An Oxford Historian
Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb: A Review
A must-watch for archaeology enthusiasts, or anyone with a love of the history of Egypt, this stunningly-shot documentary takes us inside an untouched tomb.
Egyptology is a complex and controversial topic for Western audiences. For so long, it's been wrapped-up so tightly in a complex narrative of Orientalism and treasure-hunting. On the one hand, archaeology is easily reduced to little more than stripping sites of their wealth, and focusing only on the gold and jewels of the past. In the business, we call this the 'Indiana Jones-ification' of archaeology. On the other, Egypt itself is seen as the land of buried riches, waiting to be exploited by the brave (almost always white) explorers. Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb begins to tackle some of these unhealthy misconceptions
The film recounts the 2019 excavation of the Saqqra Necropolis, a burial site just outside Cairo, which has proved incredibly fruitful, with the discovery of a great multitude of bodies. Some of the finds here are simply mind-bendingly old - evidence from Saqqara has been dated to the 25th century BC. The specific focus here is one burial alone, belonging to an anonymous individual, known simply as Khuwy. Who was this individual? Why does he have such a magnificent tomb?
To its great credit, the documentary goes some length to explore the people behind the dig. Important questions are raised - the excavation in question is famous for hiring an exclusively Egyptian team, and the film explores the implications of this for the future of Egyptian academia. It goes some way to stripping down some of the unhealthy mythos while maintaining a sense of excitement and adventure. Just because archaeology is more accurate and healthy, it does not have to be boring. The documentary represents a much more genuine representation of the process of archaeology. Questions have been asked, however, about the staged nature of some of the discoveries and, certainly, there's a fair amount of exaggerated drama. This is film after all. But generally speaking, Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb is an enjoyable exploration of the process of archaeology.
It's a beautiful film, and Netflix clearly threw a lot of money at the cinematographic elements of the production. Its hugely atmospheric tone adds to the over-arching theme of the film: a movement between the world of the living to the world of the dead. Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb delivers on its promise to be an enticing exploration of a long-lost history, and hopefully helps solidify the new tradition of high-budget Netflix documentaries that are well-grounded in research and academia.
This review is part of a new Film Review series I'm starting, focusing on historical films and their contexts. You can find other reviews here, or sign up to the blog to stay up to date. A previous review of Netlix's The Dig can be found here.
Interested in archaeology, and keen to access more information and resources? I have recently released a set of free, online notes for the archaeology of 'Anglo-Saxon' England - this is available here.
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Check out my previous articles on my own personal PhD research on Anglo-Saxon (here), Viking (here) and obscene (here) nicknames.
A new Deep-Dive article on the so-called 'New Chronology' historiographical conspiracy theory can be found here. It's received some glowingly hateful comments by conspiracy theorists...
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