Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Secrets of the Dead: Ultimate Tut (3BM Television, Channel 4 Television Corporation, Mentorn Barraclough Carey, PBS-TV, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a show on PBS’s series Secrets of the Dead that proves American public television can make documentaries of the same ineffable tackiness as anything on Arts & Entertainment, Discovery or History. Actually a rerun (the original air date was given as July 10, 2013), it was called “Ultimate Tut” and was based, as if you couldn’t guess from the title, on the find of the tomb of Egyptian Pharoah Tutankhamun (that’s the version of his name most of the various experts being interviewed were using) by Howard Carter’s expedition in 1922. Most of it was pretty old news, though I hadn’t known before that Tutankhamun actually ascended to the throne of Egypt at age nine (I had thought he’d been in his teens). What was known and not particularly any big “discovery,” as the narration (written by Sean Smith, who also directed, and delivered in the usually breathless style by Jay O. Sanders) tried to communicate, was that Tutankhamun was originally named Tutankhaten and was the son of one of Egypt’s most famous power couples, Pharoah Akhnaten and Queen Nefertiti. Akhnaten attempted with dictatorial power to wipe out Egypt’s ancient polytheistic religion, based on the sun-god Amun (that’s the spelling given here — the one I grew up using was Amon and he’s also sometimes referred to as Amun-Ra, a combination of the New Kingdom’s sun god Amun and the Old Kingdom’s sun god Ra), and replace it with a monotheistic religion based on the worship of one god, Aten. Aten was also a sun god, but instead of being represented anthropormorphically he was shown as a giant disc in the sky, and Egyptians who were used to a pantheon of animal-headed human gods suddenly were being forced to address their prayers and make their sacrifices to a giant golden disc representing the otherwise invisible and undepictable Aten. Akhnaten changed his own name (he was originally Amunhotep IV, son and heir of Amunhotep III) and abandoned the New Kingdom’s capital, Thebes, building his own city, Amarna (sort of the Brasilia of ancient Egypt), and of course he had the priests of Amun arrested and executed en masse to establish his new religion and suppress the old. Then he died when his son and heir Tutankhaten was just nine, a plague struck Amarna and the boy king decided the high priests of Amun had been right, and his dad wrong, all along: he re-established the old religion and changed his own name to Tutankhamun to emphasize the seriousness of his conversion.

The show promised access to Howard Carter’s original photos of Tut’s tomb, his mummy and the journals he’d originally kept, but we got only glimpses of these things and instead we got treated to some odd conclusions about how he lived, how he died (in 1968 a group of researchers from Liverpool University came to the conclusion that Tut had been murdered because the head was crushed and the heart, usually included with mummies — especially royal ones — was missing; but the producers of these shows decided that Tut had been killed in a chariot crash, presumably in the middle of a battle), and what happened to him after his death. The interment and mummification were such a rush job that the corpse spontaneously caught fire from the linseed oil used to prepare the bandages (ordinarily a royal mummy wouldn’t be entombed until the oil had dried) and Tut’s famous sarcophagus wasn’t even his own — its famous head include pierced ears, and the experts said the only people in Egypt’s 1 percent who wore pierced earrings were children and women — and someone came up with a facial-recognition program to compare the Tut sarcophagus with the famous bust of his mother Nefertiti and decided the sarcophagus had originally been prepared for her. What’s more, Tut had had two children (incidentally his wife’s name was Ankhesanamun, also the name of the Egyptian princess, reincarnated as modern Anglo-Egyptian woman Helen Grosvenor and played by Zita Johann in the 1932 film The Mummy, a film obviously inspired by the discovery of Tut’s tomb and the worldwide craze for all things ancient Egyptian it inspired) but both had been stillborn, he had named his favorite general as his heir but the general had just been killed in a war in Syria (that really sounded like plus ça change, plus ça même chose right now!), and the vizier, a man named Ay (pronounced “I”), had taken advantage of the power vacuum, seized the throne and four years later, facing his own death, had himself buried in the elaborate tomb Tut had had constructed for himself while Tut had been relegated to the smaller and less fancy tomb originally intended for Ay’s own remains.

The show claimed that Tut’s tomb was not as “undisturbed” as Carter and others had claimed in 1922 — tomb robbing was a common enough Egyptian crime that the state had imposed execution by impalement as the penalty (and the hieroglyphic representing it is a quite graphic stick figure of a body being impaled on a large stake), but the original tomb robbers had generally contented themselves with petty pilfering of items easy to dispose of and sell or fence. The real epidemic of tomb robbing took place two centuries later and was done by the tomb diggers themselves, who had a pay dispute with the government and responded with what appears to be the world’s first documented strike, and they worked with corrupt priests in the religion of Amun to loot the famous tombs and get rid of the priceless artifacts — once again, something all too premonitory of the looting of the Baghdad museum in 2003 (also by people who had been deprived of their legitimate livelihoods by a political upheaval and the overthrow of their ruler by a foreign power) and other corrupt trade in Middle Eastern antiquities taking place now. Tut’s tomb escaped, these authorities argue, because just months after it was dug a flash flood covered the lowest part of the Valley of the Kings, where it lay, and it was buried under a mound of sediment left behind by the flood and soon baked to a crisp by the hot Egyptian sun. The program was the usual mix of well-established historical fact and speculation, though it differed from the usual A&E or History Channel fare in that at least all the explanations were rationally possible — they didn’t argue either that Tut was a space alien or was abducted by some, which was nice …