The Mummy Who Would Be King

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The Mummy Who Would Be King. Written and directed by Gail Willumsen. Produced by Gail Willumsen and Jill Shinefield for Nova/WGBH Boston, 2006. 56 minutes.
James Douglas, a Canadian physician vacationing Egypt in the summer of 1860, purchased a set of mummies for the Niagara Falls Museum back home. They were displayed there—alongside mounted butterflies, two-headed animals, and a whale skeleton—for nearly 150 years before Egyptologists began to suspect that one of them might be the powerful pharaoh Rameses I, founder of the Nineteenth Dynasty. Research gradually confirmed their suspicions, and the mummies were acquired by the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University in Atlanta in 2003. Rameses was returned home the following year—a gift to the XX and the people of Egypt. The Mummy Who Would Be King, an episode of the PBS science series Nova, tells the story of this improbable odyssey in high style.

The main narrative thread of the program—the story of how Rameses’ mummy was gradually recognized as the one-of-a-kind artifact it is—benefits from a remarkably diverse, colorful cast of characters. There is the German engineer who suspects (in the 1960s) that the mummy might be that of the legendary Queen Nefertiti, the ambitious TV producer who desperately want him to be right, and the Egyptologist who tells him that he is indisputably wrong. There are three other mummy experts—one Canadian, one British, one Egyptian—who each, in turn, narrate their conversion from “It can’t be a royal mummy” to “My God, it is a royal mummy!” There is the American collector who buys the museum for its shrunken heads and sells off the mummies to cover his costs, the retired orthodontist with the world-class collection of skull x-rays from royal mummies, and the Egyptian government antiquities expert who says he can tell a royal mummy by its smell. All of these people (and more) have their moment in the narrative spotlight as the story unfolds, and all of them make an impression in their relatively brief time on screen. It is genuinely satisfying to see many of them together at a gala reception at the Carlos Museum, admiring the pharaoh whom they helped to rescue from obscurity.

The question that drives the narrative is not “Is this the mummy of Rameses I?” but “How did scientists figure out that this is the mummy of Rameses I?” Letting the audience in on the mummy’s royal status from the start (in the title, on the box, and in the opening narration) serves the film well. Freed of the need to maintain suspense, the filmmakers are able to pack an astonishing variety of interesting background material into the spaces around the main story. Some of this material is de rigeur: mummification techniques, Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife, and the looting of royal tombs in antiquity. Much of it, however, is not only fresh but remarkably sophisticated: the legality of buying and selling mummies in the 1800s; the nature of nineteenth-century museums; changes in mummification techniques over time; the problems involved in using X-rays, radiocarbon dating, and DNA analysis on mummies; and the value of skull shape as a sign of kinship.

Television, bowing to the demands of efficient storytelling, has long tended to present science as straightforward and dull: a black box that, when fed data, reliably produces Truth. Programs like The Mummy Who Would Be King add back in what fiction (and too many documentaries) take out: imperfect instruments, unexpected results, improbable collaborations, and the complex interplay of old ideas, new data, and sudden insight. They show what makes the laboratory different from the assembly line.

A. Bowdoin Van Riper

Southern Polytechnic State University

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