Not long after I moved to England I heard someone refer to a time when “the whole map was pink”, which I eventually learned meant “when the British Empire was at its height”. Mapmakers, it seems, considered red the most appropriate color for Britain and its colonies, but a red background makes black text difficult to read, so they toned the red down to pink.
Great Britain did control a surprising—to those of us who didn’t grow up with those pink-tinted maps in our schoolrooms—proportion of the globe considering that it’s a pretty small island. As a result, over the last couple or three centuries some wonderful things from other cultures ended up here. Recently, in highly publicized cases, some countries have made clear their preference for reclaiming the material relics of their cultural heritage, thank you very much, but for now, if you want to see the Rosetta stone, the Sphinx’s beard, or sculptures from the pediment of the Athenian Parthenon, you can see them at the British Museum in London.
But not all foreign treasures sit in major museums. Stately homes frequently show off collections of artifacts bought (they’re usually bought fair and square, not literally plundered, though some people think of the purchases as exploitation) and brought back from postings abroad—which is why, for example, walking on the grounds of such a property near Guildford, you can stumble across a Maori village’s meeting house, the whole thing brought back by a former governor of New Zealand and re-assembled in a corner of his estate. And that’s why if you go to visit Highclere Castle, seat of the Earls of Carnarvon, you can find a little bit of ancient Egypt.
The 5th Earl of Carnarvon—George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert by name, but don’t ask me how the names and titles work; he was called Viscount Portchester before he inherited the earldom—famously dabbled in archaeology. For several years he funded work without much luck; in his first year of digging, his team found only one mummified cat. That was 1906, and by 1922, having found a bit of this and that—much of it historically important, but nothing like the treasures he hoped to find—he was ready to throw in the towel. He told Howard Carter, manager of his Egyptian digs, that he planned to stop pouring money into excavation. Carter could have one last chance. And that’s when he found King Tut’s tomb.
I’ve visited that tomb in the Valley of the Kings across the Nile from Luxor. The striking figures painted on the walls look as though they ought still have the “Fresh Paint” sign hanging on them, the unspoiled, brilliant colors all the more astonishing because to get there you go through—in my case, by bicycle—a baking desert in which every rock, every speck of dust, every rise of land, every single thing you can see is the same dull khaki color.
In 1984 when I visited, the wall paintings were almost all that was left for tourists to see, although since then the king’s body has been replaced in his tomb chamber. When Howard Carter first put a candle into the tomb through the a slit in the rock, the dazzle of the gold furnishings reflecting the candlelight struck him speechless for so long that Lord Carnarvon finally had to prompt him with “Can you see anything?” Carter famously replied, “Yes, wonderful things”, and “Wonderful Things” is the title of the exhibition I visited last week at Highclere Castle, on the Berkshire-Hampshire border near Newbury.
Those glittering grave furnishings recovered from Tutankhamun’s tomb remain in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, when they aren’t touring the world. Even the little cat mummy from the first year of digging sits, with its little cat coffin, in the Egyptian Museum. His widow sold a great deal of the Earl’s collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to pay off a tax debt, too, but the items the family retained, now displayed in a museum in the cellars, are definitely worth a look.
The centerpiece of the first room of that exhibition, a mummy case from a tomb at Deir-el-Bahri belonging to a noble lady, may not be as grand as King Tut’s, but is beautiful in its own right. (The staff didn’t permit photography, alas.) The goddess of night, Nut (pronounced noot), decorates the bottom of the coffin, with her painted arms rising up the sides to support the lid. 3500 years ago, high-born ladies started preparations for burial when in the prime of life even though they might not need their coffins for decades; that’s why the painted faces are always youthful. In the afterlife, the spirits of the dead have to find their bodies again; painting the faces of the deceased on their coffins helped the spirits could find their way to the right bodies.
The rest of the grave goods on display pertain to things that the deceased would need in the afterlife, whether the burial included the artifact itself, like silver bracelets and supplies of eye makeup; or a 3-D model of something the deceased would want, such as a sculpted pair of feet, complete with gilded toenails, provided so that the deceased would be able to walk in the hereafter; or 2-D paintings, such as hunting scenes full of fat ducks, so the deceased would have something to eat. Ushabtis, little figurines representing workers, provide staff to do the heavy digging—model employees, you might say. The Egyptian Book of the Dead (more accurately The Book of Coming (or Going) Forth By Day) provides the text inscribed on many ushabtis: “Oh Shabti, if [the deceased] be summoned to do any work which has to be done in the reaches of the Dead, to make arable the fields, to irrigate the land, or to carry sand from East to West: ‘Here I am’, you shall say, ‘I Shall Do It’.” The Christian heaven my Sunday School teachers described doesn’t, as far as I remember, require the transport of significant amounts of sand, but you never can tell.
The management at Highclere provides a box of sand in which young would-be archaeologists can dig with their hands to find 6 different treasures; my husband and I defined ourselves as young enough to play the game, though we only found 5 items: 4 ushabtis and a scarab. A sign asked us to re-bury our finds for the benefit of the next explorer to come along; if a previous young explorer couldn’t resist, and pocketed the one of the items, well, it wouldn’t be the first time.
Eventually the displays of authentically ancient Egyptian pieces gave way to reproductions of the famous articles from King Tut’s tomb. We had some houseguests with us who happen to be professional archaeologists; they were impressed at the quality of the recreations, and thought it very much worthwhile to provide a place where the public can look at and study the reproductions as long as they like, since seeing the originals either on tour or in Cairo involves being pushed through the exhibits by the crowd without getting much more than an impression of all the gold and lapis lazuli. My visitors complimented the didactics—museum-speak for the signs that tell you what things are—saying these were “quite good” (which you’ll know, if you read my previous post, is not always a ringing endorsement, but in this case, they did mean the didactics were very good).
There’s nothing like a professional perspective; our guests provided valuable insights such as the opinion that the 5th Earl, to go by his portrait, didn’t look like somebody you’d want to buy a used car from, and that an enormous solid alabaster canopic jar, with four heads carved on the lid in two rows of two, looked like kids on a rollercoaster. Okay, they had more astute things to say as well, but never let it be said that archaeologists are as dry as the dust they sift.
And in context of King Tutankhamun these particular archaeologists, being specialists in the history of Nubia, have reason to be irreverent; pharaohs always seem to be depicted defeating armies of Nubians. King Tut was no exception even though, dying at 18, it’s unlikely that he led any military campaigns. Despite ongoing fighting, the long history of Egyptian dynasties had comparatively few turning points in which significant territory changed hands; the map of the world King Tut knew would have been mainly one color, too, though perhaps lapis blue would be more fitting than British pink.
Highclere Castle’s “Wonderful Things” is worth a visit, and—who knows?—there could be more treasures to be found. If a retired butler hadn’t happened to mention, in 1987, two stashes of Egyptian artifacts in cupboards forgotten by everyone else, it might have been up to archaeologists decades or centuries from now to rediscover them.