The simple existence of an ancient mass grave near Luxor in southern Egypt is enough to pique the interest of anyone with a love of ancient history. After all, mass graves were not commonly used by the Ancient Egyptians; they were very keen on elaborate funerary rites and the pyramids, the most famous remnant of their civilisation, are really just huge cemetery plots, each dedicated to a single important figure and their family. But this site, The Tomb of the Warriors in Deir el Bahari, contains over 60 mummified corpses and points to something out of the ordinary.
Sealed since its discovery in 1923 and dating back over 4000 years to the dwindling days of the Old Kingdom (around 2200 BC), the tomb has only recently been investigated, and the documentary Ancient Egypt’s Darkest Hour lets us join the quest. Accompanying archaeologist Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, we delve into the tomb, learning that the bodies interred there all died violent deaths, bearing evidence of arrow and mace wounds. Flying in the face of what we know about Egyptian rites for the dead, they seem to have been hastily buried, which indicates that those who buried them had other, more pressing matters on their mind at the time.
Philippe Collombert, an Egyptologist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, picks up the trail at the tomb of the Pharoah Pepi II.
Pepi II's 90-year reign ended with his death and his pyramid, we learn, was looted shortly afterwards. This fact, combined with what we know about the dead warriors in Deir el Bahari, tells us that around this time Egypt seemed to be experiencing a period of civil disruption. A single tomb of dead soldiers hastily buried after some skirmish is one thing, but the looting of a Pharoah’s tomb is the sort of thing that can only happen when government authority has collapsed, leaving sacred sites open to the predations of thieves. So, what happened?
Well, that would be telling. But Ancient Egypt’s Darkest Hour is a fascinating piece of historical detective work. Seen through the lens of our own experiences and from a distance measured in centuries, we have a tendency to view different periods of history as static, unchanging things: Ancient Egypt looked like this and Ancient China looked like that, and the Roman Empire looked like something else again. What this program shows, in a thoroughly engrossing manner, is that the past was dynamic and dangerous place, and the people alive back then were reacting to political, economic, and even environmental drivers much as we do. In simply asking what might have caused the social disruption evidenced by these finds, Ikram, Collombert, and the other experts we meet are inviting us to look at the past, and Egypt’s Old Kingdom in particular, in an entirely new light.
The revelations are frequent and sometimes shocking to modern sensibilities. At one point we’re reminded that not just the Nile Valley but vast swathes of Egypt were once fertile, and that at the time of their building the pyramids were surround by savannah rather than desert. At another we accompany Ikram into a temple to the Egyptian crocodile god Sobek, which contains the carefully mummified bodies of hundreds of five-meter-long Nile Crocodiles. We’re here because their DNA, once harvested and analysed, could provide clues as to the climate of their time, which could tell us whether drought or famine played a part in the fall of the Old Kingdom.
It’s a clever bit of scientific deduction that adds one more piece to the giant puzzle being laid out before us. It is, unfortunately, an incomplete picture, but Ancient Egypt's Darkest Hour shows us how what we do know of Ancient Egypt has been carefully collaged together over hundreds of years by countless dedicated researchers. For history fans, this one is unmissable.
Two-part documentary Ancient Egypt's Darkest Hour screened 19 February on SBS. The documentary will be available at SBS On Demand for 30 days after it airs: