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Time Life’s Lost Civilizations Egypt: Quest for Immortality

Program picks up on the thievery by the pharaohs' contemporaries, who desecrated tombs for the jewels and artwork. (There's a charming study of Tut and his child bride, her hand on his arm, staring into each other's eyes down the centuries.) Most touching moment of the hour: seeing what Tut's caretakers placed in his tomb with him, evidence of the youthful Tut's humanness.

Program picks up on the thievery by the pharaohs’ contemporaries, who desecrated tombs for the jewels and artwork. (There’s a charming study of Tut and his child bride, her hand on his arm, staring into each other’s eyes down the centuries.) Most touching moment of the hour: seeing what Tut’s caretakers placed in his tomb with him, evidence of the youthful Tut’s humanness.

Ancient thieves thrived, but later foreign invaders matched their diligence. The expanding Roman Empire plundered and, later, the British took the treasures.

The French under Napoleon, who hauled off great clumps of history for France , took home priceless pieces, including the obelisk standing in Paris’ Place de la Concorde. But then Napoleon’s legions did discover the Rosetta Stone, that slab inscribed by priests of Ptolemy V in both hieroglyphic and Greek. It was the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian writings.

The 20th century English Egyptologists Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon worked the Valley of the Kings for 16 years — not 10 years, as the program states — before discovering the King Tut tomb, originally buried in ancient Thebes, in 1922. There’s a re-enactment of the event, but Carnarvon, who died the following year, gets lost in this version.

Docu grimly mentions how Ramses’ and Tut’s bodies were “badly mishandled” over the centuries. One hundred years ago Egyptians collected 32 kings’ and queens’ mummies, including Ramses’, from a secret cave where loyal Egyptians had stored them for safekeeping.

The Egyptians caravaned the remains in a procession north along the Nile — it’s re-enacted here — to the Cairo Museum, where they were kept. Docu includes a stark, unsettling look at Ramses’ face.

Thomas Hoving, ex-director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offers helpful anecdotes, and the chief of the Egyptian antiquities police states forthrightly, “I love this culture. When I hold this statue in my hands, I’m holding a piece of my heritage. I feel the continuity between the present and the past.”

Series, filmed on Super 16mm, looks sharp. Costumed actors were filmed at London’s Windfall Films; perfs were then matted onto computer-reconstructed sets using footage of the historical sites. It sports a quality look, and Joe Delia’s helpful score proves a model of restraint.

The series’ makers rate high marks, and NBC deserves applause for airing these explorations of such places as Mesopotamia, Tibet and Lost Atlantis.

How the series will fare among viewers remains another matter. Ancient history may be just that to entertainment-oriented audiences seeking 7 p.m. Sunday sitcoms and cartoons. It deserves a bigger audience than it’ll probably get, but NBC’s at least giving it a try.

Time Life's Lost Civilizations Egypt: Quest for Immortality

(Sun. (25), 7-8 p.m., NBC)

Production: Filmed in Egypt and at Windfall Films, London, by Time-Life Video & TV. Exec producer, Joel Westbrook; series producer, Jason Williams; producer-director-writer, Robert Gardner; series writer, Ed Fields; camera, Rege Becker; editor, Tony Black; production designer, Ian Duncan; sound, Frank Walter; music, Joe Delia. #Narrator: Sam Waterston. NBC -- kicking off a 10-part series of one-hour docus about long-gone civilizations and what may have happened to them -- offers a look at Egypt's ancient royals and their bids for immortality, much-reported stories that are still a good draw. Writer Robert Gardner, turning up a few lesser-known nuggets and using helpful dramatizations, spreads out the stories from the Valley of the Kings with attention to the lure of a civilization that started 5,000 years ago. It's back to Ramses the Great and all that, but producer-director Gardner gets down to Ramses' bare-bones mummy with a glowing re-enactment of the preparations for mummification and burial of the ruler's remains. The burial of the dead royals, the magnificent monuments to themselves, intricate methods of concealing bodies deep inside pyramids, and the pyramids themselves again proclaim the concern with afterlife.

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