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En Route to the Truth January 13, 2005
by Mark Rose

A first look at a new archaeology series

Host Josh Bernstein poses with Habibi the camel at the Giza Plateau. (Bill Gardner/JWM Productions) [LARGER IMAGE]

A new archaeological series titled "Digging for the Truth" debuts on the History Channel, beginning with two one-hour episodes on January 24 (9:00 and 10:00 pm ET/PT). Hosted by Josh Bernstein, who runs an outdoor survival school in Boulder, Colorado, the show looks at archaeological sites and questions around the world.

The first two episodes, which I've had a chance to review, cover a couple of Egyptological warhorses: "Nefertiti: the Mummy Returns" and "Who Built Egypt's Pyramids?" Bernstein trots about Egypt and visits with a number of experts en route to concluding that finding Nefertiti's mummy isn't likely and that the pyramids were built by Egyptians, not Atlanteans, Martians, or the like. There are no surprises here, and viewers already familiar with these subjects may not be entranced by these productions.

One difficulty I had with the Nefertiti episode was that it begins by asking several questions, including, Who was she? But this most basic question isn't really followed up, certainly not in terms of her children (the assorted princesses, or whether she was, or was not, Tut's mother), what her own parentage was, when she ruled, etc. Setting aside minor glitches, I think this episode just tried to do too much--covering everything from Akhenaten, the royal mummy caches, the enigmatic Tomb 55, whether or not Nefertiti and Smenkhare were the same individual, etc.--within a single hour. A less ambitious premise might have worked better, and the more focused sequences which are the most interesting. For example, there's a good part in which Zahi Hawass is shown in a tomb with Bernstein explaining to him why a mummy recently proposed as Nefertiti's can't possibly be hers (among other evidence, a DNA test, he says, proves the mummy is a male). The second episode has a clearer, single subject and greater coherency. For this reason, it is more successful.

The show has some strong points. It does convey a sense of being on-site. "It isn't just a narrated montage of clips," says Bernstein. That and access to locations off-limits to tourists--such as the tomb from which a cache of royal mummies was removed in 1881 and the graffiti-scrawled spaces above Khufu's burial chamber in the Great Pyramid--make for some interesting moments. I'll be curious to see what goes up on the companion website now being developed. Bernstein says it will include additional photography and his own journal.

The third episode, slated for January 31, takes Bernstein from Mount Sinai, to Jerusalem, to Ethiopia's oldest monastery on a hunt for...the Ark of the Covenant! It sounds like a subject that could go in strange directions, but based on the first two episodes it should be okay. Upcoming episodes are said to deal with tried-and-true subjects including Pompeii, the Anasazi, Otzi the Ice Man. This choice makes me think that the History Channel was either going for an audience that was not well up on archaeology or that it was playing its cards conservatively by choosing fare that would work, if not necessarily excite. If it was the latter, that's too bad. There are lots of good, new archaeology stories out there. The "Digging for the Truth" format has potential. We'll just have to see if it lives up to it.

Mark Rose is executive and online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America