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Case Number 17790: Small Claims Court

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Ancient Lives

Acorn Media // 1984 // 205 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // November 28th, 2009

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is the reincarnation of an Ancient Egyptian DVD reviewer.

The Charge

"I wanted to present Egypt like the U.K. television show Coronation Street."—John Romer, in a booklet accompanying the series

The Case

Have you ever wanted to know what nightmares kept Ancient Egyptians up at night? John Romer can tell you.

The findings from a "Book of Dreams," an ancient book which delved into the topic, are among the tidbits featured in Ancient Egypt, a four-part examination of Egyptian life as seen in the excavation of a tomb-makers' village near Thebes. Life in the mines, math, beermaking, childbirth, tomb robberies, and an erotic papyrus are also some of the aspects of Ancient Egypt brought out by the 1984 British documentary.

The pace is much slower than a similar documentary would be today. The occasional re-enactments, of a tomb robbery and of an archaeological discovery, almost come as a shock in a show that mostly consists of host John Romer, an author and Egyptologist, walking amid ruins, pointing to hieroglyphics and relating the stories they tell. The starting and ending chapters, which devote more time to archaeology, are dull, but the middle chapters, which concentrate most on the show's theme, captured my attention excellently. John Romer's way of telling a story is understated for the most part, but he can get animated as he discusses an Egyptian feast or some other interesting aspect of the culture.

The 25 year old picture is often faded, with lines, specks, and grain throughout. Athena acknowledges the flaws in text on the screen before each chapter, though.

The two-DVD set contains a bonus feature that's more interesting than the main feature, while still carrying out the mission of illuminating life in Ancient Egypt. "Pharoahs' Liquid Gold" follows Egyptologists—and a brewer—out to "recreate the drink of the pharoahs." By studying a hieroglyphic instruction manual, digging up an ancient brewery, and replicating ancient tools, they came up with samples of four types of beer that they believe the pharoahs enjoyed. They do, of course, point out that there aren't any Ancient Egyptians around for taste-testing. A text feature follows up on the limited edition sale of the beer. The set also includes text bios of ten Egyptian gods, six archaeologists, and host John Romer.

There's no commentary, but Romer writes about the series in a text booklet accompanying the DVD set, noting that Ancient Lives was influential for a generation of Egyptologists. The book also includes summaries and study questions, notes on the life of a scribe, and a lesson in hieroglyphics. There's no updating on more recent finds, though.

Ancient Egypt is less captivating than other documentaries Athena has recently unearthed, but still well-researched and thoughtful. In other words, don't expect it to provide the entertainment value of a prime-time soap or suddenly create a fascination with archaeology, but if you're already intrigued by the topic of Ancient Egypt, you're likely to find it interesting. Some small details, like the erotic papyrus, argue against classroom use in pre-college settings. For an introductory archaeology class or amateur egyptology buff, though, it'll fit the bill, and Athena provides a good range of study aids.

The Verdict

Not guilty, unless you're an ITV exec who wanted Romer to discover Coronation Street's past life.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: Acorn Media
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 205 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Foreign
• Historical
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Bonus Episode
• Text Bios
• Booklet


• IMDb

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