TV This Week Including Congo, Evolution and Egyptian Mummies

Dan Snow's History of Congo

This programme falls into the category of incredibly depressing stories about the state of the world. Dan Snow visits Congo and tells us about the history of this region of Africa - and how it's been screwed over first by European colonial powers and subsequently by homegrown dictators & rebels (propped up by the West). Congo has vast reserves of natural resources, yet the people who've been in power over the last hundred and fifty years have all been very good at making the profits disappear into private hands, leaving the country one of the poorest in the world. Also depressing is how little I knew about the country before I watched this programme. Worth watching.

Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life

This programme was part a biography of Darwin, part a trip down memory lane for David Attenborough and part a discussion of his theory of evolution by natural selection. Rather surreally it was presented by current David Attenborough and co-presented by David Attenborough from 30 or so years ago. I mean that they re-used footage from earlier serieses of his, including Life on Earth (which I don't actually remember watching as a child, but I remember getting the book out of the library multiple times). It ended up feeling like a programme which had a strict budget - not just the re-used old footage, but also an animation of the tree of life which had been made by someone else. There wasn't really anything new to me in the programme, but it was a pretty good round up of the subject.

Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy

This programme was a cut down version of the two hour film that Chris Naunton made about Tutankhamun's death, which we watched a couple of months ago while visiting J's parents. I think this one hour version was actually a bit more coherent than the longer film - and it definitely had less of Naunton pretending not to know things so he could ask people leading questions. (Yes, I know that's part of how you write the script for one of these, but it doesn't mean I like it much when it's obvious.) The programme looks at the mummy of Tutankhamun and presents a theory about his death and mummification to explain the physical evidence. As I said the last time I wrote about this programme "determining" the cause of death of Tutankhamun is always an exercise in deciding which wounds you think are real and which you think are artifacts of the mummification process and subsequent treatment of the mummy. Naunton & co's theory was based around the significant damage in a straight line from Tutankhamun's left shoulder to left hip, and the missing heart and sternum. They used modern crash simulation technology to show that a chariot crashing into a kneeling Tutankhamun would produce injuries consistent with those on the mummy - and suggest it's possible this happened during a battle. But I'm pretty sure other egyptologists think those wounds are a red herring - there are also candidate wounds in one of his legs, for instance.

The more convincing theory they propose is the one that explains why the mummy is charred (hence the title of this incarnation of the programme). The basic idea is that the mummification of Tutankhamun was rushed and the oils used as part of the ritual weren't allowed to dry out enough before he was wrapped up and put in his coffin. They suggest this would be down to the political situation at the time - Tutankhamun's named successor was Horemheb, but his actual successor was Ay so there's a suggestion that Ay seized power and buried Tutankhamun as quickly as possible (and they also suggest he was interred in Ay's tomb, with Ay later being buried in a bigger tomb originally intended for Tutankhamun). But anyway, he was buried a bit too quickly, still damp from the oils - and some oils as they dry heat up. In particular linseed oil which Naunton did a test with and showed that oily rags bundled up as if they were in a mummy will very quickly reach over 300°C - sadly he didn't say if linseed oil was one of the oils used in mummification, but I assume something similar is. So it is very likely that Tutankhamun smouldered away in his coffin after burial, and that this explains the charred appearance of the mummy.