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Secrets of Archaeology

Koch Vision // Unrated // July 11, 2006
List Price: $89.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Scott Weinberg | posted August 9, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The Series

If you'd have told me when I was in high school that not only would there one day be a "History Channel," but also that I would grow to "love it," I would have called you a stoned apparition from the future and commanded you to leave me alone. Prior to, say, my 25th birthday, I had no interest whatsoever in the subject of history, be it American, ancient, or Mesozoic.

But strange things happen as you grow older. You often develop tastes for things you never liked before. Like sour cream on soft tacos, or history. So after spending many nights glued to The History Channel, I now consider myself a real enthusiast on the subject. Being a lifelong Philadelphian, I'm surrounded by all sorts of American history, but what I find really interesting are the old-old-old school civilizations and all their ancient mysteries.

All of which explains why I volunteered to review a new documentary series entitled Secrets of Archaeology -- I figured it would be a bunch of History/Discovery Channel-style mini-movies that would satisfy my newfound affection for a variety of topics. And for the most part, the series is precisely what I thought it was, only it's not exactly up to History Channel standards...

Each episode is a half-hour surface-level visit to a rather wide variety of old-style people, places, and mysteries. Although perhaps not as polished and current as what you'll find in the bigger-budgeted educational documentaries, Secrets of Archaeology still holds enough material to keep the neophyte history buffs entertained. (The more seasoned experts probably know all this stuff already.)

Although research indicates that Secrets of Archaeology did indeed run on The History Channel, I'm guessing it was sort of a "late-night" pick-up, because the programs produced by the network generally feel a little more meaty than this. In actuality, Secrets of Archaeology is an educational series from 2002 that was produced in Italy and then simply translated into English by way of a new narrator who sounds a lot like Edward Herrmann, but isn't.

Each episode is somewhat dry history lesson in which we travel to the ancient ruins and relics (with a side trip to a museum exhibit every once in a while) while the narrator gives us all the info we need. There are no "expert interviews," but there are some pretty nifty CG re-creations of landscapes long since obliterated. Basically, Secrets of Archaeology feels a lot like a series that was originally produced for high school students to watch in class, but it's still a fairly impressive 27-episode adventure.

The episodes break down like so (with text taken from the 6-disc foldout case):

Disc 1

1. Pompeii: A City Rediscovered -- New excavations and computer reconstructions recreate the magnificent city and the cataclysmic eruption that silenced its inhabitants.

2. Glorious Rome, Capital of an Empire -- Explore the architectural treasures of ancient Rome, the epicenter of the most powerful empire the world has ever known.

3. Pyramids Designed for Eternity -- Scientific structural theories are put to the test in this computerized recreation of the building of Khufu, the largest pyramid in the world.

4. Athens: Western Splendor -- Discover why Athens was the preeminent city in the Golden Age of Greece on this virtual tour of the cradle of Western civilization.

5. A Place Called Etruria -- Journey to the ancient cities of Voltera, Populonia and Cervetari and see why Etruscan civilization was famous for its lavish wealth, fine ceramics and bustling trade.

Disc 2

6. The Cities of the Pharoahs -- Visit the sanctuaries of Karnak and Luxor, and explore the temples, residences and shops of ancient cities such as Memphis and Thebes.

7. Egypt According to Cleopatra -- Queen Cleopatra serves as our virtual tour guide through Egypt during the time of the Ptolemies, from the city of Alexandria to the isle of Philae.

8. Greek Cities in Italy -- Explore the virtual streets of the original Greek colonies of Italy, and experience the creation of the Magna Graecia.

9. The Pyramids of the Sun -- The magic of the great temples and gigantic stepped pyramids of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the ancient Aztecs, is unearthed beneath Mexico City.

10. The Roads to El Dorado -- Discover the splendor of the Incan empire's Curzo and Machu Picchu, which captured the imagination and greed of the Spanish conquistadors.

Disc 3

11. The Lost Cities of the Maya -- Travel to the magnificent Mayan cities of Uxmal, Tulum, Chichen Itza and the capital Palenque, with its great pyramid built by master mathematicians.

12. The Forgotten Civilizations of Anatolia -- Take a virtual tour of the splendid Greek cities of ancient Turkey, including Gordian, the domain of King Midas, and Hattusa, with its spectacular royal citadel.

13. Travels Through Greece -- Journey with a Roman senator through the artistic and cultural treasures of Greece, from the agora at Corinth to the acoustically perfect Theatre of Epidaurus.

14. The Ports of the Desert -- Follow an ancient caravan route through lush oases across the Syrian desert, from Marib to the beautiful city of Palmyra.

15. Sailing with the Phoenicians -- Sail with a Phoenician captain to the ancient ports of the Mediterranean: Byblos, Rhodes, Tharros, Motya and the famous Roman naval base at Carthage.

Disc 4

16. The Roman Empire in Africa -- Visit the vast olive groves and wheat fields created by Roman war veterans in this arid climate as well as the amphitheatre at El-Djem.

17. Ancient Cities Bordering on Latium -- Tour several ancient cities within the Roman territories of Latium and Umbria, including Alatri and Amelia, and take a virtual tour inside the home of a wealthy Roman citizen.

18. Retracing the Tracks of Hannibal -- Visit the majestic ruins of the Roman republican period, following the path of the fearless General Hannibal, who led his army across the Alps to Italy on elephants.

19. Roman Imprint on the West -- It is said that all roads led to Rome. Follow the itineraries which connected Rome to Iberia (Spain) and ancient Gaul (France) as a Celtic gladiator guides us through Nimes, Orange, Tarragona and more.

20. At the Court of the King of Kings -- Tour the grand residences at Persepolis and the sumptuous imperial palaces of the powerful Darius I at the height of Persian civilizations.

Disc 5

21. Cities of the Sea and Wind -- Take a tour of Triptolania, a rich Roman province on the shores of the Mediterranean and visit the famous city of Oea, best known as Tripoli.

22. Secrets of the Island of Minos -- An architect from 1500 BC gives a guided tour of archaeological sites at Akrotiri, Ayia, Knosses, and more, culminating in a visit to the palace of Minos, with its legendary labyrinth.

23. The Fabulous Centers of Hellenism -- Spectacular virtual reconstruction takes us back to the 2nd Century BC where Greek and Eastern civilizations meet at Esphesus and Pergamum.

24. Visit the Sanctuaries of Apollo -- Explore the most important archaeological sites connected to the worship of Apollo, including the temples of Delphi, Delos and Didymi.

25. Sicily: Greek Legacy in the West -- Join a Corinthian settler on a tour of 4th Century BC Sicily, the "new Greece" of its day, and vast cultural centers such as Syracuse, Agrigento and the exquisite Valley of the Temples.

Disc 6

26. Ancient Itinerary in Ionia -- See the cities of Ionia on the coast of present day Turkey and the islands in the eastern Mediterranean at the artistic and cultural height they reached during 2nd Century BC.

27. Mycenaeans: The Civilization of Heroes -- A visit to the heart of the first great civilizations between the Euphrates and the Aegean Sea takes us to the pre-Hellenic cities and the legendary Babylonian city of Troy.

The DVD

Video: The mini-docos are presented in a clean and generally crisp fullscreen format.

Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is perfectly adequate for this sort of "video lecture" series.

Extras: Nada.

Final Thoughts

This isn't the flashiest or most scintillating collection of archaeology specials you'll ever see, but what they lack in color and style, they make up for in straight, plainly-delivered information. The CG recreations add a slick little touch, and each episode crams a lot of historical data into a pretty tight package.

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