South Front, Didlington Hall
South Front, Didlington Hall. (1910 Sale Catalogue – Norfolk Records Office)

One of the most thrilling moments in the last hundred years must surely be the moment when Howard Carter having opened a small hole in the long sealed door of an ancient Egyptian tomb, raised a lamp, peered through into the shadowed darkness, and exclaimed, ‘I see wonderful things.’ 

In the years that have followed much has been written about Howard Carter, the boy king Tutankhamun, and the effect that this discovery has had on not only on the world of Egyptology, but also on the imagination of millions of people. The boy king continues to fascinate us, and has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and to the many exhibitions of his funerary goods, which have travelled the world. 

But how did Howard Carter, brought up in Norfolk, the son of an animal artist, ever travel to Egypt in the first place? Who, or what, was it that set him on the road to Tutankhamun? 

A simple answer to that particular question is not too hard to find in any biography of Howard Carter’s younger years the Tyssen-Amhersts, particularly William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst, are mentioned, as is the important collection of Egyptian and Assyrian artefacts which was to be found at their home, Didlington Hall, West Norfolk. But who was this family, generally relegated to a paragraph or two in most publications concerning Carter and Tutankhamun? Anyone connected with Egyptology recognises the significance of the family, but knows little about them. People outside that world have never heard of the Tyssen-Amhersts, but should they have? Was there anything particularly interesting, or special, about them that might be worth a book?  

It was soon clear that answering this question would be quite a challenge, if only for the wealth of material that still exists but which lies in public and private archives scattered not only around the United Kingdom, but also around the world. In addition, hearing of my researches, various members of the Amherst family began searching through dust-covered boxes in their attics, and scraps of information began to emerge, which combined with my own researches, began to build a picture of a family of diverse and fascinating characters inhabiting a world where anything was possible.