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Ancient Marvels: PBS Explorer Collection - Video Review

Video Collection on Ancient Monumental Engineering

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Ancient Marvels: PBS Explorer Collection Video Cover

Ancient Marvels: PBS Explorer Collection Video Cover

Courtesy Shop PBS

Ancient Marvels: PBS Explorer Collection. Five disk collection dated 2012. Various directors, all produced for NOVA between 2000 and 2010. Approximately 324 minutes. Available in DVD and Blu-Ray at Shop PBS.

The Ancient Marvels collection pulls together six programs produced for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) program NOVA, all of which involve modern determinations of the engineering and construction methods of some of the most famous structures in the world. Each video examines a different monument and brings together a group of modern-day archaeologists, historians and engineers to reconstruct how the feats were accomplished.

Secrets of Stonehenge

Secrets of Stonehenge. 2010. Written and directed by Gail Willumsen. Gemini Productions for NOVA. 54 minutes, widescreen DVD format, narrated by Jay O. Sanders. Featuring Mike Parker-Pearson, Mike Pitts, Jacqueline McKinley, Christie Cox, Julian Thomas, Andrew Young, Bruce Bradley, Colin Richards, Clive Ruggles, Ramilisonina, Jim Rylatt.

Secrets of Stonehenge introduces viewers to archaeological interpretations of the massive, massively famous structure located near the Avon River on the Salisbury plain of England, the main portion of which was built ca 2000 BC. Narration centers on the excavations and other investigations led by archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson at the University of Sheffield, and focuses primarily on monument construction, including the recent "ball-bearing" method of moving massive stone blocks across the landscape.

Discussion of the possible cultural meaning of Stonehenge includes commentary by archaeoastronomer Clive Ruggles, and Madagascar archaeologist Ramilisonina, as well Parker Pearson's connection of the nearby timber circle of Durrington Walls to Stonehenge.

Riddles of the Sphinx

Riddles of the Sphinx. 2010. Written, produced and directed by Gary Glassman. Providence Pictures for NOVA. 54 minutes, widescreen DVD format, narrated by Jay O. Sanders. Featuring Mark Lehner, Zahi Hawass, Günter Dreyer, Rick Brown, Richard Redding, Fathi Mohamed, Rainer Stadelmann, Kasia Szpakowska

The Sphinx is a massive sculpture, located on the Giza Plateau of Egypt between two pyramids of the Old Kingdom, and likely constructed for the pharaoh Khafre, who reigned 2558-2532 BC. The hour-long video features the work of Mark Lehner, as he investigates the construction methods of the Sphinx and the evidence tying the monument to Khafre.

The DVD explores the carving of the Sphinx from native bedrock and the effect of erosion on its soft-bedded limestone, as well as the millennia-long efforts by Egyptians, ancient and modern, to honor and shore up the Sphinx's construction.

Ghosts of Machu Picchu

Ghosts of Machu Picchu. 2009. Produced by Owen Palmquist and Ricardo Preve. NOVA and National Geographic. 54 minutes, widescreen DVD format, narrated by Craig Sechler. Featuring Fernando Astete, John Verano, Elva Torres Pino, Valerie Andrushko, Johan Reinhard, Kenneth Wright, Stella Nair

The Ghosts of Machu Picchu highlights the physicality of the Peruvian site built ~AD 1400, providing an historical background to the site's nearly pristine (re)discovery in first decades of the 20th century, focusing primarily on the research of Fernando Astet and Kenneth Wright. Re-enacted roles include archaeologist Hiram Bingham, Inca artist Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, the Inca ruler Pachacuti and the Spanish chronicler Bernabe Cobo.

A chunk of the film debunks Hiram Bingham's misunderstandings of the meaning of Machu Picchu, including modern reassessment of Bingham's notions of the "Virgins of the Sun". A primary focus is on the engineering of Machu Picchu's agricultural terraces and water control within the residence itself, and the neighboring town of Patallacta.

