A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Documentary makers have been looking for a formula to replace the worthy and dutiful approach to archaeology shows, in which professors stand before monuments reciting facts. So it was only a matter of time before someone made a series combining archaeology and reality TV. Chasing Mummies (10 p.m. Wednesdays on the History Channel) follows Zahi Hawass, the Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, through what is supposed to be his normal life. The result is by turns laughable, bewildering, and, in small doses, educational.
(Courtesy History Channel)
Hawass works long hours directing excavations and restoration projects, in addition to doing book signings and interviews with the media. He is a celebrity scholar, and no one else could be the star of this show. Hawass is perhaps the only person in the world who can deliver a mummy on cue because he literally knows where all the bodies are buried, and can get access to any archaeological site inside Egypt's borders.
On top of his regular work, he has been saddled with three students who are ostensibly part of a fellowship program that is supposed to teach them how to become future Egyptologists. But the students look as though they were selected by a casting director instead of an academic committee. They are foils, giving Hawass targets for his petulance and anger, reacting with appropriate awe, and whimpering at the frequent tongue lashings. The students also provide him with a convenient audience to lecture about Egyptology in terms that viewers can understand. For as much time as Hawass spends on camera, he is only shown as a one-dimensional character—a diva who shouts instead of sings.
The crew filming the show is also part of the spectacle, adding a layer of meta-reality to the frenetic mix. The complications in the first two episodes—people accidentally locked in a passageway beneath the step-pyramid at Saqqara, and a cameraman with an injured back stuck in a tunnel in the Great Pyramid—seem scripted, and have more to do with the hazards of poor planning than the dangers of solving ancient mysteries. Archaeology is mostly a backdrop in front of which Hawass and the cast play their roles. Egyptology factoids pop up randomly on-screen and Hawass uses his bully-pulpit to expound his interpretations of archaeological data, but it all feels pretty thin.
In trying to do too many things, Chasing Mummies does none of them well. The field of archaeology needs an innovative approach to documentaries, but the variables in this formula still need a lot of tweaking.