Earl hails Tutankhamun discovery
The Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun might remain undiscovered to this day but for the dogged perseverance of the British archaeologists who found and opened his tomb 90 years ago, the Earl of Carnarvon has said.
George Herbert, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon, hailed the "determined and stoic behaviour" shown by his namesake ancestor, the fifth earl, and Howard Carter, working in primitive conditions with their team in the desert.
The current Lord Carnarvon spoke ahead of the 90th anniversary on February 16 of the men discovering the boy king's sarcophagus in the Valley of the Kings in 1923, becoming the first people to set eyes on it in 3,000 years.
He described their find as a key point in our understanding of ancient history but said it was forgotten by many tourists visiting the site today.
"We still think that the two men made an extraordinary contribution to humanity's understanding of the ancient world," Lord Carnarvon said.
"If they hadn't discovered it there is every chance it would not have been discovered by today.
"These two men did us an extraordinary service."
Having died in mysterious circumstances in 1323 BC at the age of 19, Tutankhamun was buried in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt.
Raided twice by robbers in the months following his death, the entrance of the tomb was resealed to protect it from further plunder.
Soon afterwards it is believed that the tomb was buried by debris from subsequent tombs that was either dumped there deliberately or washed there by floods.
In subsequent years huts for workers were built over the tomb in an indication that what lay beneath had by then been forgotten.
It was under the hut that Carter and his team discovered steps leading to the tomb on November 4 1922.
Carter had previously convinced the earl, an Egypt fanatic for many years, to finance one last season after years of disappointment in the hunt for Tutankhamun.
After careful preparations they opened the burial chamber containing the sarcophagus of the boy king four months later in February 1923.
The current earl said the "scholarly" Carter had done a good job in recording the inside of the tomb in an organised manner.
And he said the men, especially his ancestor, deserved credit for working in difficult conditions.
As well as his interest in ancient Egypt the fifth earl was an early car pioneer and his health had been permanently affected by a series of crashes.
"Obviously Tutankhamun is an iconic pharaoh and the mask of Tutankhamun is one of the most iconic images in the world," Lord Carnarvon said.
"But it is forgotten that Carter and my great grandfather had a lot to do with the discovery."
"(Today) you can (still) go across the Nile in a boat but on the other side it is in an air-conditioned car."
"When they went out it was a long journey.
"He (the earl) had to make sure there was enough water, things like that.
"He worked by himself for three or four seasons before working with Carter and made some significant discoveries before Carter joined with his team."
The frail earl died in April 1923, a high-profile victim of the supposed curse of Tutankhamun.
In reality, Lord Carnarvon said, his great-grandfather's death, from blood poisoning and pneumonia caused by an infected mosquito bite on his face, was "coincidental".
But he said it did not stop his "superstitious" grandfather, the sixth earl, from trying to bury links with Egypt.
Many of the artefacts brought back from the tomb were sold to cover death duties and others were hidden around the family seat, Highclere Castle in Berkshire, better known to millions as the setting for popular ITV period drama Downton Abbey.
"My grandfather was a bit superstitious about it and wouldn't speak to me about it a great deal," Lord Carnarvon said.
"But after his death we found artefacts here in 1987 and 1988 that had been hidden for 60 years."
Those artefacts form the basis of the family's collection in the cellar of the house, which opened to the public in 1988 and was expanded four years ago, including scores of replica artefacts from the tomb.
On Monday, Lord Carnarvon will welcome dignitaries including the Egyptian ambassador to Highclere Castle to celebrate the anniversary and show off the family's collection.
Lord Carnarvon said he last went to Egypt last November, after the revolution that saw the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and election of Mohammed Morsi as president.
The violence in the capital Cairo in January 2011 saw the famed antiquities museum, which is home to thousands of priceless artefacts, including the gold mask of King Tutankhamun, have to be protected by soldiers to deter looters.
Later young men formed a human chain outside the main entrance in an attempt to protect the collection inside, before four armoured vehicles took up posts outside the massive coral-coloured building.
Lord Carnarvon said the people always treated them well when he was there, but that tourism in the area was suffering.
"It is very different now. The tourism along the Nile and in Cairo is such a very important source of income," Lord Carnarvon said.
"It is a very difficult time for them, there are powerful forces pulling things in different directions."