Review: The First Jesus? Expedition Week, National Geographic Channel, Friday November 20 9 pm

In a word: Bollocks.

From the blurb:

He was called the King of the Jews, believed to be a Messiah.  Just before Passover, the Romans beheaded him and crucified many of his followers outside Jerusalem.  But his name was not Jesus … it was Simon, a self-proclaimed Messiah who died four years before Christ was born.  Now, new analysis of a three-foot-tall stone tablet from the first century B.C., being hailed by scholars as a “Dead Sea Scroll on stone,” speaks of an early Messiah and his resurrection.  Was Simon of Peraea real?  Did his life serve as the prototype of a Messiah for Jesus and his followers?  And could this tablet shake up the basic premise of Christianity?

We’ll go to Israel to assess this unique and mysterious artifact, including testing by a leading archeological geologist and comprehensive review of the letters, script and content by a Dead Sea Scroll expert.  Then, from Jerusalem to Jericho, we’ll investigate key archeological ruins which could help prove Simon was indeed real — all of which just might sway the skeptics.

The entire documentary is based on a stone tablet, which comes to us courtesy of the antiquities market. No provenance, no context. This entire ‘controversy’ rests on a single scholar’s interpretation of a single word – an interpretation in the minority, of those who have studied it.

This whole documentary put me in mind of the worst of archaeology – scholars drooling over an artifact ripped from wherever it might’ve been located (and so questions of authenticity can never be fully resolved). I was at a conference once where one lecture hall was filled with folks giddy over the aesthetics of another bloody pot looted from another bloody tomb. This was much like that. A silly section of this film has the two ‘leads’ wandering over a site, looking for burn layers from a particular year that they tie back to a passage in Josephus. An already excavated and conserved site, by the way: you might as well look for evidence of European castle-building at Disneyland.

Bah. Do yourself a favor. Don’t support the antiquities market by watching this film. Give it a miss. The nuance in the arguments over 1st century messianic fever in the Levant is lost in the sensationalism.  Why does every documentary about the holy land promise to overthrow the tenets of one faith or another? That is the more interesting question than the ones posed in this film.

The First Jesus? Expedition Week, National Geographic Channel, airs Friday November 20 9 pm.

Review: Expedition Great White, Monday November 16 9 PM EST National Geographic Channel

sharkThere are some for whom tv fishing shows are the height of reality tv. ‘Expedition Great White’ will appeal to these folks. The idea is to tag some Great White Sharks, to find out where they go, what they do, where they breed… all the regular questions.

As a documentary, this was quite entertaining: will the Great White survive the capture and tagging? Will the crew? Apparently there is some eye-candy amongst the crew, in the form of some random actor fellow: will he get eaten? Hope springs eternal.

From the official release info -

A hundred sixty miles off the coast of Baja California, science and sport fishing join forces for an unprecedented research effort.  A team of world-class anglers will land one of the most challenging fish imaginable: the great white shark.  Unlike any other catch ever attempted, they’ll lift an SUV-sized shark out of the water onto a platform, mount a long-lasting tracking tag by hand, take measurements and DNA samples while pumping water into the shark’s mouth to keep it alive, and release it unharmed … all within minutes, like a NASCAR race pit stop.

 

Marine biologist Dr. Michael Domeier uses advanced tracking devices to help uncover how this predator lives, how it mates and where it roams, with the ultimate goal of conserving and protecting this endangered species.  “Ecosystems are changing fast today with the amount of overharvesting.  We don’t want to see them wiped off the face of the earth,” Domeier states in the film.  But he can’t do it alone.  He’ll rely on the fishing expertise of expedition leader Chris Fischer and crew members, including actor Paul Walker (“Fast and Furious”), who jumped in as a deckhand and quickly earned the crew’s respect.  With more than 1,000 hours of footage culled into 10 upcoming episodes, NGC gives the ultimate EXPEDITION WEEK sneak peak at this exciting series set to debut in 2010.

Expedition Great White airs Monday November 16 9 PM EST on the National Geographic Channel

 

Review: EXPEDITION WEEK: ‘Search for the Amazon Head Shrinkers’, Sunday, November 15 at 9PM ET/PT

So I go home for lunch. There’s a package from National Geographic there – they’re doing their ‘Second Annual Expedition Week‘, and they’ve sent me pre-screening versions of the documentaries to review.

My wife says, ‘let’s watch this one as we eat’. Sure!

(We’re eating lasagna. This is important.)

We slip it in, begin to watch. Ok, Rain forest – the Amazon, ok, cool, here comes the title: ‘In Search of the Shrunken Heads of the Amazon’. Footage continues. What’s that in the pot? Oh… a head. yep. Definitely a head being stewed woops – they’re holding it up…

My wife says, ‘would you like some more lasagna?’

