The last time Judge Aaron Bossig studied Egyptology this much, he was watching Bert and Ernie explore a pyramid.
"Can you see anything?"
Howard Carter clearly wasn't watching this DVD when he said that.
Facts of the Case
Ancient Egypt was home to one of the most powerful and advanced civilizations our planet has ever seen, yet many of the wonderful gifts it left history had been lost to time. The tomb of King Tutankhamun, discovered in 1922, became one of the most important finds of the 20th century, showing us treasures left untouched for over 3,000 years. A great deal of what we now know about this incredible culture was culled from items pulled from that crypt.
Did you know thousands of years ago, there was a young Egyptian Pharaoh named Tutankhamun? Did you know he died young? Did you know his tomb was discovered by Howard Carter? Did you know that some have said the tomb has a curse on it?
If you answered "Yes" to all of these questions, then you know pretty much everything there is to learn from King Tutankhamun: The Mystery Unsealed. And if you didn't know that stuff, you do now, and I just saved you $24.95.
The feature is actually a chapter out of the A&E series Mummies: Tales from the Egyptian Crypts. I haven't seen the entire series, but this particular episode was quite lean on content. The production values were high enough, but as a student of history, I expect to learn something when I watch a documentary like this. Heck, I'd even settle for being able to ponder, in more detail, what I already knew. Two episodes from other A&E/History Channel programs are also included, which don't offer much more than the "feature" program.
So, we look into the excavation of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Why should we care? What did he do 3,400 years ago that shaped our way of life today? What do we wish we knew about him, in order to better our understanding of Egypt? When discussing the life of King Tutankhamun, the only significant fact brought up is that he brought order into kingdom after the heresy of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Why not more of this? What damage had this heresy done to Egypt's religious and political climate? Tut's tomb was about more than preserved treasures, it was the resting spot for a world ruler. When pressed for details, the program simply finds a way of saying "We just don't know much about the details of this time period…" Perhaps we don't, but that's the reason we shouldn't gloss over what details we do know. By brushing off further analysis with "we just don't know," the program sells short the mystery it's attempting to show.
"The Curse of King Tut," an episode of Investigating History that might initially seem interesting, is also a dead end. It actually doesn't take very long to demonstrate that the "curse" was little more than the media romanticizing some very tragic coincidences. In short, many people were present at the "desecration" of Tutankhamun's tomb, and most of them continued to live long, healthy lives. With statistical evidence killing the idea of a curse, it only takes a few minutes to show how nothing in the tomb indicates a curse was ever placed. When you can draw a conclusion before the show is even half over, the "mystery" becomes very uninteresting, and it's clear the rest is just filler material.
Part of the appeal to the King Tut story would be the circumstances of his
death. Tutankhamun died at a very young age, and many historians have speculated
that he might have been murdered for political reasons. When presenting this,
the documentary presents us with Michael King who says "There was nothing
that would have suggested King Tut was suffering from an ailment that would have
caused his death…there is nothing in the record to show why King Tut died
in the manner in which he died, and so we found ourselves shying away from the
idea of an accidental death…in the area of suicide, there was nothing to
get us past that point…" Well, that's all well and good, but there's
also nothing to indicate
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only redeeming portion of the DVD is the A&E Biography episode "Howard Carter: Triumph & Treasure." This examines the life of Howard Carter, explaining his background and motivations for seeking the tomb. This is a much better example of what a documentary is supposed to do: use video and photos to present history as a story. Take names from a textbook and turn them into characters. Dates and places become a plot, and when history is told as a story, it means something to the viewer. A documentary shouldn't just be a video recording of blurbs found on a museum pamphlet.
A fairly lame and repetitive documentary. The content does not even come close to justifying its running time. King Tutankhamun: The Mystery Unsealed is filler material for The History Channel, nothing more.
Grab a book or go visit a museum.
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Scales of Justice
• A&E Biography on Howard Carter
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