Whether for passion or greed, hunting the bones and baubles of ancient rulers makes for great drama – and the true-life tale of archaeologist Howard Carter, who discovered the lost tomb of Tutankhamun in 1921, is as amazing as the treasures he found.
It remains one of the greatest archaeological achievements, with more than 5,000 items found including the boy-king’s death mask and coffin.
The story of Carter's epic quest for the burial site, set against the sweeping backdrop of Egypt caught up in the violence of the First World War, is told in a compelling mini-series, Tutankhamun, which starts today on ITV Choice, on OSN.
Max Irons (Woman In Gold, The White Queen) plays the dogged, bloody-minded Carter, an eminent British archaeologist desperately and dangerously caught up in his life's work amid the ochre sands, looming cliffs and baking heat of the Valley of the Kings.
“It really is an astonishing story – an incredible adventure, pure and simple,” says Irons. “When I read the script it was a real joy. It’s interesting to look at the world Howard was operating in at the time.
“Enormous hotels were constructed in the middle of the desert in Egypt and they were full of wealthy Englishmen, Americans, French, and experts sent out there by various museums to conduct explorations. It was a time when Egyptology and archaeology were very fashionable and had really captured the public’s imagination.”
Bringing an equal measure of passion to the pursuit of the forgotten pharaoh is dashing and eccentric Lord Carnarvon – played by Sam Neill (Peaky Blinders, Jurassic Park) – who keeps faith with Carter, despite the gulf in their social standing in the class-conscious England of the era.
He continues to fund the archaeologist’s seemingly fanciful expeditions, even after all other supporters turn away.
“[Carnarvon] was there for health reasons,” says Neill.
“He had a bad leg and the heat suited him. So he found himself in Egypt with no particular interest in archaeology but then became increasingly intrigued by what was going on – because it was all the rage at that time. Everyone was looking for tombs and he got himself caught up in it.”
Beyond the sheer romance of buried treasure and the quest to solve a 3,000-year-old mystery, though, there is also a tale of courage, tenacity and relentless self-belief, says Guy Burt, the scriptwriter of the four-part mini-series, who previously wrote for Jekyll and Hyde, The Bletchley Circle and The Borgias, among others.
“Howard Carter was an unbelievably driven, stubborn, difficult man whose conviction that Tutankhamun’s tomb lay in the centre of the Valley of the Kings contradicted every expert archaeological opinion and decades of exhaustive digging,” he says. “He should, by all accounts, have been utterly wrong. Instead he was spot-on correct.
“But the willpower to drive that point of view home, get the concession to dig, and see the job through made him socially awkward to a fault.”
Throwing a spanner in the works of his storied friendship with Carnarvon is Carter's interest in his patron's daughter, Evelyn, played by Amy Wren (Silk, The Last Kingdom).
It is Evelyn who, as a teenager, plants the seed in Carter’s mind about the possibility of finding a royal tomb forgotten by history. When they meet again, she is a young woman but theirs is a forbidden love, crossing class boundaries, between two people who at that time could not possibly expect to have a future together.
Despite all the obstacles in the way, against all odds, after decades of toil and at great personal expense, Carter and Carnarvon found King Tut’s tomb in 1921.
With a meticulous recreation of the royal tomb and its contents, cast and crew relived the excitement of the famed discovery during the crucial scene in which Carter holds a candle through a small opening, and lets his eyes adjust to the light – as golden treasures glint after millennia of darkness.
Tutankhamun was not filmed in Egypt, but in a deep valley on the border between Namibia and South Africa.
“Which meant there was often no wind,” says Irons, “so it was stiflingly hot to the extent that on the first day they had to fly in five or six extra trailers for all the people that were fainting. From that day on they were giving us electrolytes and water constantly.”
“We’d get back from work, red-eyed with tears streaming down our faces from the dust,” says Neill.
But this proved useful, says Irons. “It was so helpful for us as actors”, he says, “because you’re hot, you’re sweating, you’re dusty and thirsty – all that stuff you usually have to fake. It was just what we needed.”
• The opening episode of Tutankhamun will be broadcast at 8am, 1pm and 7.25pm today on ITV Choice.