From the press info:

Terrifying legends from the Amazon tell of Indian headshrinkers who would shrink an enemy’s head to render the vengeful soul powerless. Now, NGC has exclusive U.S. access to 45-year-old archive footage captured by explorer Edmundo Bielawski, purportedly the only known footage that shows the process of an actual,  recently deceased, human head being shrunk. Author and explorer Piers Gibbon heads deep into the Amazon jungle in an attempt to trace Bielawski?s 1960s journey, rediscover the exact location where this scene was filmed and reconnect with the tribe today. After a string of setbacks, Gibbon finally gets a striking clue that leads him on an arduous trek to the village of Tukupi, where he finds one aging warrior, the last of his generation, who could provide answers to the mystery once and for all.

shrunken head

This was a fascinating documentary. What I found most interesting were the things dealt with only tangentially in the film. The point of the film was to try to verify the authenticity of the footage from the ’60s – fair enough, and in its way, compelling. But what was particularly intriguing was the way the practice of head-shrinking continued to play a role in the modern community, most notably as a totem of the peoples’ strength.  ‘A shrunken head is a beautiful thing’ remarks one of them. In a darker turn, it seems that some amongst them are still shrinking heads to service a burgeoning market amongst western collectors. I would have liked to have seen more about this, but as the film hints, this is a very dark and dangerous road indeed. Apparently there have been murders and graverobbing to provide the raw …materials… for the trade. A quick search on eBay suggests that these things can in fact be had rather easily (though the link above says that ‘these’ heads are made from animal skins).

Which makes me wonder about some of Nat Geo’s promotional materials –

…but I wondered the same thing about last year’s Expedition Week game, which seemed to promote looting, as I recall. I haven’t checked out this year’s game yet:

 

 

But, those concerns aside, one of the best National Geographic documentaries I’ve seen in ages.

 

EXPEDITION WEEK: ‘Search for the Amazon Head Shrinkers’ airs Sunday, November 15 at 9PM ET/PT

Review: Waking the Baby Mammoth

Walking the Baby Mammoth: airs on the National Geographic Channel, Sunday, April 26 2009

Not exactly archaeological, so I’m not best placed to comment, but an interesting documentary nevertheless.  It tracks the recovery and study of a baby mammoth, found in northwestern Siberia in 2007.  As charismatic mega-fauna go, few things are more charismatic than a fuzzy baby mammoth, which the film makers instinctively know – indeed, they digitally insert her into a number of scenes. Not just where you’d expect, in recreations of the Siberian steppe from 40 000 years ago, but also into a museum and onto a college campus, where she seems to function as muse for our hero Dan Fisher.

The documentary has two narrative arcs – one, the study of the mammoth, and two, the animistic/philosophical/cultural musings and impacts of its discovery on the gentlman who discovered her, Yuri. This second strain doesn’t work for me, but hey, it does do something we don’t often see in these kinds of discoveries, the effect on the communities in which discoveries take place. Archaeologists, take note.

As for the first arc, it was interesting to see the health precautions taken whilst handling this mammoth carcass. In some locations, a pair of latex gloves seems to be the extent; in others, we get the full ET with plastic tunnels and hazmat suits.

The promotional bumf that came with the preview claims ‘[researchers] hope to compare her DNA with that of other mammoths from the ice age to trace the migrations of mammoth populations over time and help solve the mystery of her species’ disappearance’. We get about 3 minutes of this at the end of the film.

On a final note, it was entertaining to see that, in Northwest Siberia at any rate, the ice age appeared green and verdant, compared with the filming of Yuri’s current address.

Review: Herod’s Lost Tomb, National Geographic Channel, Sunday November 23 9 pm

There’s a point in this film where we see Herod with his architect, and the architect has a cut-away, 3d view of the palace-cum-fortress he’s going to build for the King. That’s a hell of an architect, in first century Judea…

So: same question as for Alex’s Lost Tomb: Why does it matter where Herod’s tomb is? Why bother looking for it? We actually get at an answer when the film starts discussing the apparent destruction of what is probably indeed Herod’s sarcophagus (btw, the narrator’s pronounciation of the plural of that word constantly grated). That’s a step up on the Alex documentary.

In this film, we get a biography of Herod (though only twice obliquely referring to Herod’s role in Mathew, which I thought was a bit odd, seeing as how that’s how most of the viewers for this film will be familar with him) , and a long exploration of his building projects, and the ideology behind them. This was great- we often don’t get a very profound discussion of what builders hoped to accomplish in their work, in this kind of film. Ideologies of construction were quite complex in antiquity, so I was pleased to see it. The section on Caesarea Maritima was like visiting with an old friend – my very first junior college archaeology paper was about that city, so I was busy throwing factoids at my wife instead of listening to the show at that point. (Memo to writers: at the Battle of Actium, Octavian was still Octavian, not Augustus. It matters, trust me).

