We open on a shot of a mountain – 'Sunrise at Mount Sinai' Nimoy intones. I'm not a religious man, but seriously – chills. There's a shot of some tourists/pilgrims at the mountain while Nimoy tells us that this is supposedly the mountain where Moses was given the Ten Commandments. Nimoy wonders if they're coming to the right place.
There are several flavours of In Search Of… episode, and I don't think I've made any secret of the fact that the Biblical episodes are my least favourite. There's a terrible saminess to them. Lingering shots of the desert, pseudo-Middle Eastern music and the weird and patronising insistence that little has changed in the Holy Lands in thousands of years. ...continue reading "In Search Of… S04E12 The Ten Commandments"
We open on some re-enactors in tunics playing with a baby in a Roman style sandpit. Sure, why not. There are some columns in the background so, you know, Roman. The people look stupidly into the distance, apparently not recognising the stock footage of volcanic eruptions that is the reverse shot.
Pompeii! Nimoy gives a sweet narration about the eruption, then we get to the big question – is this cross-like object found in the ruins of Pompeii a Christian cross? I'm no archaeologist, but I'm going to go with: "I guess. Maybe. Why not?"
Camera pans across the ruins of Pompeii, while Nimoy waxes lyrical about the grandeur of Rome. It's a little lacklustre, honestly, as if Nimoy is tired of proclaiming the greatness of one ancient civilization after another.
Some really nice shots of Pompeiian frescos, then a helicopter shot of Vesuvius, and now we're joining Nimoy by the sandpit in front of the columns. This is some minor producer's house in Beverly Hills, isn't it? Again, Nimoy seems slightly uninterested in his grandiose narration, possibly because it contains at least two really obvious factual errors – that there were a 'thousand' Egyptian dynasties, and that Pompeii was the farthest city from the Holy Land in distance.
Anyway, point is, Christianity was taking off at the same time as Pompeii went kerflooey.
Talking now to Prof Edward Vendel (?) an expert on Pompeii, who delivers a very lecture-y lecture from the lip of Vesuvius. If I were to transcribe what he said, it would probably read okay, but it's so stilted when he says it. It's a relief to get back to Nimoy talking about volcanoes and Pompeii over electronic music and a rumbling noise.
There is a three or four second shot of a Roman-style bust, shuddering on a fencepost, and I will now refuse to hear anything against this episode because holy crap that's funny.
SFX footage of a city crumbling from some movie and… oh no! The bust has fallen off its plinth and cracked on a mosaic floor!
There's a bit from a movie of extras yelling at Roman senators, intercut with In Search Of... actors playing Roman scientists at work with the only apparatus they had -- set squares. There's a clever sequence about an augur reading the entrails of birds, shot so the bird doesn't die -- presumably so the producers can return it to the pet shop for a refund. Sometimes I really love this show. Oh, and then the augur measures a chicken liver with calipers. Delightful!
More shots of Roman-style fountains… Probably the same garden. Extras in tunics and stock footage of volcanoes again. The re-enactors finally stop gawping at the coming darkness and move. A little. Someone drops gravel on a goblet and half a melon. Extras hide. Footage from a big-budget Pompeii movie is cut in, just making the re-enactment look cheaper. Two of the re-enactors are buried under 'ash'.
And Nimoy is back in a shirt with a collar sooooo wide… He fills a little before we get onto the discovery of the city, and the promise of what might be the first Christian cross.
I'm looking this up now… the cross has been a symbol of Christianity since the second century -- so at least a couple of generations after Pompeii. Why wasn't the cross in use earlier? Again, I'm no expert but the phrase 'too soon!' springs to mind.
Prof Vendel lectures some more. Reenactment of an Italian digger discovering a suspiciously new marble bust in a well he was digging. Shots of tunnels under the city. I'll say this for In Search Of…, if you like under-lit footage of tunnels, they've got you covered. Now footage of the digger finding a broken sign that reads 'Pompeii'.
Nimoy points out that early explorers were basically just treasure hunters, and scientific study didn't begin until later. Re-enactor playing Giuseppe Fiorelli figuring out how to make plaster casts of the hollows left by decaying bodies… He seems to be working near that mosaic where the bust shattered. I hope they cleaned this poor guy's garden later. Anyway, it is quite a well done illustration of Fiorelli's process, even if the 'cast' that they 'dig up' is impossibly detailed. This is especially obvious when it's followed by shots of some of the actual casts with some nicely low-key music and minimal narration. Classy, for once.
Shots now of the interiors of Pompeiian buildings, with Nimoy telling little stories about what is known or suspected to have gone inside them. Nice… Oh God. Here comes Prof Vendel again. Sigh. He sounds like Orson Welles doing an impression of a boring lecturer. But then he explains how wealthy Roman couples didn't sleep in the same bed because 'it lead to bad marriages' and he pauses and gives a little shrug. He's starting to grow on me.
Nimoy explains disapprovingly about the city's 'many lewd murals'. How shocking! Let's watch… Oh. He's only going with some of the tame ones. 1970s TV, dude. Now Prof Vendel standing in the arena talking about gladiators. The dramatic music and sound of applause contrasts nicely with shots of empty seats.
More frescoes… Four minutes to go, and still no Christianity in Pompeii. We're talking about Pagan gods… Oh, and now we're talking about Christianity. The church was only fifty years old when Vesuvius blew. Nimoy says that we wouldn't expect to see that the faith had spread all the way to Italy.
Wouldn't we? Why not? The Roman Empire was many things, and one of those things was basically a massive transportation network. Goods, people and ideas traveled around Roman territory surprisingly quickly. St Paul's mission to Rome was decades past. In addition, just ten years before Pompeii, there had been massive Roman military operations in Judea, and who knows what returning soldiers might have brought back?
Anyway, we finally move onto the alleged cross. In Herculaneum, not Pompeii, but hey. Interestingly, the 'cross' is carved into the stone, rather than being the free-standing cross we might expect to see on a Christian altar. A little research shows that it this cross is now thought to be a the socket where a shelf was stuck into the wall, and that hard evidence of Christian organisation in Pompeii and Herculaneum has yet to be found.
Prof Vendel – a little more animated this time because he's answering a question rather than speechifying – says that he doubts that the 'cross' was an object of Christian worship. He point out that the main symbol of Christianity at the time of Vesuvius' eruption was the fish. [Insert bumper sticker joke here.] Had there been a fish at the house, he says, he wouldn't doubt that the occupants were Christian.
Next, we talk to Dr John Ray, a theologian from Anaheim. He says that it looks like a cross, and the depression could have been where a wooden cross was nailed to the wall. He claims it's "good evidence of a Christian person worshipping."
All in all, this was a pretty decent episode. As an in-depth look at Pompeii, it's not great. But as a little taster to get people interested, yeah, you could do worse. The argument over the cross is presumably to add controversy. Honestly, in researching, I was surprised to learn how little evidence there is of Christian worship in Pompeii. I wonder where I got the idea that a Christian presence in Pompeii was not just plausible, but know. Sadly, I think the answer to that is The Last Days of Pompeii, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton's turgid 1834 historical novel, which has Christians all over the place. Somehow I'd assumed that, though it's a terrible novel, it had a stronger basis in research than it does. A lesson for myself in humility, I guess.
Prof Vendel: "Pompeii's place in history is quite unique in that in one day it was completely hermetically sealed. In other words, time… stood… still."
We open on pounding drums, flute music, a re-enactment of a sacrifice and Steadicam footage of Mexican pyramids.
This episode does right what it says on the tin.
So, guy machete-ing his way through the Guatemalan rainforest. He's identified as a chiclero, a guy who harvests sap from the chicle tree to make chewing gum. Actually, that sounds kind of badass. Could we have a documentary about these guys? No, we're just told that 'often' they're the people who found Mayan ruins in the jungle.
Lovely footage of the Mayan pyramids, which Nimoy call 'the most awesome works of antiquity' which is pretty true. There's some very interesting stuff on the Pyramid of Chalule which, in terms of volume, is the largest building on Earth. It was build by building pyramids on top of earlier pyramids until they had a super pyramid.
We move onto excavations of an Aztec pyramid in Mexico city. Some shots of a model of Tenochtitlan, nice. And then Nimoy, in a white shirt and bellbottoms standing… somewhere outdoors? Which I guess is meant to be Mexico. He taps the side of an Earth mound and calls it a pyramid, but let's be honest, they didn't ship the guy down to Guatemala for a one minute link. Anyway, he talks about how the Conquistadors thought that the Mesoamerican pyramids were tombs, and wondered who was buried there.
Moore footage of the pyramids, noting that there's a temple at the top of each one. He wonders why these temples required such massive bases. We'll come back to this.
We're looking in detail at Teotiuacan. He notes that the local pyramids are smaller than the Egyptian pyramids, and states that it's not possible to know if the builders of Teotiuacan had dealings with the Egyptians. And, of course, this was where it had to be going.
Some stuff in a tunnel under Teotiuacan that leads to a natural cavern, so maybe there are chambers in the pyramid above? Some very pretty footage of the sun rising over the pyramid and suggestion that it was used for timekeeping. And then we're into the end of Teotiuacan. The narration proclaims that 'no other great city left so few traces of its demise' while the camera is pointed at a bloody big pyramid – which is a pretty massive trace of a city's demise, if you ask me. After that, the narration builds up how little we know about the city. Which is probably better than its usual job of trying to impose strange solutions on mysteries.
Now we get to the pure speculation. Nimoy just asks a bunch of questions about what the ancient Mayans were all about, while the camera looks around. Then suddenly wer'e not asking questions about the Aztecs, we're asking about the Maya. They had observatories, you know. They had a calendar.
This part isn't terrible, it's just that they're flipping from topic to topic very fast. In a serious documentaty about Mesoamerican cultures, we'd give a little more space to examine each issue. Anyway, it concludes with the question that if the Mayans were so in death, then why no tombs?
Anywhy, this one archaeologist did find some bodies under a pyramid? Okay, looking it up… Yep! He did indeed find the tomb of the Mayan ruler Pakal. We go into this in quite a lot of detail, and it's probably the most interesting part of the episode. Generally, my understanding is that Mesoamerican pyramids were not generally used as resting places. The interview with the archaeologist, Dr Ruz, is fascinating.
Next stuff about sacrifice, which is sweet. We talk to Dr Ruz again. He talks about how sacrifices took place at the top of pyramids. Nimoy tells us about the Aztec 'skull rack' which is exactly what it sounds like.
After the talk about the sacrifice, we wonder how such an advanced people could be so into bloodshed, which is… yeah, look… Anyway, we have a quick chat about modern Mayan people, then Nimoy's narration really starts building up just how awe-inspiring Mayan cities must have looked when they were inhabited, and Dr Ruz discusses how the Mayan ruling class deliberately used the pyramids to provoke awe and obedience in their people.
More footage of pyramids… Okay, I may have been wrong earlier when I thought it was going to be about the Mexican/Egyptian pyramid 'connection'. We just go straight into the collapse of the Mayan empire. The narration is beautiful and the footage is nice. I really have no complaints here.
In fact, other than the skipping between topics, the brief talk of Egypt and a bit of patronage, it's not bad. It's not a great documentary about Mesoamerican pyramids, but it's not a bad one for it's era and running time.
Nimoy: Pyramids were stairways to heaven – the ultimate in spiritual technology.
We begin with a little bumper about Tutankhamun, and then a little travelogue of Egypt. We intercut between people farming and shots of the pyramids. Shots of accountancy firms in Cairo or industrial laundries in Alexandria never seem to get a look in during these things.
The footage is pretty nice, but it comes right out of the “1970s Stock Egyptology Footage” drawer. Nimoy in a white suit gives again a very standard spiel about Egypt, British Empire, Rosetta Stone… Not very interesting so far. There’s some ropey looking reenactments of the court of Tutankhamun shot through a blurry lens for some reason.
Now the standard story of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarveon… Lots of shots of Egyptians carrying stuff through the desert. Same blurry lens. Nothing here that wasn’t in the earlier Tut episode. Disappointing. Music surprisingly pleasant… Opening the tomb… “I see wonderful things”…
When I first decided to review these shows, I began rewatching them for the first time in years. I remembered some of the themes – cryptozoology, disaster porn, missing person, sensationalised anthropology. But I completely forgot the whole Biblical archaeology theme that runs through the show. Why? Well for a start, it's boring. Like, massively, massively boring. Even the dull ghost stories are better than this.
Lloyd Bridges as Professor X? Sadly not. In this episode, we are to witness ' the world's first experiment in underwater psychic archaeology,' off the coast of Santa Catalina Island off the coast of California. Sounds goofy. Let's go!
We see some very pretty underwater photography of divers and sunken wrecks, while Nimoy talks about how difficult underwater archaeology. Standing in front of undersea exploration equipment, he explains that even with all this equipment it's still hard to find stuff on the sea floor. But if psychics could find stuff, well then, that would be peachy.
We go now to the Institute for Marine and Coastal Studies at Catalina, where we see a bunch of people get on a boat. Basically, a bunch of scientists and psychics got together to form the Moebius Group, in order to do a psychic sea hunt.
We open on a shot of an icy coastline. We hear low, eerie music and also some sort of musical chanting in a strange language. It's as beautiful an opening as this show has ever produced, as Leonard Nimoy starts telling the story of the Vinland Saga – aka the Lost Vikings.
The Vinland Saga is an interesting story because it's one of the rare instances where the crazy theory actually has considerable support. Basically, some Viking Sagas were interpreted as possibly meaning that Vikings crossed the Atlantic hundreds of years before Columbus. Beginning in the 1960s, archaeological evidence started piling up supporting this interpretation. In the immortal words of Philip J Fry, "Crazy theories: 1. Regular theories: 1 000 000!"
We open on a bunch of Native Americans. Okay, didn't see that coming. I thought 'Indian Astronomy' as in 'Astronomy from India'. My bad. I don't know if these are Native Americans or 'Native Americans' but they do a dance in some long grass. Nimoy tells us that they're here to watch the sky, which is odd given that it's broad daylight and it's overcast. One of the 'Native' men is identified as a Priest of the Sun. A native woman goes down on her knees. The 'priest' produces a knife…
I am so looking this up.
And then we're looking at Native American mounds, ad break.
We're back. Reenactment time! A guy in animal skins is starting a fire with a flint. Nimoy tells us that we're in Southern Illinois. The reenactor walks out of a hut, plants maize and hunts with a bow while the narration talks up the connection of the people to nature and the universe. Native American documentary boilerplate, basically. ...continue reading "In Search Of… S03E11 Indian Astronomers"
A woman in a white robe walks on the beach while Nimoy narrates the basics of the Illiad. Helen, stolen away, the Greek army comes after, besieges Troy, wooden horse. True story or not?
Interesting question. There's an archaeological site in Turkey that is called 'Troy', and which matches some elements of the Homeric description of Troy in terms of location, size and shape. Is that enough to say that the Iliad is a true story? Is it even enough to claim that it is based on a real story? Let's watch.
Majestic shot of Ionian mountains, mellow electronic music. Nimoy tells us that 'relatively few Westerners go to Turkey, these days.' What? Seriously? Okay, if this is the level of scholarship we're looking at here, perhaps we won't get a satisfactory answer to our question. ...continue reading "In Search Of… S02E8: Troy"
Opening shot of the Dead Sea. We're told it's the lowest spot on the face of the Earth. Honestly don't care enough to look that up. Google it if you want. It's also very salty. Neither of those two facts are relevant, anyway.
Or at least I don't think they are. I have to admit, I don't know much about the Dead Sea Scrolls. I'm just going to watch and maybe fact-check at the end.