Presented on two DVDs, Athena's Secrets of Ancient Egypt serves up four hour-long documentaries culled from various sources during the last two decades. "Secrets of the Pharaohs: A Quest for Ancient DNA" (1994) looks at genealogist Scott Woodward's efforts to analyze the DNA of Ancient Egyptian mummies---more often than not, those of royal status---to determine relationships, descendants and the like. Other topics include the possibility of "royal inbreeding" due to bone and birth defects, the excavation of grave sites, preservation techniques, King Tut, afterlife beliefs and more. It's a solid enough opener but feels more than a little dated; though 20 years is small potatoes compared to the time between Ancient Egypt and now, it's hard to believe that newer material wasn't available.
Up next is "Oasis of the Golden Mummies" (produced for The Discovery Channel in 2002) which largely revolves around the accidental discovery of a massive catacomb filled with human remains. Having never been previously unearthed, viewers can witness the investigation of this underground cavern spearheaded by archaeologist Zahi Hawass (who, in recent years, almost served a one-year prison sentence). Other topics of note include the life expectancy of Ancient Egyptians, the presence of cancer as a threat, performing x-rays on mummified remains and analyzing bone fragments. "Golden Mummies" is an improvement over the first documentary, largely due to the catacomb exploration.
Our third documentary is "Secrets of the Sands" (2002), which takes a more cosmic approach to our historical fact-finding. At the center of this episode is more recent use of satellite imagery and space photography to examine what lies under the Sahara desert; specifically, evidence that the now-barren landscape was once widely irrigated and able to support a vast array of plants and animals. Also examined are natural pyramid-shaped rock formations, the prediction of Ancient Egyptian social behaviors, the construction and continued mystery of the pyramids themselves and much more. While this episode (like all the others included here) can't help but repeat a few bits and pieces of information along the way, this remains another enjoyable, visually appealing and even-handed account of the subject matter.
Last but not least is "Sacred Animals of the Pharaohs" (2006), which revolves around the examination of thousands of mummified remains to determine the relationship between man and beast in Ancient Egypt. Among other topics, we find evidence that supports the possibility of animal cruelty during specific time periods, supported by bone examination and other clues. Other animals are discussed in regards to their roles in Ancient Egypt (including spitting cobras and other snakes), as well as species that were considered fit for royalty. Although somewhat anti-climactic compared to the other three, this more recent production is still an entertaining examination of a less talked-about subject.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Not surprisingly, herding together a collection of 10 to 20 year-old documentaries yields mixed results, though the bulk of any visual shortcomings are undoubtedly due to the source material. "Secrets of the Pharaohs" (1994, presented in 1.33:1) suffers the most; it was shot and edited on videotape and has all the softness and dull colors you'd expect from the format. The other three (2002-2006, all presented in 1.78:1) fare better, as they serve up stronger image detail, more vibrant colors and nice textures during a handful of close-ups. There aren't any flagrant digital issues to report, aside from a touch of interlacing and the fact that stock footage is occasionally cropped to fill the 16x9 frame. Secrets of Ancient Egypt is a perfectly watchable effort overall, especially considering the origin of these four documentaries.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent this DVD's native 480p image resolution.
The audio aims lower but it's slightly more consistent, as the material (presented in a mixture of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Mono) generally gets the job done. Music, narration and interviews don't fight for attention, and there are also a few moments of strong channel separation at times. Optional English SDH subtitles have been included for all the material.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen below, the simple menu designs load quickly and are easy to navigate, though a handful of forced trailers on Disc 1 must be bypassed beforehand. Each disc gets two main episodes, no layer changes were detected and these DVDs are locked for Region 1 players only. The two-disc set is housed in a standard hinged keepcase with matching slipcover; a small but informative Booklet
is also tucked inside, which includes a glossary, historical summaries and more.
Just one, but it's definitely worth a look. "Realm of the Dead"
(2003, 1.33:1) is a like-minded 50-minute documentary that offers additional insight. Topics include Ancient Egypt's funerary practices, basic history, continuity with modern Egypt, connections with the past (specifically, through the historical Dahkla Oasis), "portraits" of the mummified dead, surviving printed material, religions and more. This actually feels more like a primer for the main features, so for this reason---not to mention a number of repeated facts and insights---it might be better suited as a "first stop" than a post-show supplement. Picture quality and audio are fine, and optional English SDH subtitles are also included.
Though history buffs may not learn anything new (especially due to the age of these productions), Secrets of Ancient Egypt serves up enough facts, figures and mystery to entertain those with an interest in the subject. The four main documentaries are paired with a like-minded "bonus episode"; while a handful of segments tend to overlap one another at times, there's approximately five hours of material here to dig through in all. Athena's DVD package offers a decent technical presentation plus the aforementioned bonus feature...and while the price is a little steep for what's included, this is definitely strong enough material to add to your ever-growing documentary collection. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.