Judge Dylan Charles built pyramids in a past life as a game show contestant.
For more than three thousand years, its wealth and magnificence were unrivaled…and then lost to the desert sands.
Every year, like salmon returning to their spawning grounds, educational channels feel instinctual drives to make documentaries about ancient Egypt. Usually these documentaries focus on either mummies or the pyramids and then throw in a controversy ("King Tut…murdered?!" "Cleopatra…a man?!" "The goddess Bast…has the head of a cat?!"). Then they call it a day until the next time their primitive urges compel them to swim up the Nile.
So I felt a mix of fear and trepidation as I approached this latest offering from the Discovery Channel, expecting a deluge of facts about how ancient Egyptians put guts into coptic jars. I should have known that the Discovery Channel wouldn't let me down.
Facts of the Case
Much like the History Channel's Haunted Histories collections, Ancient Egypt Unearthed is a collection of episodes and specials from different shows that happen to share a similar theme, specifically, Egypt.
There two discs with nine episodes total. The first disc is dominated by the five-part mini-series Egypt Uncovered, which is based on the book of the same name. The second disc has Egypt's Ten Greatest Discoveries, Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen, Why Ancient Egypt Fell, and Women Pharaohs.
The Discovery Channel has done a very good job of including a wide variety of topics on a subject that has almost been talked to death. Rather than focusing on the same old subjects, they go to greater lengths to discuss events, people, and culture that are often left in the shadows of the mummy filled pyramids.
Why Ancient Egypt Fell for example, talks about the fairly recent discovery that a cataclysmic shift in the Earth's climate may have led to the fall of numerous ancient kingdoms. Or the five-part miniseries Egypt Uncovered, which takes on numerous aspects of Egyptian culture and history, from its earliest beginnings to the gold trade that helped it become a superpower. There are more than eight hours worth of material here, most of which I either haven't heard before or it hasn't been presented in quite this way.
Egypt's Ten Greatest Discoveries is particularly well-made. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and other scientists have chosen what they consider the greatest discoveries in Egypt, explain why they think so and then the show concludes by tying together a cohesive image of what all ten discoveries tell us about ancient Egypt.
Women Pharaohs (narrated by Kyra Sedgwick) is perhaps the weakest entry in the collection. It tries to do far too much with too little time, tackling too many Egyptian women rulers and trying to put them all in their proper historical contexts. As a result, it ends up giving only a skin-deep history of most of the rulers, with the exception of Hatshepsut, who's all over the collection and gets her own special in Secrets of Egypt's Lost Queen.
Even when they do bring up the same old information and controversies (the "murder" of King Tut, for instance), they approach it with rapid efficiency and move onto something new. Like the fact that King Tut apparently had buckteeth. It's information like that that helps Egypt come alive, in all its goofy, bucktoothed glory.
The only person who has a more prominent role than Hatshepsut is Dr. Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt. He is everywhere and he is awesome. His passionate drive for Ancient Egypt grabs the viewer's attention and he has an infectious excitement for his topic. He was even in the news recently, discussing the recent discovery of a cache of mummies. If you go to his Web site, you can even join his fan club.
There are no extras, which I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, extra information is always good. On the other hand, there's already a huge heaping of information.
The quality varies to some degree, since the shows were made at different times. The oldest was made around 1998, so there's no hi-def presentation there, but they all look as good as they're going to get. The shows that are in widescreen are anamorphic.
The Discovery Channel has packaged together a fine set of shows that, when combined, create a fuller picture of ancient Egypt than I had before. For anyone who's interested in Egypt, this is a must-see. I promise it won't just be the same old song and dance about pyramids and the mummies.
Ancient Egypt Unearthed has dodged the mummy's curse, but is in need of braces.
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