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DVD Review: Ancient Lives

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Ancient Lives is a documentary unlike any other I’ve watched. Viewing this passionately presented 200 plus minute voyage through the lives of a village of Egyptian tomb-makers living in the small village of Deir al Medina from approximately 1275 – 1080 B.C. is comparable to indulging in a vibrantly written biography as opposed to a committee-compiled, dry textbook.

John Romer is the driving force behind the series, his desire to conserve the great archeological sites in the Valley of the Kings leading him to present these Egyptians as people with rich thriving lives. Their love lives, family dramas, occupations, and so much more are explored with Romer as an expert guide. Watching Ancient Lives is like having a legitimate Egyptologist guiding you through museum exhibits, on-site hieroglyphics and tomb art, ruins, tombs, and so much more.

Part of the great charm of the series is seeing a man deeply immersed in his element and sharing his deep love for the subject matter with us as he moves through on-site explorations. We get to see Romer crawling up toppled statuary and searching through the Valley of the Kings for burial chambers that have yet to be discovered for example. Where else can you watch an Egyptologist finding himself stuck in possible tomb openings? (There are some occasional mild epithets in the series.)

Ancient Lives is generally acceptable viewing for all ages. Our children have watched the series with us and our oldest (six) finds it quite fascinating. It was much to our surprise when a scene entitled “Erotic Papyrus” in the scene index came on-screen. The graphic nature of what amounts to Egyptian pornography in the second episode is definitely outside the limits of general family viewing. Parents and educators, consider yourself forewarned –have your remote handy to skip this brief scene.

Perhaps as fascinating as the documentary itself is the success the series enjoyed. It both drew attention to the Valley of the Kings and Deir al Medina, spurring an upswelling of further scholarly research, but the inclusion of film snippets from an Egyptian film in episode four represent perhaps the earliest use of reenactments in documentaries – a highly effective technique that modern documentary viewers now take for granted.

Originally filmed for British television in the ‘80s, the series has been resurrected on DVD under the Athena Learning division of Acorn Media. I’m incredibly thankful. The need for entry-level documentaries is well filled with introductions to the pyramids, to mummies, and so on – but Romer’s vision of the everyday life of the Egyptian tomb builders is incredibly valuable for those seeking to go deeper in their understanding of the history of this mysterious country.

As a result of age, there are some minor flaws in the film’s appearance that couldn’t be repaired in its translation to DVD (a disclaimer is included). The color and film quality is also par for the course for the early ‘80s. Volume 1 includes the first two episodes and includes on-screen text descriptions of major Egyptian deities, biographical sketches of notable archeologists of ancient Egypt, and show host John Romer as additional special features. Volume 2 includes episodes three and four along with a bonus 23-minute documentary that chronicles a quest to recreate Egyptian beer from archeological findings.

Navigation through the two-disc set is easy and efficient – viewers can select which of the two episodes they’d like to view on the disc, or use standard scene selection menus. Subtitles are also included. A 16-page viewer’s guide includes a map of the region, summaries of the episode, questions for further reflection, additional insights on life as a scribe and Egyptian hieroglyphics, and entries from John Romer on his recommended resources for further learning and how the series was made.

Romer is always completely at ease, warm, and enthusiastic as he moves through the Egyptian landscape. Older students ready for a deeper exploration of Egyptian life, filled with rich detail will gobble up the wealth of knowledge that’s found in Ancient Lives. The opportunity to sit at the feet of a renowned Egyptologist as he shares his knowledge on film is simply too good to pass up.

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