Mummies, Mysteries Beckon in PBS' `Secrets'

By Kreiner, Judith | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 10, 2001 | Go to article overview

Mummies, Mysteries Beckon in PBS' `Secrets'


Kreiner, Judith, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


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. Tuesday with "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 was 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.

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