Unlike the ancient Greek or
Roman civilizations, the Egyptians' society retains an aura of mystery
and the exotic that is both alluring and seemingly impenetrable.
Their view of the world was institutionalized and highly evolved -
but its considerable achievements were made in directions that have
little conversance with contemporary Western societies. Whereas
the Greeks and Romans provided the bases for our understanding of philosophy,
history, literature, art, drama, and the sciences, the Egyptians'
advancements - significant though they were - have not been built
upon in a way that allows for an immediate frame of reference for how
the Egyptians lived or thought.
I took a course in Egyptology
in college. Although I was neither a history nor art history major,
it was one my favorite classes (credit goes to Susan Stephens of Stanford,
who was a guest professor at my university at that time). The
most important thing I came to understand during that course is that
ancient Egyptian history requires an art-historical viewpoint and analytical
approach. The Egyptians' society was decidedly visual.
This may seem terribly obvious, but it's worth noting, because once
you penetrate and gain a basic comprehension of all the Egyptians accomplished
through their visual culture and language, you've traded a relatively
small amount of demystification for entry into a fascinating bygone
John Romer knows this very
well, and "demystification" is indeed the route he takes toward
an immersive and fairly comprehensive experience in his four-part documentary,
Ancient Lives. First broadcast on the UK's Channel Four
in 1984, this program illuminates many aspects of ancient Egyptian life
using the prism of Deir el-Medina, the "workers' village" on the
outskirts of the Valley of the Kings. Over many, many generations,
these were the people responsible for safely and thoughtfully sending
their pharaohs and the royal families into the afterlife - in lavishly
painted tombs, walled with detailed reliefs, stacked with stelae and
countless other offerings and accoutrements - all of which they themselves
designed and built for the eternal benefit of their kings and queens.
Just to be clear, we're not talking about the slaves who built the
pyramids here; the residents of Deir el-Medina were craftsmen, sculptors,
scribes, and other artisans whose work ranged from colossal statues
and infinitesimally detailed tomb frescos, to the tiniest scarab or
figurine in ivory or faience.
Across four hour-long episodes,
Romer elucidates their lives and work through an appraisal of artifacts,
tours of excavated and preserved tombs, and looking at larger temples
and other sites. Just as significant is Romer's examination
of the written record. Over the last three centuries or so, archaeologists
and Egyptologists have translated countless "documents" - from
the elaborate hieroglyphs on tomb walls on down to the "shorthand"
hieratic script found on thousands of limestone shards, the latter consisting
of everything from IOUs to idle village gossip. From this mass
of data, Romer reconstructs for us the villagers' daily lives -
their diets, their duties, their relationships, and their personalities.
With great enthusiasm and some subtle, dry English humor, Romer draws
us into this foreign, distant society, making it not just colorful but
unexpectedly familiar. Romer reminds us that these were human
beings who ate, drank, pooped, and fucked, cutting through layers of
legend that often result in a view of Egyptians as shrouded with uncertainty
as the subject of extraterrestrials.
The four episodes don't have
titles or specifically-identified themes. Rather, Romer takes
a more intuitive, but highly disciplined approach to his material.
In an attempt to show Egyptian society as it was - a densely ordered
community that worked in concert toward common goals - Romer weaves
several narrative strands simultaneously, bringing them together at
key moments to highlight the Egyptians' firm social web. Romer's
mosaic-like narrative is effective, and rewards close attention.
Ancient Lives is not
flashy - it bears no resemblance whatsoever to a production of the
History Channel, for example. We can be thankful that this careful,
patiently-crafted documentary made for British television has a kind
of truth as its apparent object, rather than ratings, money, or a political
agenda. Romer's infectious enthusiasm, vast knowledge, and a
close attention to detail make Ancient Lives edifying, entertaining,
Ancient Lives is an involving look at ancient Egypt from the ground level. John Romer gives us a feel for what life was like for the residents of Deir el-Medina, while engendering a deep appreciation for their work and art. This documentary will enlighten and entertain those with any level of interest in ancient civilizations. Highly recommended.