Secrets of the Parthenon

Stonehenge - Still from Ancient Marvels Video Collection

Stonehenge - Still from Ancient Marvels Video Collection

Courtesy Shop PBS

Secrets of the Parthenon. 2008. Written and produced by Gary Glassman. Providence Pictures for NOVA and WGBH Boston. 54 minutes, widescreen DVD format, narrated by Jay O. Sanders. Featuring Cathy Paraschi, Manolis Korres, Barbara Barletta, Charalambos Bouras, Eva Petropoulou, Nikos Toganidis, Jeffrey M. Hurwit, Margaret Livingstone, Maria Ioannidou, Lena Lambrinou, Mark Wilson Jones, Lothar Haselberger

The Secrets of the Parthenon describes the engineering marvels of the original construction of the Greek Parthenon in Athens, built by Pericles in the mid-fifth century BC. The tale is told primarily through the efforts of the restoration team led by Manolis Korres, attempting to undo the damage of 2,500 years, and in particular the catastrophic reconstruction efforts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The video focuses on the philosophy of the architecture, the idea that beauty can be measured as a perfect ratio of the human body. Those ideas were built into the structure of the building, as were subtle visual cues to perfection: columns built not straight as a ruler but rather slightly flexed to suggest human muscles holding up the roof. The Parthenon is the story of damage: built on the ruins of an older temple, it only stood for a handful of decades in the 5th century before being sacked, then burned, exploded, rocked by earthquakes, used as a military barracks, rebuilt as a church and mosque, and looted in the 19th century.

Secrets of Lost Empires II: Easter Island

Easter Island. 2000. Written, produced and directed by Liesl Clark. WGBH for NOVA. 54 minutes, widescreen DVD format, narrated by Stacy Keach. Featuring Claudio Cristino, Vince Lee, Jo Anne van Tilburg, Zvi Shiller, Rafael Paoa Rapu, Jan van Tilburg, Santi Hito

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is a small island in the Pacific, where hundreds of monumental human figures, or moai, were built between 1100 and 1650 AD. Carving the moai out of a fairly soft volcanic bedrock on Rapa Nui was not difficult: moving them out of the quarries across an uneven surface and erecting them onto platforms was, however, tricky, and the film illustrates the researcher Jo Anne van Tilburg's attempts to reconstruct this monumental feat.

The Easter Island video in this collection is a little out of date: a (very) short piece of it reiterates what scholars now perceive as an overstated version of the "eco-disaster" which befell the Easter Islanders. Other attempts to figure out how the moai were moved have been made in the decade since this video was produced, some more successful than others: but the video is still interesting, if only for the history of archaeology and a glimpse of the larger debate.

Secrets of Lost Empires II: China Bridge

China Bridge. 2000. Written, produced and direced by Michael Barnes. WGBH for NOVA. 54 minutes, widescreen DVD format, narrated by Stacy Keach. Featuring Tang Huan Cheng, Robin Yates, Bashar Altabba, Marcus Brandt, Andrew Li, Tom Peters.

China Bridge is a bonus film, sharing DVD space with the Easter Island video, and like that one, it is fairly old. The video involves the reproduction of the Rainbow Bridge, an arched timber bridge built during China's Song Dynasty (AD 960-1126), and known only from a painting dated ~1100 AD. China Bridge focuses on the research led by historian Tang Huan Cheng, as supported by American and British historians and engineers. As is true in the Easter Island video, the scholarly repartee gets a little heated; but the reconstruction is downright amazing.

Bottom Line

The Ancient Marvels collection is a great introduction to a half-dozen engineering marvels of the ancient world: from a public archaeology standpoint, it is also interesting to see how much Nova videos have changed over the last decade. The re-enactments are more realistic, the photography is much better, and the production more polished in the more recent videos. The earlier videos almost tell us as much about the scholars and how they interact as they work together on Easter Island and in China, which is in itself interesting.

The videos would be ideal as an introduction to both ancient construction methods, and the practice of how archaeologists and historians determine how they were built.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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