Appellate Judge James A. Stewart tried scuba diving in an underground river once, but he kept losing his cowboy hat.
"We're digging for the truth—and going to extremes to do it!"
Josh Bernstein stands out in a crowd. When the camera pans a busy Cairo street looking for the host of Digging for the Truth, it's easy to pick him out—and see that he's a History Channel host. He's the one in the cowboy hat, pack with shoulder strap, many-pocketed shirt, and stubble. As one archaeologist he interviews puts it: "I'm supposed to look like him. Every time they come, they're disappointed."
On the show, Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS) boss Bernstein goes in search of what the History Channel's site calls "the world's greatest ancient mysteries." He'll visit Egypt's pyramids, line drawings on the ground in Peru, and Pompeii, among other places, in the 13 episodes of Digging for the Truth: The Complete First Season. Each trip will be a hands-on experience as he tries to move pyramid blocks or scuba dive in underground rivers himself to recreate the things the ancients did.
Does Josh Bernstein know his stuff? Does Bernstein actually spend any time literally digging? Is this show the reincarnation of In Search Of? How does Digging for the Truth look? And what's the most obvious line of the whole first season? To find the answers, we'll have to journey to the DVD player, going by way of the kitchen for some popcorn. Imagine a map here as we begin …
Facts of the Case
The DVD set features all 13 episodes:
"Who Built Egypt's Pyramids?"—Josh Bernstein goes to a work site and tries to move a pyramid-sized stone building block to show that ordinary Egyptians could indeed build the pyramids. He gets help, of course.
"Nefertiti: The Mummy Returns"—Josh tries to look up Queen Nefertiti, who left no forwarding address. He takes a balloon ride to the Valley of the Kings and checks out a "mummy John Doe" in a Cairo museum.
"Pompeii Secrets Revealed"—Josh climbs into the crater of volcanic Vesuvius as he tries to answer the question: Why didn't the people of Pompeii get the heck out of there?
"Hunt for the Lost Ark"—Josh climbs to a monastery on a sheer rock face and travels by traditional reed raft in an effort to get close to the Ark of the Covenant.
"The Holy Grail"—Josh tries on a suit of armor and attempts swordfighting as he follows the trail of the Crusaders to find out about the cup Percival saw.
"The Iceman Cometh"—It's CSI: Alps as Josh investigates the mystery behind the death of Oetzi, whose 5,300-year-old frozen body was found in the mountains. He tries cross-country skiing in a storm and creating a snow shelter.
"Quest for King Solomon's Gold"—Josh crawls around an Israeli copper mine in search of King Solomon's famed treasure. He'll also tour a Zimbabwe mine and ruins that may have been the Queen of Sheba's palace.
"Passage to the Maya Underworld"—Josh dives into an underground river tunnel to find out about Mayan human sacrifice and belief in the Underworld.
"The Lost Tribes of Israel"—Josh visits the Lemba, a South African tribe that may be one of the lost tribes of Israel. He heads into war-torn occupied territory in Israel and takes a flight in a bush plane.
"Secrets of the Nasca Lines"—Josh looks at the hows and whys of the desert geoglyphs of southern Peru, tours ancient aqueducts, and goes to a burial ground partly unearthed by erosion.
"The Search for El Dorado"—Josh follows the trail of the conquistadors searching for the lost Inca city of gold—straight into a jungle that's full of things that will "bite, sting, or stick you."
"Giants of Easter Island"—Josh asks his strangest question yet: Did the Polynesians destroy the island's ecology by building too many huge statues? He tries—and fails—to meet the challenge of an ancient triathlon-like competition that substituted bird egg hunting for warfare. Watch for the first footage of restored coral eyes on the statues.
"Mystery of the Anasazi"—Josh rappels down a cliff to see some 800-year-old corn cobs in an Anazasi dwelling and flies a power glider. There's some more crawling through cramped tunnels.
Does Josh Bernstein know his stuff? Sometimes he clowns around (even mimicking The Blair Witch Project with his hand-held camera as he spends the night in a snow shelter) and his narration can sound awestruck at times. But he appears to be paying close attention as the experts make their cases. One of the best episodes, "Giants of Easter Island," didn't seem to have too many mysteries to it, but did present a fascinating portrait of Rapa Nui culture. Bernstein doesn't always find sure answers (you didn't expect him to come back and do a show if he actually found a lost city of gold, did you?), but he does lay out plausible possibilities.
Does Bernstein actually spend any time literally digging? Lots of it. Digging, diving, lifting, climbing, kayaking, swordfighting. If it's physically possible, he'll try it. His enthusiasm on this score makes the show entertaining, even if you've never pondered the reasons for the Nasca lines.
Is this show the reincarnation of In Search Of? I must admit, I thought so in the first episode as Bernstein talked with a man who claims the survivors of Atlantis built the Egyptian pyramids but, by and large, the show's experts seem credible. Sometimes the recreations of ancient events seem cheesy or an explanation seemed too simplistic, but the show overall leaves a good impression. One thing that really drove me crazy, though, was Bernstein's summary of the case thus far after each commercial break. When you're watching without commercials on DVD, these are obvious and jarring reminders of how much time is given over to advertising on commercial TV.
How does Digging for the Truth look? There's an occasional murky image shot in a cave or someplace similar, but most of the time, the show looks good. It's shot with a portable Panasonic HD Varicam. The musical score is typical, but I didn't have any problems with the way it came across. As a reviewer, I wanted the subtitles that didn't come with this one to make sure I spelled all the names right. Anyone using this one for study purposes might want the same.
And what's the most obvious line of the whole first season? "I'm beginning to understand why so few people venture into these headwaters," Josh opines during a tributary trip that finds him out in the water pushing the canoe more than paddling it.
There's one final clue we need to piece this puzzle together: a look at the extras. "History in the Making," a behind-the-scenes look at the show, has a mostly promotional feel, though there are a couple of interesting moments as the crew tries to take dramatic shots of Josh crossing a busy street, and Digging for the Truth runs into Deep Sea Detectives on the trail of the same ancient mystery, proving how crowded the cable adventure travel world has become. There's also a standard text biography of Josh.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
How many times can you watch Josh Bernstein crawl around in narrow passages? Dunno, but it might make a good drinking game.
The show's G-rated, not graphic, but you will come across the occasional reference to things like cannibalism and human sacrifice.
Oh, and the answer's no. Those giant statues didn't destroy Easter Island.
While Josh Bernstein's extreme stunts as he recreates ancient challenges might seem silly to some, they kept my attention long enough to let some of his more serious points creep in. As mentioned above, I wasn't too impressed while viewing the first episode, but Bernstein and Digging For The Truth grew on me as the show went along. The host himself admits in the behind-the-scenes featurette that, like many a travel and foreign culture show, Digging is more about what Josh will do next than about learning. "If you want history as pure history, read a book," he advises.
Not guilty. Josh Bernstein's digging, maybe even scraping, for viewers, but it's fun watching him go to extremes to do it.
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Scales of Justice
• "History in the Making" Featurette
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