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Living the Legends Volume 58 Number 6, November/December 2005
by Julia M. Klein

[image] Michael Wood looking for the Queen of Sheba at a temple in Marib, Yemen (Maya Vision) [LARGER IMAGE]

Preparing to cross the Himalayas to find Shangri-la, the British filmmaker and historian Michael Wood can't resist underscoring the magnificent folly of his venture. "I set off on a journey which might not end," he says, "to a place which might not exist." The journey itself is a prime attraction of his four-hour series, In Search of Myths & Heroes (November 16 and 23 on PBS), in which Wood seeks the roots of four enduring legends. Along with his trek to Tibet, Wood follows the Queen of Sheba across the Middle East and Africa, re-creates Jason's Black Sea voyage, and visits sites linked to King Arthur. Wood's past work includes Conquistadors ("Conquistadors Out of Context," May/June 2001). Here, his trademark enthusiasm, eclectic scholarly background, and adventurous spirit are once again on display. His finds are routinely "stupendous" or "mind blowing," and he is equally at home reciting Old English poetry or feasting with the self-declared descendants of Medea.

Archaeology plays a role in each episode, but it's often not clear which of Wood's finds are new. When he locates a set of Late Roman artifacts in a potting shed near Hadrian's Wall that may have been associated with the sixth-century battlefield death of a real Scottish king named Arthur, we don't know if archaeologists have examined them. And at the city that might have inspired the legend of Shangri-la, Wood discovers the jumbled bones of its last ruling family, all of them decapitated. This could be an important find, as archaeologists have done little work at the remote site. By contrast, he confirms his theory that the quest for the Golden Fleece was a metaphor for Greek colonization of the Black Sea region by consulting with archaeologists who have excavated Iron Age sites in the area.

Though Myths & Heroes features a few too many watery sunsets and snow-capped mountain peaks, Wood's skillful narrative tapestry of poetry, adventure, pop culture, and fact finding is mostly irresistible.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic for The New York Times and Mother Jones.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America