Each two-hour episode is divided roughly in half. Four segments cover the process of mummification and layout of pyramids, the Great Sphinx, hieroglyphs and the Rosetta stone, and two important 20th-century excavations.
Narrator Frank Langella is assisted by more than a dozen academics in history , art and so forth. Curiously, it’s the PhD’s who come across more exuberant and interested than the sonorous Langella, whose foreboding voice sounds as though he’s still playing Dracula.
Much of the — pardon the expression — dryness comes from the uncredited script, which switches from ponderous narration to quotes from authors, including Herodotus, Flaubert and James Henry Breasted.
Still, there’s lots of fascinating stuff, sometimes at odds with earlier theories. For instance, many historians now believe the pyramids weren’t built by slaves, but constituted (according to historian Peter Locovara) a “giant WPA project” to keep Egyptians working, especially when the Nile overflowed its banks, flooding farmlands.
A story warranting a film of its own is that of Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922, shortly after his patron, Lord Carnarvon, threatened to withdraw financial support after several fruitless years. Before the excavation was complete, Carnarvon, banished from the site by Carter, was bitten on his face by a mosquito, cut himself shaving and was fatally infected — leading to the rumor of a curse on the tomb that was still being reported as recently as 1972, when someone close to the project died.
“It’s been 23 years since that happened,” says puckish British Museum Egyptologist Harry James, “and I’m feeling OK just now.”
The most recent discovery outlined in “Mummies” is what may be the tomb of Ramses II, still under excavation at a site abandoned as unpromising by Carter, who went on to find the tomb of King Tut.