Ehud Netzer, the archaeological hero of this show, has a theory on where the tomb is, and proceeds to lay it out for us. Helpfully, the show recaps towards the end, in case you missed the steps. Has he got the tomb? Tune in to find out… if you had to choose between two ‘lost tombs’, this one was the better show.

National Geographic is also getting into the game business apparently, and the game tie-in for this show is apparently one of their first offerings. I played it. It was another hidden-object game…  C’mon NG! Let’s think big! Let’s do a Grand Theft Auto go-anywhere world game, set in one of your famous expeditions from the past… Baghdad, 1920s, let’s do some heroic archaeology…

Review: The Mystery of the Screaming Man, National Geographic Channel Friday November 21 9 pm est

Ah mummies. Who doesn’t like mummies?

This one has a contorted face, was covered in quicklime, wrapped in a sheepskin, and bound at the wrist and ankles. Not your standard operating procedure. Indeed, he seems to have had all of his organs, in contrast to standard practice. So off we go, in standard mystery-documentary, to explore some competing theories about the who what when where why. An autopsy done in the 1880s cleary saw internal organs, but the CT scan done in this documentary didn’t, the implication that the original investigators didn’t know what they were looking at. Seems to me that perhaps they took the organs out at that point? Or having introduced them to the air, they rapidly broke down?

No matter. We skip through the history and evolution of mummification, toss a few names out of possible victims, reconstruct the face (poor fellow was rather unfortunate looking), and fade to black. The documentary clearly favours one explanation over all the others, a plausible hypothesis concerning harem intrigue and over-eagre sons.  To say anything more would be to spoil the show, so I’ll stop. One last comment – the post-commercial recaps of the previous segment’s content seemed to me to be a bit longer in this one over some of the previous ones.  I really wish we could do without those recaps, and spend longer on the exposition.

Mystery of the Screaming Man airs Friday November 21 at 9pm, National Geographic Channel

Review: Egypt Unwrapped: Alexander the Great’s Lost Tomb, National Geographic Channel Friday November 21 8 pm

Alex the Great’s death unleashed a series of civil wars and conflict as his generals fought for the spoils of empire. Clever chap, that Ptolemy, to grab the body itself and use it to legitimize his new holdings in Egypt. The body eventually goes on display, becomes a central stop on the ancient tourist circuit, and disappears with the end of the ancient world in those parts.

More or less.

In this documentary, snippets of Alex’s biography are interwoven with the theories of the various experts regarding where, exactly, Alex was kept in Alexandria. Why exactly does it matter where Alex’s tomb was? This is the central question, and one never fully answered. The best answer, the documentary seems to imply, is that the tomb is worth searching for simply because it was Alex’s tomb. Lots of time is spent arguing ‘this corner!’ ‘no, this corner!’ of Alexandria is the most likely spot.

The importance of Alex’s body itself, as a talisman for legitimising rule is explored, and towards the end of the documentary, the action moves to the Valley of the Golden Mummies, where Alex might’ve been taken after the destruction of the tomb sometime at the end of the fourth century. At this point I perked up, as there is a structure there that suggests his body was a focus for worship (implying that earlier, in Alexandria, it had not been). So we catch a glimpse of a reaction to the spread of Christianity in Egypt, and personally I would’ve liked to have learned more about this aspect.

Alexander the Great’s Lost Tomb airs Friday, November 21st at 8 pm, on the National Geographic Channel.

Review: Lost Cities of the Amazon National Geographic Channel November 20 9 pm

In the film Medicine Man, Sean Connery growls, ‘if you had the cure for the greatest plague of the 20th century, what would you do!’ – the Amazon has the world’s bio-pharmaceutical drug store. In this documentary, we’re presented with a new view – Amazon as fertilizer depot rather than pharmacy. We learn about ‘terra preta de indio’‘, an amazingly fecund man-made soil that is found throughout the Amazon basin, and could, if we could but figure it out, enable us to expand agricultural output the world over, without using chemicals!

It was at this point that my wife turned to me and said, ‘you mean, archaeology might be useful?’.

After I threw the pillow at her, it occurred to me that she was right – if this terra preta is as amazing as it sounds, then we really need to be devoting resources to try to understand it, to replicate it. Be an archaeologist: feed the world!

This documentary was easily my favourite – so far – of the National Geographic Expedition week. The archaeologists who feature are Eduardo Neves and Michael J. Heckenberger. The Amazon basin, long thought to be unable to support large numbers of humans, turns out to have been the incubator for a particularly complex society whose settlements ‘were more like Los Angeles than New York’. That is, they spread out node-and-network style throughout the basin, with arrow-straight roads connecting them. They had found a way of living in the thin soils of the Amazon, of managing the forest like the old world did farming.

