A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
How does one present a TV account of the last 1,000 years of world history? This was the dilemma facing British producer Sir Jeremy Isaacs after Ted Turner, head of CNN, decided at the end of 1996 that such a feat should be undertaken. The chosen course was to avoid a continuous narrative, or a straight documentary series, with endless learned talking heads. Instead, Isaacs produced a set of ten 50-minute programs, each devoted to a century, and each featuring five segments devoted to a different topic and a different part of the world, with individual stories of human development and interaction. The ten programs, in chronological order from the eleventh century to the present, are titled Centuries of the Sword, Axe, Stirrup, Scythe, Sail, Compass, Telescope, Furnace, Machine, and Globe. The overarching theme is how cultural, religious, and military influences have spread from their sources to affect other regions, and how the world has steadily become more homogeneous as a result.
Although there is a bias toward Europe and North America in the final programs, the rest of the series shows a commendable desire to avoid Eurocentrism, with Africa, Australia, and Indonesia featured occasionally, and Central Asia, China, and Japan figuring prominently. There is a mixture of obvious topics, like Marco Polo or the French Revolution, and more obscure subjects, such as the rock-cut churches of Ethiopia or an eighteenth-century French scientific expedition to Lapland.
The result is a visual feast, filmed in 28 countries on five continents. As long as one accepts the premise of the series and does not expect a full and comprehensive history of the past 1,000 years--and how could that possibly be accomplished, even in 100 episodes?--then there is ample material in these 50 segments to entertain and inform. Readers of this magazine should be warned, however, that there is precious little archaeology in the series, apart from short films on Chaco Canyon (twelfth century) and the Aztecs (Tenochtitlán, fifteenth century), and the treatment of human evolution in the Darwin film (nineteenth century).
Millennium: A Thousand Years of History
Paul G. Bahn is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.
Mysteries of Egypt is National Geographic's first large-format film and a beautiful and accurate introduction to ancient Egypt. Now available in video, it features Omar Sharif as a modern Egyptian grandfather telling his American granddaughter about the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. This framing story introduces the geography, history, religion, and archaeology of ancient Egypt.
Mysteries of Egypt
Edward Bleiberg is associate curator in the Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art Department at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.