Love watching archeologists not named Indiana Jones run around ancient ruins? Has Judge Roman Martel have a DVD set for you!
PBS collects three episodes of its award-winning Nova series and three more from Secrets of the Lost Empires into once box set focused on some of the most impressive structures of the ancient world. So grab your archeological fedora, we've got some digging to do.
The adventure begins with Easter Island. Most of us are familiar with the giant Maoi statues, if only by sight. But because the culture on Easter Island did not employ written records, there is little archeologists know about how the massive statues were created nor how they were transported over incredibly difficult terrain to their coastal resting spot.
This episode follows an experiment performed by archeologists, as they create their own Maoi and use possible ancient techniques to move and raise the statue. The result is a mix of history and practical application, with an emphasis on modern scientists and their theories. Some historical context is given, but mostly in how it relates to the experiment at hand. What I found interesting was the squabbling that went on between the archeologists and engineers involved in the experiment. These folks took the whole thing very very seriously, even though the end result was "we will never really know how they did it."
This disc includes a bonus episode featuring a similar experiment, attempting to recreate the "Rainbow Bridge" depicted in a panoramic painting created during China's Song Dynasty (late 1000s—early 1100s). No actual blueprints of the bridge exist, so engineers and historians attempt construct the bridge using an ancient scroll as the key document. Compared to Easter Island, China Bridge provides a bit more historical context, much less drama amongst the crew, and I found it to be more interesting.
Secrets of the Parthenon deals with a restoration project currently underway on Greece's most famous monument. In 1975, a massive project was initiated to reconstruct the temple, using as much of the original material as possible, while strengthening it against earthquakes and erosion. In the process, the engineers and scientists discovered the edifice was designed in such a way that nearly every piece of marble was completely unique. In effect, this makes the Parthenon a giant jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces and no instructions.
The episode delves into various elements the builders of 447 BC used to create the epic structure. The fact that today's engineers and scientists, armed with powerful computers, face an extremely difficult time recreating these building materials is a testament to the skills of the ancient Athenians. While interesting, I would have enjoyed a bit more historical context.
Next, we travel to England and examine the The Secrets of Stonehenge, whose ancient neolithic monoliths have long puzzled archeologists as to their construction and function. While the site has often been described as an ancient observatory, recent evidence suggests Stonehenge may have been a cemetery for some of the most important people of that period. We follow a team of archeologists, as they perform new excavations in and around the structures using high tech methods. There's also a bit of practical science, as the team comes up with a way to move the enormous blocks using stone-age ball bearings. And while they have no written records to go on, the episode provides some compelling evidence for the team's theories; a great mix of engineering and experimentation.
Since this set is called Ancient Marvels, we head to Egypt for The Riddles of the Sphinx. As with previous episodes, the focus is on the structure, with archeologists attempting to determine why and how it was made, and the detrimental erosion continues to plague it. Because of the sharp focus on structure, there's a distinct lack of archeological context, resulting in a lot of runtime padding. The voice over narration frequently repeats itself and several visual sequences are shown again and again. In fact, I was surprised that historians can't even agree on which Pharaoh order the Sphinx's creation. In the end, there just isn't enough material here for a full 60 minute episode, which makes it the weakest in the set.
Ghosts of Machu Picchu takes us to the ancient city in Peru, built by the Incas and hidden from western eyes until it was rediscovered in 1911. Since that time, the city, its purpose, and its construction have been shrouded in mystery. While I knew a bit about this famous site, this documentary explored the reasoning behind the mysterious terraces, uncovering many that have been hidden for decades. As the buildings are unadorned, archeologists must attempt to glean critical information from the architecture, surrounding settlements, and supporting records from various sources. The episode manages to delve deeply into the mysteries of Machu Picchu as well as into the history and culture of the Inca people, resulting in an excellent episode.
PBS gives Ancient Marvels a pretty solid release. Four of the five features are presented in 1.78:1 standard definition anamorphic widescreen, providing some beautiful shots of the ancient structures and their surroundings. The odd man out is Easter Island and it's bonus episode China Bridge both of which are in non-anamorphic letterbox format. The usual Dolby 2.0 audio on all five discs is well balanced, as is expected for modern television. In terms of extras, we get DVD-ROM printable teachers guides for Secrets of the Parthenon and Easter Island, which only underscores the collection's value in the classroom.
Anyone fascinated by these amazing structures will find plenty to enjoy here. Just keep in mind, the focus of Ancient Marvels is on the buildings themselves and history often takes the back seat.
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