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Tut, Tut

March 13, 1988

Highclere Castle in Britain is reputedly so large that no one quite knows just how many rooms it has. Highclere Castle is also the ancestral home of the earls of Carnarvon, a name sure to be familiar to anyone who ever looked into the lore surrounding the excavation of King Tutankhamen's tomb. For it was the fifth Earl of Carnarvon who financed the 1922 discovery of the Tut artifacts in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, and it was the same fifth earl who not long after that found himself suddenly dead. Officially, the earl died of an infected mosquito bite. But that was only the opinion of medical science. According to legend, what the unfortunate man really succumbed to was--heh, heh, heh--the Curse of the Pharaohs!

Curse, shmurse, our story now moves forward to last September, when the sixth Earl of Carnarvon died and Highclere Castle passed into the possession of his son. Now one of the first things that anyone who inherits a castle must do is make a list of everything in it--so many priceless paintings, so many precious Oriental rugs, so many tons of silver plate, so many plastic lawn flamingos. This is because without an inventory one can never be sure what might turn up missing after the last of one's weekend guests has gone home. Anyway, Lord Carnarvon, who was being helped out by his father's retired butler, counted and tallied and finally said, Well, I guess that's it. Yes, said the butler, undoubtedly with butlerian aplomb, that's everything, "except the Egyptian things . "

With that the butler led Lord Carnarvon, who knew nothing of any Egyptian things, to a neglected passageway between the drawing room (which has a sign saying Thank You for Not Smoking), and the smoking room (which has a sign saying Thank You for Not Drawing). And there, in a sealed cupboard where they had reposed for more than 60 years, were something over 300 artifacts taken from King Tut's tomb!

The announcement of the discovery or recovery of these objects has not surprisingly provoked a dispute over their provenance. Lord Carnarvon says that they were obtained legitimately, as part of the 50-50 split agreed to on the one hand by the fifth earl and his excavator, Howard Carter, and on the other by the Egyptian government. The present Egyptian government, however, maintains that the artifacts were ripped off; it wants them given back. That seems unlikely to happen, any more than it's likely that New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has owned the more familiar and magnificent part of the Tut collection since 1926, will have an attack of post-imperial morality and decide to return its artifacts to their homeland.

The British Museum's keeper of Egyptian antiquities, Harry James, supports Lord Carnarvon's claim to be the proper owner of the sealed cupboard cache. Besides, James says, most of the stuff that was recently found is just so much "archeological junk"--in other words, your typical 3,300-year-old royal schlock, hardly worth arguing over. That's good enough for us. Tutankhamen, as we remember it, was one of the lesser kings, and it may well be that when the time came to provide for his comfortable afterlife certain corners were cut, certain expenses were spared, and what went into his tomb was not the best that Egyptian craftsmanship had to offer. For all we know, that may be where the Curse of the Pharaohs really got its start.

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