How a boy from Swaffham fell in love with ancient Egypt in a vanished mansion and made one of the greatest discoveries of all time
Exactly a century ago, Howard Carter dug a tiny peephole into an ancient Egyptian tomb – and became the first person in 3,000 years to see Tutankhamun’s treasures.
Lord Carnarvon, who funded the search and excavation, eagerly asked what he could see. “Wonderful things,” Howard replied.
Wonderful indeed. It was the archaeological discovery of the century and the best preserved tomb ever discovered in the Valley of the Kings.
It was discovered by a boy from Swaffham, Howard Carter, who fell in love with the treasures of ancient Egypt at Didlington Hall on the edge of Thetford Forest.
The centenary of his incredible discovery is celebrated around the world, including exhibitions and events in Norwich and Swaffham.
To Didlington, between Swaffham and Thetford, a former stable and clock tower are all that remain of what was once one of Norfolk’s grandest mansions.
The exceptionally lavish Italianate room housed the Amherst family and their fabulous collection of Egyptian treasures.
Many of these are now in the British Museum, but when a portrait painter from Swaffham was employed by the family, Egyptian artefacts featured prominently in the mansion.
Painter Samuel Carter, renowned for his animal portraits, took his 15-year-old son Howard along to help – and the boy was fascinated by the artifacts from ancient Egypt.
It was the start of Howard’s journey to the Valley of the Kings and Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Lady Amherst of Didlington Hall was so impressed with young Howard’s drawings of the family’s ancient Egyptian treasures that in 1891, when he was 17, she suggested he go to Egypt to help record the paintings. graves discovered during an excavation led by a friend.
Within a few years Howard’s knowledge of ancient Egypt and his skill in drawing and painting the finds, honed in a Norfolk stately home, saw him appointed Inspector of Monuments, based in Luxor near the Valley of the Kings. He conducted scientific and systematic excavations and was eventually hired by Lord Carnarvon to search for tombs missed by previous expeditions – including that of the young pharaoh Tutankhamun.
For eight years they searched the Valley of the Kings and Howard had persuaded Lord Carnarvon to fund a final season when they found gold – and silver, turquoise, lapis lazuri, jewels, floats, statues, weapons, paintings and those amazing mummy masks and cases. .
In Swaffham Museum a gallery dedicated to Howard Carter includes a reconstruction of part of the burial chamber and the chance to hear Howard himself read his diary entries about the discovery of the tomb. Treasures on loan from the British Museum include ancient Egyptian sculptures of gods, jewelry and a tube of eye makeup bearing Tutankhamun’s name.
The exhibit also includes images painted by some of Howard’s artist siblings and drawings by his father.
Models and reconstructions of some of the finds were made by members of the Swaffham Men’s Shed and museum director Sue Gattuso said she was particularly fond of the ‘glimpse wall’ with its view of the tomb such as Howard l saw for the first time.
On November 26, exactly 100 years after the day Howard Carter first saw the treasures, Sue will tell the story of the man from Swaffham who dug up Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Both of Howard’s parents were born in Swaffham. Many of his relatives are buried in the cemetery and although he never had children himself, there are still members of his family in the area.
Howard’s four grandparents are buried in Swaffham Cemetery, near his father, two brothers, three uncles, two aunts and several cousins. Two of his brothers went to what was then the Hamond Free School in the town, although childhood illnesses meant that Howard himself had little formal education.
Howard’s great-niece Susan Allen runs Tutankhamun’s Emporium in Market Square – a tapas bar, art gallery and antique shop – which will also mark the centenary with a talk on the discovery on November 26.
A walking trail around the town includes the house on Sporle Road where he grew up, as well as other places related to his family.
He left Swaffham for Egypt aged 17, but the man destined to become one of the world’s greatest archaeologists returned regularly to the town to visit the haunts of his family and childhood.
As for Didlington Hall, the huge Norfolk mansion that launched Howard Carter’s journey, it was demolished in 1952. Long before that, the Amhersts had to sell most of the books in their magnificent library to cover the losses played. by a trusted member of staff and in 1910 sold the entire hall and its surrounding gardens, park, heronry, lake dotted with islands and even a racecourse.
In Norwich treasures spanning 2,000 years are part of an exhibit inspired by Howard Carter’s discovery.
Visions of ancient Egypt at the Sainsbury Center focuses on the fascination with ancient Egyptian art and design through the ages and explores how the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb sparked ‘Tutmania’ across the world and helped inspire the Art Deco movement .
The exhibition includes nearly 200 treasures from around the world and examines how 19th and 20th century excavations inspired a fashion for all things Egyptian. There are works of art by Joshua Reynolds, Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, David Hockney and contemporary Egyptian artists, as well as photography, film, fashion and jewelry.
A book cover for Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile and examples of evening wear from the 1920s are just a few of the items revealing how ancient Egypt influenced Western cultural life.
The exhibition also examines how the Egyptians themselves perceived their ancient heritage and examines interpretations of Cleopatra, from the wise scholar of medieval Arabic tradition to the glamorous Hollywood icon embodied by Elizabeth Taylo.
In addition to celebrating the centenary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, it also marks the 200th anniversary of the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone by Jean-François Champollion and the discovery of the key to reading Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Visions of Ancient Egypt runs at the Sainsbury Center at the University of East Anglia until 1 January 2023.
See more Egyptian treasures at Norwich Castle Museum
Researcher and curator Faye Kalloniatis has listed 500 fabulous artifacts. Five favorites include:
A beautifully painted mummy of the priest Ankh-hor, which once belonged to King George V who kept it at Sandringham before donating it to Norwich Castle. Its fascinating hieroglyphs reveal its duties, including opening the door to the sanctuary in an inner sanctum at the temple of Karnak, near Luxor, and clearing the way for a statue of a god when it was carried in procession.
A model attic donated by mustard tycoon Jeremiah James Colman. The ancient Egyptian Intef died over 4,000 years ago, but can still be seen playing a board game on the side of an ornately decorated clay attic model. Another side shows his son recording the amount of bread and beer he will need to see him through the afterlife. The model was purchased by Jeremiah James Colman during a family tour of Egypt in the 1890s and was one of hundreds of Egyptian treasures donated to the museum by his daughters in 1921.
A mummified cat with an extra-long neck. Cats and crocodiles were sacred to the Egyptians, and sometimes bred especially to be mummified – and sold to visitors who would leave them in the shrines of favorite gods. Norwich Castle has a mummy of a baby crocodile and a particularly long-necked cat. When the cat was X-rayed, Faye discovered that its head had been accidentally broken off, likely during the mummification, and fixed with a stick.
A model servant. Shabtis are miniature models of servants, created to work for the dead in the afterlife. One is decorated with a hieroglyph declaring: “When you are called, you will say ‘Here I am'”.
An earlobe plug. For centuries, these discs were thought of as spools of thread. “Archaeologists refused to believe they were earrings because they thought no one would have ear holes that big!” Faye said. “Now we know they would.”
The Egyptian Collection at Norwich Castle Museum by Faye Kalloniatis, is published by Oxbow.
And if it’s a pyramid you’re looking for, try Blickling where a pyramidal mausoleum was built in the woods in 1793 to house the bodies of John Hobart, Earl of Buckinghamshire, and his two wives. Inside, under a central dome, the floor is paved with marble and alcoves house three marble sarcophagi.