northern and southern borders. However, despite the southern Nubians and the northern Hittites’ presence on the chest, Lady Carnarvon suspects Tutankhamun would not have attacked them – Egypt’s relative stability under his rule is testament to this.

Sadly the chest was to be one of the last things Lord Carnarvon saw before his untimely end. Yet Lady Carnarvon has no doubt he and Carter witnessed the glory of the boy-king together that fateful day in November 1922: “As Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter looked through the little hole they’d made, they’d have seen a glint of gold.” It was, as history confirms, so much more.

HD Video: Discovering King Tut – Carnarvon and the Artefacts

(Click here to read a transcript of this video)

Look our for our Ancient World in London series, where we’ll be exploring the great names of the Age of Discovery in Britain. You can even see us exploring the great archives of the Egypt Exploration Society in London, which feature the most famous archaeologists in history, here.

Fiona Carnarvon has written two books on the King Tut tomb raid: Carnarvon & Carter(buy here) and Egypt at Highclere: The Discovery of Tutankhamun(buy here). You can watch every instalment of our special Discovering Tut video series right here at Heritage Key: