TV reveals Egypt's secrets

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Something about mummies and pyramids continues to fascinate generation after generation. After all, Brendan Fraser may be handsome, but there's a reason that both of his hit movies about an explorer in Egypt have "Mummy" in the title.

The History Channel aims to capitalize on that enduring appeal with its latest two-part, four-hour series, "Egypt Beyond the Pyramids" (May 28 and 29, 9-11 p.m.).

One of the key points of the show is that ancient Egyptian culture is still yielding up new secrets to this very day. Ongoing excavation in sites that were thought to have been fully explored, such as the legendary Valley of the Kings, is producing new and significantly more detailed information about both the religious and daily life of the 3,000-year-old culture.

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"At least five or six times in the last 100 years, archaeologists have said there's nothing left to be found in the Valley of the Kings," says Kent Weeks, the archaeologist hosting the show.

Dr. Weeks takes viewers to one of the most interesting new areas, KV5, a vast, 150-room tomb discovered in 1987 and full of what he believes to be the mummies of the sons of Ramesses II, Egypt's greatest pharaoh.

Weeks points to Howard Carter, the great explorer who unearthed the tomb of Tutankhamen, as one who felt that little of historical significance was left to discover at the site.

"The result was that when [Carter] found Tutankhamen's tomb, he felt perfectly content to have his workmen dump the excavation debris from the tomb directly over the entrance to KV5," Weeks says. "He buried it again for another 70 years under 10 meters [30 feet] of debris."

The new site, he points out, is still less than 1/10th excavated.

"Here we are, in a tomb that has turned out to be possibly the largest tomb ever found in Egypt," Weeks says. "Most of the tombs in the valley have three or four rooms. We're up to 150, and I suspect, by the end of our current season, we may well hit 200."

Members of the team behind "Egypt Beyond the Pyramids" say they took care not to overstate a story they believe to be inherently dramatic: the discovery of new finds at old excavation sites.

"I don't understand the need to hype the story of ancient Egypt," says the program's director, David deVries. "The story of the moment when Kent [Weeks] came into this long corridor that he discovered and ... shined his light down and realized for the first time what he had found, I mean neither I nor any screenwriter in this town could write that scene more dramatically."

The four hours are divided into sections investigating different aspects of ancient life. "Mansions of the Spirits" explores the role of religion, specifically at the Temple of Karnak, which has been called the most spectacular building of ancient Egypt other than the pyramids.

"The Great Pharaoh and His Lost Children" segment enters KV5 in search of the final resting place of the sons of Pharaoh Ramesses II, while "The Daily Life of Ancient Egyptians" deciphers the role and life of the common man in ancient times. It unearths telling details, such as the fact that Egyptian women had more legal rights than American women up through the 1950s. The final hour of the series, "Death and the Journey to Immortality," looks at the role of mummification in ancient life through a trip to Egypt's Valley of the Golden Mummies, where a workman accidentally unearthed the largest cache of mummies ever found.

For those whose interest is not satisfied with these four hours, a companion website extends the journey to Egypt's past. Go to www.HistoryChannel.com/egypt.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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