Review: Unlocking the Great Pyramid, National Geographic Channel, November 16 9 pm est

The brilliant outsider, railing against the establishment, with a controversial new theory: the story arc of this documentary is a familiar one, the sort of thing usually employed by conspiracy theorists when their theories lack rationality or evidence. It’s also frequently used in documentaries to otherwise spice up what could be a tedious discussion. I know; I had to have my own little narrative in my head (with me as the hero, natch) when I worked on my obscure corner of ancient architecture for my thesis. In this case, the hero is Jean-Pierre Houdin, an architect who, apparently, has given up his practice in order to pursue his theories regarding the construction of the Great Pyramid. Click here for the official website supporting his theories. Here’s another version from Archaeology Magazine.

Two archaeologists for whom I have the greatest respect, Lynne Lancaster and Janet DeLaine, both came to archaeology with an outsider’s perspective – one was an architect, the other an engineer. Between them, they have reinvigorated the study of Roman architecture by looking at it, not from an art-historical point of view, but from the nuts-and-bolts pragmatism of their original fields.  So I was able to swallow the ‘heroic-outsider’ applying the cumulative knowledge of his architectural experience to this archaeological problem. However, we never really hear, in this documentary, Houdin’s own voice. Our narrator, Bob Brier, seems to dominate even more than what you’d normally expect in a documentary. By times, I found myself wondering if Brier was the hero of our story – Brier and Houdin stand at the bottom of the pyramid, getting ready to explore a ‘notch’ in the profile of the pyramid which may lend support to Houdin’s theory, and its Brier who goes scampering up the profile (with cameraman) rather than Houdin. Perhaps Houdin doesn’t like heights, but I know if it’d been my theory, I would’ve insisted on getting up there to see what might be there for myself.

Sometimes these sorts of documentaries can be talking head – actors – talking head – computer graphic – actors – talking head….  mercifully, there was only ever one talking head, Rita E. Freed. I googled her, to find out more about her background, but couldn’t find much (JSTOR might’ve been a better idea). In any event, she seems to be an egyptian art historian. Brier himself is an expert on mummies. I would’ve liked to have heard from an architectural historian, or someone with a competing theory, if only for the contrast.

As for the theory itself… the exposition of the theory left me with more questions than were answered. The dismissal of competing theories was a bit on the the thin side (if it’d been a student’s essay, there would’ve been red ink all over the place). I was also perplexed by the 3d animations running in the background from time to time. There were things going on in the animations that the talking heads never discussed, which I would’ve liked to have heard more about. I could see what looked like a kind of shield being used, similar to the way the London Underground was dug. What was going on with that? Was there evidence for this? It looked like a portable corbelled vault…

One piece of evidence presented for the internal-ramps struck me in particular – the bands of lighter stone that run at 7 degrees across the face of the pyramid. It was something of a throw-away comment, but it occurred to me that if there was an internal ramp, that was not filled in until the completion of the pyramid, then there would’ve been something like 20 years of thermal difference between the solid and the hollow, which certainly would’ve led to some kind of bleaching. Maybe I’m way off base, but is this not the same sort of principle that makes things like crop marks etc work?

Anyway, my point here is not to critique the theory, but the documentary. Houdin will have to publish like everyone else, deal with objections, etc, for his theory to become accepted. There’s much to like in the theory (but I speak from a point of admitted ignorance) – but I could’ve done with a bit more meat in the explanation of it. As for the heroic outsider schtick – that only works if there’s demonstrated resistance to the theory. Have his papers been rejected out of hand? Has he been denied a job because of it? Michael Ventriss and his relationship with Sir Arthur Evans – now there’s a case of the heroic outsider suffering for his insight.

So: would I watch this documentary again? Sure! It was fun and despite the above (I think I’m just jealous that I don’t get to explore pyramids), I enjoyed it. Most people aren’t as anal as I am, and they’ll enjoy it too.

‘Unlocking the Great Pyramid’ airs Sunday November 16 at 9pm EST on the National Geographic Channel as part of its Expedition Week.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Unlocking the Great Pyramid, National Geographic Channel, November 16 9 pm est

  1. Yeah, the outsider-challenging-the-academe cliche was tiresome but I have to say — from a lay point of view — that the overall approach was refreshing. So many programs on these channels are built wholly on proving the radical/crank idea true — glossing over or ignoring contrary evidence (e.g. Exodus Decoded, The Assassination of King Tut, the recent show trying to claim that the Ark of the Covenant was a drum). I was surprised to see Brier candidly talk about problems in the theory, talk about what the theory explains but doesn’t explain, and concludes with the thought that the theory would have to await further evidence before it could be confirmed. Surely not at the level of nuance that you would find in scholarship, but superior to the standard fare that is offered by these channels on sensational new “theories”. I hope to see more programs like this in the future.

  2. That’s true – Brier was much more even handed about the theory than what often you get in these sorts of things (and you’d be surprised at how unnuanced – if that’s a word – some scholarship can be sometimes). I bet Brier would be a great fellow to have as your prof – his enthusiasm was certainly infectious!

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