- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2001

Do we ever outgrow our fascination with mummies? PBS is betting we don't with a three-part series it calls "Secrets of the Pharaohs."

Beginning at 8 p.m. Feb. 13with "Tut's Family Curse," the series covers old ground with the help of new technology. This gives us answers to questions that have persisted since engineers accompanying Napoleon's invading army first laid eyes on the pyramids.

We all know about poor Tut, the sickly looking boy who attained Egypt's throne at age 10 and died — perhaps at the hands of a murderer — sometime around the age of 18. Tut was the son of the heretic Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who ruled as Akhnaten and turned Egypt on its ear with the introduction of a monotheistic religion.

Tut left behind a tomb that was rifled but resealed, presenting the modern world with its first idea of the splendors of that ancient kingdom. He also died with no heirs and ended the illustrious 18th Dynasty, which had included Pharaoh Hatshepsut (a power player long before women's lib), and left Egypt to fall into the hands of a common — or perhaps uncommon — soldier, Ramses I.

The genealogy of the 18th Dynasty, as it is known by archaeologists, looks as if it were plotted by a drunken fly, with brothers perhaps marrying sisters and fathers possibly having children with their daughters. Gods have to keep the bloodline pure, leading to what everyone else calls incest. Again, maybe. Perhaps the suspected inbreeding is a misunderstanding, a misreading of records obscured by the passage of time.

"Tut's Family Curse" sets out to get the record straight with the help of recently developed DNA testing. Brigham Young University genealogy specialists Scott Woodward and C. Wilfred Griggs join Nasry Iskander, who was curator of mummies at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, in a cooperative effort to sort out who is related to whom and how.

(Several years ago, Mr. Iskander, a charming, erudite man, took this reviewer on a tour of the royal mummies, then in storage as a new display was being built, and explained his hopes for this project, then in its planning stage. It is a pleasure to see him again and learn of his success.)

As the mummies are moved to their new display, Mr. Woodward and Mr. Griggs take tissue samples. They hunt deep inside the bodies for areas unlikely to have been contaminated with foreign DNA. Such ancient tissue, exposed to the chemicals of embalming and the passage of time, seems an unlikely source of anything that can be cultured, but the men and the university lab are surprisingly successful. Gradually, a family tree emerges.

The first surprise is that inbreeding was uncommon, occurring only at the beginning and the end of the dynasty. Tut, son of the famously beautiful Nefertiti, apparently married his half-sister, the child of Kiya, another of his father's wives. How odd to know such names, and such details, of people so long dead.

Mysteries persist. The mummies of two unborn children were found in Tut's tomb. No sign of abnormality was found in either, removing support for the idea that the dynasty died out as a result of congenital disease brought on by inbreeding.

Well, science is fueled by mysteries, and research continues.

"Lost City of the Pyramids," the second chapter, airs at 8 p.m. Feb. 20. It explores the mystery of constructing three huge structures that remained among the largest ones built by the hands of humans until the 20th century.

Herodotus, the Greek historian who visited Egypt in the fifth century B.C., created a picture of slaves working under the lash to construct the tombs of kings. Later theories added flying saucers and aliens to the mix.

Until only recently, there was no way to tell differently. Then, 10 years ago, a bulldozer hit a huge stone block on the outskirts of Giza, a suburb of Cairo that rolls right up to the base of the pyramids.

Huge ancient blocks are no surprise in a land where recorded history goes back 5,000 years, but this block had a tale to tell. It was part of a previously unknown city, the home of the men and women who built the pyramids.

The picture that emerges as archaeologists study everything from garbage pits to burial sites is surprising. These were not slaves beaten into labor. Rather, they were skilled workers and technicians capable of accomplishing surprising feats of engineering with only the most basic of tools.

They lived in a well-organized city where they were well-fed on beef, fish, vegetables and grain in ample quantities. They worked in organized teams subdivided into organized files. When they were injured, which was frequently, they had the service of medicine that equaled that used on the pharaoh.

When they died, they had their own pyramids for their eternal rest.

How did they use their primitive tools to build the pyramids? Watch the program and see a very plausible explanation.

"Lost City" is unusual because it abandons the fascination with pharaohs to take a look at ordinary people and how they lived all those years ago.

"Unwrapping the Mummy," at 8 p.m. Feb. 27, returns to the elite of Egypt — and reveals that they had all the problems that afflict the flesh.

The focus of investigation is a 3,000-year-old mummy in the Manchester Museum in England, a certain Asru the Chantress, who lived in Thebes about 300 years after the death of the unfortunate Tut.

Asru was a member of the upper class, probably the daughter and wife of officials serving the temples in Thebes. Asru herself would have been an entertainer to the gods, singing and dancing for their pleasure several times a day in the temple complex.

Hers would seem an easy life, especially when compared with that of a pyramid builder.

Inspection of the mummy shows otherwise. Poor Asru indeed lived to be about 60, a long span for her time, but she suffered severe arthritis in her hands and wrists, perhaps because she played the harp, as well as a badly herniated disc and a truly epic infestation of parasites in her intestines.

All this she endured apparently without any sort of painkiller. Researchers sought some sign of painkiller without success while analyzing hair from the mummy. The analysis, however, does show an organic compound eventually traced back to the blue lotus of the Nile, and the program gives some tantalizing clues to the reason this flower figures so prominently in the decorations of every building from tomb to temple in every Egyptian era.

The research is fascinating, and obviously the scientists are having a ball pursuing it. In all three episodes, they repeatedly call in specialists in diverse fields to contribute to the pool of knowledge. Eventually, researchers who have been studying Asru long and intensively decide they would like to know what she looked like. Another specialist is called in, this one an anthropologist. After weeks of work, Asru the Chantress looks back at us across thousands of years, confirming our shared humanity. {*}{*}{*}1/2WHAT: "Secrets of the Pharaohs," in three partsWHEN: 8 p.m. Feb. 13, 20 and 27WHERE: WETA (Channel 26) and WMPT (Channel 22)

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