Swallowed by the Sea: Ancient Egypt’s Greatest Lost City was a one-off programme presented by Lucy Blue about the city of Heraclion which existed at one of the mouths of the Nile for around a thousand years. It vanished beneath the waves in the 2nd Century BC, and in modern times it was thought to be purely mythical. However at the beginning of the 21st Century a team of French underwater archaeologists discovered the site off the modern coast of Egypt and have been excavating it ever since. Towards the end of the programme they discussed why it might’ve sunk – the best hypothesis is liquefaction of the islands it was built on, due perhaps to an otherwise minor earthquake. This means that this region – several islands – would’ve suddenly subsided, and ended up under sea level. And this is pretty exciting from an archaeological point of view. The site is a snapshot of what a Ptolemaic era trading port looked like – there’s (obviously) been no rebuilding or demolition and no treasure hunting or retrieval of people’s possessions.
The bulk of the programme focussed on what they’ve learnt about the layout of the city, and the artifacts they’ve been able to bring up to the surface. The whole city covered an area of around 2km2, built across several islands. There were many temples as well as more mundane buildings (including homes, and the apparatus of a port town). The finds range from tiny to enormous (including some huge statues). One of the interesting classes of find are the many boats they’ve found. These include functional boats of course. More interestingly it includes the first example of a ceremonial barque of a type that’s been seen in many inscriptions, but never before discovered. There are also remnants of rituals carried out around this boat – bowls containing burnt offerings that had been carefully slid into the river under the boat. Other interesting finds are coins – particularly interesting as the Egyptians’ didn’t use coins in their own economy. These coins look like Greek coins, but were struck locally (they’ve found the moulds) and used to pay the mercenaries hired to protect the city.
I wasn’t very keen on the way the programme tried to make out that Heraclion was somehow a centrally important Egyptian city. I didn’t really follow the explanation for why Blue believed it to be linked to conferring kingship on the Pharaoh, and I didn’t think the programme needed a “it’s the bestest city ever” hook to make it interesting. Other than that I enjoyed the programme, worth watching.
Lost Kingdoms of Central America was a four part series presented by Jago Cooper about four different pre-Colombus civilisations in Central America. It was a follow up to his series about South American cultures (Lost Kingdoms of South America, post). The cultures presented in this series ranged from the earliest known civilisation in Central America (the Olmec people), through to the culture that Columbus met when he discovered the West Indies (the Taino). The other two were the people who lived in what is now Costa Rica at a time when this was an independent region between the empires of the Aztecs and the Incans. And lastly the people who built Teotihuacan – not the Aztecs, as I first thought it was going to be, but the people who lived there first. In fact when the Aztecs later came to Teotihuacan they thought it was the work of giants or gods.
An interesting and enjoyable series. I didn’t always come away from an episode thinking I’d learnt much about the culture in question – but I think that was because not much is known in many cases.
Treasures Decoded was a six-part Channel 4 series, that we missed the first episode of. The format of each episode was that they looked at a particular ancient object (or building) which has some sort of iconic status, and then discussed what’s known (via several expert talking heads) about it. There was also always some “Controversy?!” angle to the programme – of varying degrees of dubiousness – which I guess was there to provide drama. (Previous sentence needs to be read with an image in mind of me rolling my eyes 😉 )
We’d only originally intended to watch the second episode – about the Great Pyramid at Giza – but then the next one was about the bust of Nefertiti and after that our completist urges kicked in and we finished the series. The Great Pyramid one had quite a lot of info about how and why the Pyramid was built – what sort of stone and how it was worked and so on. The controversy was provided by an engineer who speculates that the Pyramid is in fact a shell filled with rubble – conventional wisdom is that it is fully built out of shaped blocks of stone. His angle was that it would be easier to build that way, but the egyptologists interviewed felt it was important not to impose our own cultural mindset on the Egyptians. I.e. they may well’ve done it the hard way because it mattered that much more to them.
The one about the bust of Nefertiti avoided the obvious controversy (did the archaeologist who found it smuggle it out of Egypt) in favour of a convicted fraudster’s opinion that it was clearly a fake. The conman was convincing enough whilst talking, but my belief in him was undermined somewhat by the fact that as a previously successful conman he was bound to be convincing. If it is a fake, then it was done to such a high standard that it would pass modern forensic tests on the pigments used which any forger of the early 20th Century wouldn’t even know he needed to avoid.
Next episode was Blackbeard’s ship – it has almost certainly been discovered off the coast of America where it is known to have sunk. At the very least there is a ship of the right era and type in the right sort of place which is being excavated. The controversy was a bit weak even by the standards of the series, hinging round disagreements about whether it had sunk accidentally or been deliberately run aground by Blackbeard.
The last couple of episodes were a bit cringemaking, to be honest – I think we rolled our eyes all the way through both to some degree or another. One was about the Ark of the Covenant and suffered from us watching it the same week that we had a talk about it at the EEG (post). The programme focussed heavily on the (controversial) idea that the Ark was nicked from the Temple by Solomon’s son’s priests who brought it to Ethiopia where it has remained every since. I wasn’t convinced. The last episode was Christ’s Holy Spear, which is in a museum case in Vienna. Now, about halfway through the programme they did admit that all the evidence suggests it was made about 8 centuries after Christ, so the real point of the programme was about how the actual object was made and came to gain its reputation. Which was actually interesting, but not only did they take far too long going “oh but could it be Roman and really be the lance that pierced His side on the cross”, but also there were random Nazi and Hitler references the whole way through because apparently Hitler was obsessed with it. And no, Hitler didn’t commit suicide the very same moment the Spear was captured by the Allies.
A bit of a mixed bag, the better episodes were both not religious relic based and were the ones where I knew enough about the subject in hand to navigate my way between solid opinion and flights of fancy. Not recommended.
Other TV watched last week:
Episode 2 of A History of Art in Three Colours – James Fox looking at the history of art through the lens of three different colours, gold, white and blue.
Episode 1 of Oh! You Pretty Things – series about the relationship between pop music and fashion in Britain from the 1960s onwards.