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Ancient Lives

Athena // Unrated // November 3, 2009
List Price: $49.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Casey Burchby | posted November 8, 2009 | E-mail the Author

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 world.

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, and memorable.


The Package
Athena is Acorn Media's educational brand, and I'm grateful that they exist to locate and distribute excellent documentaries and other special interest programming. This two-disc set comes in a pair of slim keepcases inside a card sleeve. There is a small booklet enclosed in the sleeve as well; this "Viewer's Guide" contains some interested contextual information and prompts for further reading on the subject of ancient Egypt.

The Video
As a 25-year-old Channel Four documentary (shot, I think, on 16mm film), Ancient Lives hasn't maintained a pristine condition, and Athena leads into the menu screens on each disc with a disclaimer to that effect. Having said that, the colors are faded and there is occasional print damage, but this is otherwise presentable. The video looks its age, and that's that.

The Audio
The unspectacular mono soundtrack is nonetheless quite clear. The subtle, ambient music is tasteful and appropriate. It's a straightforward, utilitarian track that serves its purpose.

The Extras
On Disc One, there are some text-based features about John Romer, other important Egyptologists, and the Egyptian gods. On Disc Two, we have a short bonus program called Pharoahs' Liquid Gold that details an attempt to brew an ancient recipe for beer. It's an interesting addition to the main documentary.

Final Thoughts

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.

Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.

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