The modern discovery of these settlements is contrasted with Edwardian adventurer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. In the best tradition of bloody-minded British exploration, he disappeared in the Mato Grosso region in 1925, trying to find ‘the Lost City of Z‘. (In a lovely coda to Fawcett’s expedition, oral history amongst the tribes in the region remembers Fawcett, as a generous man and friend to the tribes. Fawcett probably never dreamed he would enter the myth-history of the peoples along his way!)

We also learn of the Conquistador Francisco de Orellana, who saw cities and towns on his disastrous expedition along the Amazon river. Orellana was never believed, mostly because subsequent explorers saw no evidence of settlements where Orellana said they were. The thinking these days is that Orellana was not a liar, just a disease-ridden European: plague and death floated in Orellana’s wake, probably destroying the cultures along the way.

This documentary captivated me. The archaeology is unexpected, but untangles an historical mess, while at the same time, it changes our views on what is possible in the Amazon. To hell with the Romans! I want to go to South America…

(One quibble though: having watched a number of these documentaries in succession now, I’m getting tired of the post-commerical 3 minute recap of the previous pre-commerical material… which then gets recapped after the next commercial, and so on, and so on… in any given hour long documentary, you lose something like 15 minutes to commercial. If after every commercial you spend another 3 minutes recapping the previous bit… it just gets monotonous. And I’m watching these things without commercials, so the recap is even more annoying. I guess that’s what comes of the modern 30 second attention span.)

For more on what is an exciting frontier in archaeology, check out this paper from Heckenberger:

Science 29 August 2008:
Vol. 321. no. 5893, pp. 1214 – 1217
DOI: 10.1126/science.1159769

Article Link

Abstract

Reports

Pre-Columbian Urbanism, Anthropogenic Landscapes, and the Future of the Amazon

Michael J. Heckenberger,1* J. Christian Russell,2 Carlos Fausto,3 Joshua R. Toney,4 Morgan J. Schmidt,5 Edithe Pereira,6 Bruna Franchetto,7 Afukaka Kuikuro8 The archaeology of pre-Columbian polities in the Amazon River basin forces a reconsideration of early urbanism and long-term change in tropical forest landscapes. We describe settlement and land-use patterns of complex societies on the eve of European contact (after 1492) in the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon. These societies were organized in articulated clusters, representing small independent polities, within a regional peer polity. These patterns constitute a “galactic” form of prehistoric urbanism, sharing features with small-scale urban polities in other areas. Understanding long-term change in coupled human-environment systems relating to these societies has implications for conservation and sustainable development, notably to control ecological degradation and maintain regional biodiversity.

1 Department of Anthropology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA.
2 Land-Use and Environmental Change Institute, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA.
3 Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Quinta da Boa Vista, Rio de Janeiro 20940–040, Brazil.
4 Department of Anthropology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA.
5 Department of Geography, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611, USA.
6 Coordenação de Ciências Humanas, Museu Paranese Emílio Goeldi, Belém 66077–830, Brazil.
7 Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Quinta da Boa Vista, Rio de Janeiro 20940–040, Brazil.
8 Associação Indígena Kuikuro do Alto Xingu, Parque Indígena do Xingu (PIX), Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Review: Shipwreck! Captain Kidd, National Geographic Channel Tuesday November 18 9 pm

My name is Captain Kidd as I sailed as I sailed
My name is Captain Kidd as I sailed
My name is Captain Kidd and God’s laws I did forbid
And most wickedly I did as I sailed…

Great Big Sea did a version of the old song not that long ago, and I couldn’t help but sing it – at volume – as I watched ‘Shipwreck!’. The extant of my knowledge of Captain Kidd really wasn’t much deeper than that provided by the song, either, so I came to this documentary ready to be entertained, informed, and not to be such a nit-picker.

What a glorious thing it would be, to be an underwater archaeologist, searching for pirate (or more accurately, privateer) ships! In this documentary, we follow Charles Beeker (Indiana University) and his team as they go about identifying a shipwreck off the coast of the Dominican Republic.  Evidence mounts that the wreck is none other than the ship that led to the downfall of Captain Kidd, who, apparently, was not a particularly effective privateer (in any event, his execution following trumped-up charges of piracy was a nasty example of 17th century realpolitick). We follow Kidd’s story while paralleling the story of the discovery and excavation of the wreck. Dramatic tension in this film is provided by the weather – will the storms prevent the excavation? Are the divers in danger? – and by Kidd’s own disastrous career. All in all, you can’t go wrong with pirates. Arrrrrrrr!

Shipwreck! Captain Kidd airs on the National Geographic Channel Tuesday November 18 9pm.

memo to the Canadian version of National Geographic Channel: less Dog Whisperer, more stuff like this please.