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A Premiere Week for Egypt

Television* Three documentaries set in the ancient country debut. A stylish 'King Tut' is followed by shows on dinosaurs and lost tombs.

October 05, 2002|CAROLYN PATRICIA SCOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three nights, three documentaries and three topics--a dinosaur that stands 100 feet tall, a 2,500-year-old murder mystery and a cache of headless mummies--would seem to be worlds apart except for one common denominator: all are set in ancient Egypt.

Call it Egypt Week on television. "The Assassination of King Tut," "The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt" and "Egypt Eternal: The Quest for Lost Tombs" make their television premieres this week.

Sunday night on Discovery, "The Assassination of King Tut" is a feature-length take on A&E's "Cold Case Files" with an "Unsolved Mysteries"-style soundtrack. Easily the most stylish of the three documentaries, it features actor William Hurt narrating striking dramatizations that give form to decades of fact and fantasy about royalty and riches, court intrigues and curses--everything associated with the boy king, Tutankhamen, owner of the world's richest tomb.

Since Howard Carter first entered the tomb in 1922, countless theories about the young king's death have been proffered, but the investigators in this case are not Egyptologists, they are detectives Gregory Cooper, a former FBI agent, and Provo, Utah, police chief and Mike King, a former director of the Utah criminal Tracking and Analysis Project in Salt Lake City.

"Typically a death investigation looks at four different forms of evidence: physical or forensic evidence, circumstantial evidence, eyewitness and confession," Cooper explains, noting how the partners used forensic science and techniques developed by the FBI to identify the murderer of Tutankhamen.

"We were given access to the actual X-rays of Tutankhamen--the X-ray of the skull first sparked rumors of possible homicide," King adds. The detectives' forensic team concludes that the king suffered a blow to the head. Some Egyptologists, however, question such conclusions. Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo wonders "how the scientist can be sure that it was an ante- and not a postmortem blow to the head?"

Egyptologists likely will continue arguing this point for years. But the detectives provide psychological profiles that, despite analysis from behavioral and legal advisors who seem bent on overlaying 21st century geopolitical interpretations on 18th dynastic reality, make persuasive cases against the usual suspects: the wife (Ankhsenamun), the man-behind-the-throne (advisor Ay), the commander of the army (Horemheb) and the treasurer (Maya). And the detectives name the perpetrator.

Monday night, A&E's "The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt" reaches past pharaohs and pyramids 90 million years into prehistory to the time of dinosaurs. A&E's programming conveniently moves from its weekend offering of science fiction about dinosaurs, "The Lost World," to the very real science of paleontology and dinosaurs.

Joshua Smith, a 30-year-old graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, leads an expedition of 14 scientists into Egypt's western desert to pick up where a little-known scientist, Ernst Stromer, discovered the fossil remains of an unknown species of dinosaurs in 1911. Specimens of Stromer's find were destroyed during World War II, and the scientist would have remained a footnote in the annals of paleontology were it not for Smith, who, with fellow scientist Matt Lamanna, resumed Stromer's quest.

Members of the team are stymied by a landscape reshaped by shifting sands and are caught in a sandstorm. They suffer through days of backbreaking work, picking through gravel and fragments of bone, and even have a few "Survivor" moments when frayed nerves and fatigue lead to arguments. But, with only days remaining on their mission, the Penn University team comes across a dinosaur humerus: an upper arm bone that measures more than 67 inches long. The program then uses animatronics to bring to life the 100-foot-tall, 70-ton dinosaur that is named Paralititan Stromeri.

A 'Quest' on PBS

Wednesday's PBS documentary, "Egypt Eternal: The Quest for Lost Tombs," retraces the progress of parallel excavations by National Geographic teams in the Bahariya Oasis and in the funerary complex of Saqqara some 13 miles south of Cairo.

Alain Zivie heads the Saqqara excavation in sight of Egypt's first pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Djoser. After years of work, the French archeologist's patience was rewarded with his discovery in 1997 of the tomb of Maia, the wet-nurse of Tutankhamen. Perhaps the most significant find in the program is Zivie's discovery of Netjerwymes, an emissary of Ramses the Great. Cameras follow the archeologist as he revisits Netjerwymes' tomb for a look at the stunning 19th dynasty statuary that accompanied the king's man into the afterlife.

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