Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Perfect for the Armchair Archeologist/Historian!

For three years, real-life survival expert and explorer Josh Bernstein had what I considered to be the coolest job on TV. I’m an avid historian, so probably a lot of people won’t award the same number of cool points to the job or Bernstein that I do, but I’m okay with that. When I was a kid, and even now, I dreamed of doing what Bernstein got to do on The History Channel’s Digging For The Truth.

As a kid, I grew up on the novels of H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and reprint pulp magazines of Doc Savage. All of those books, at one time or another, featured lost civilizations or historical conundrums that experts have argued over and wondered about for hundreds and thousands of years. Josh Bernstein got to saddle up horses, camels, motorcycles, and jeeps to ramble around the world in an effort to bring light to several of these puzzles. These explorations weren’t without peril, though. Bernstein risks his life through long, high climbs, flash floods, and the real threat of bandits.

I think part of what really makes Digging For the Truth work for me is Bernstein’s obvious enthusiasm for what he’s doing and what he’s working on. Even before The History Channel discovered him, Bernstein had been involved with survivalist schools and was a double major in anthropology and psychology. He worked his way up from a student at Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS) to CEO.

Throughout all of the episodes, Bernstein remains eager and attentive, a teacher to the television audience as well as a student of the people he meets while researching a subject for the show. He is extremely intelligent, educated, and reachable. I always got the impression that if I ever met him, he’d sit down and talk and be just one of the guys. That’s the same quality that makes Mike Rowe, the host of Dirty Jobs, so appealing.

This first season DVD collection offers 13 adventures. As always, Bernstein sets up the question he wants to answer, ascertain, or illuminate for his audience. He doesn’t always get answers, but the journey is fun and a lot is learned along the way.

“Who Built Egypt’s Pyramids?” and “Nefertiti: The Mummy Returns” first aired on the same night. I wish they’d broken them up on the DVD set because they seem too similar in some ways. In fact, some of the people Bernstein talks to are the same people. It probably made sense to shoot them at the same time, or close to each other, and maybe sitting through them in a single sitting when the show was new was all right, but they do have a degree of sameness that may led uninitiated viewers into believing the shows are all going to be about the same. That’s a disservice to the DVD collection.

In “Who Built Egypt’s Pyramids?”, Bernstein travels to Egypt (and really strikes a chord for all the Indiana Jones fans out there, which I’m sure didn’t sit well with Bernstein) to speculate on the construction of the pyramids. A lot of the footage is breathtaking, and Bernstein gets permission to go to areas in the pyramids that aren’t open to the public and haven’t been seen in years. Seeing the history scrawled on the walls is amazing. He even brings in the extra-terrestrial angle, but that’s not touched on too much. The stone splitting bit was fascinating.

When I was a kid in school, we learned about Queen Nefertiti in history class. Tutankhamen hadn’t been found at that point (which, I suppose, dates me a little), so this famous Queen was the high point of the class. We even made makeup out of egg whites as I recall. But I didn’t know there was as big a mystery to her as there obviously was. Until Bernstein revealed that someone had tried to erase her history in the Egyptian culture, I hadn’t a clue. Then I was hooked on the mystery as he started chasing down clues.

“Pompeii Secrets Revealed” was beautiful and grotesque at the same time. The volcano looked wonderful, as did the caldera and the outlying lands. Bernstein’s historical facts were as interesting as ever, especially when I realized that this was where Pliny the Elder had gotten killed while his son watched. But the plaster casts that were made of the bodies of the people who’d burned to death were macabre. I enjoyed the recreation of what had been happening there the last few days before the volcano finally blew. I was also surprised to learn how the lava stone was used to construct the buildings, and that the underground could be gotten to through an opening inside a small grocery story. These are just some of the things I love about this series.

The episode “Hunt for the Lost Ark” sounds too familiar. But Bernstein’s real-life adventures are anything but. The climb up the side of the mountain to the monastery (where even the animals are only male) was dangerous, and Bernstein didn’t try to hide the fact that he struggled with the climb. I like his honesty. The idea of the bandits scaring them enough to try to get across a flash flood area added more suspense to the tale, even though I knew they had to get out alive. Bernstein traveled more in this episode than in any other.

“The Holy Grail” is another one of those historical objects that so much has been written about. Despite the fact that it was supposed to be the cup (or bowl) that Jesus Christ drank out of at the Last Supper, it was lost. Add to that the fact that it was supposed to be used to catch the blood of Christ as he hung dying on the cross, and you have a hard time believing anyone could misplace it. Even as much as I thought I knew about the Grail, Bernstein wrapped even more stories into the mix.

In “The Iceman Cometh”, Bernstein sets out to solve a 5000 year old mystery. The frozen man discovered in 1991 had been the object of much speculation – especially after it was discovered that he was probably murdered. The exploration of the Iceman’s clothing and weapons is awesome. Bernstein also had some hair-raising adventure along the way with the blizzard and near-crash of the helicopter.

H. Rider Haggard wasn’t the only author who was fascinated with the legendary lost mines of King Solomon. Edgar Rice Burroughs renamed it Opar and used it in a few of his Tarzan novels. “Quest for King Solomon’s Gold” brings up a lot of the history of Ophir (what is now – most experts agree – is Pakistan or India). Still, as Bernstein points out, a number of questions remain.

“The Lost Tribe of Israel” involves a lot of Biblical history and ends up merging with the – relatively – new science of DNA linked to the discovery of possible ancestors. Again, this is a topic fantasy and science fiction writers have played with for years. Bernstein’s search takes some unexpected turns which still has archeologists and historians arguing.

I have to admit, I either didn’t know about Nazca lines or I had forgotten. But once Bernstein started elaborating on the “Secrets of the Nazca Lines”, I was hooked. These people created huge, elaborate drawings of stones (geoglyphs) in the desert that no one at that time could really see. It was at least another 1200 years before the airplane was invented. Bernstein covers all the possible reasons, but his explanation of how the people of that time were able to create those lines was what really sucked me in.

El Dorado is another famous legend that’s been lost in history. In “The Search for El Dorado”, Bernstein looks for the lost city of gold. I didn’t know about the new document that Bernstein worked with, and the last I’d heard, everybody generally assumed El Dorado was somewhere in the United States. The search, and Bernstein’s conjectures, was fascinating as always. I’d really thought this episode would only cover stuff I was already familiar with, but Bernstein always ferrets out more information and legend.

“Giants of Easter Island” was great. I can remember looking at pictures of those giant statues (moai) when I was a kid and wondering what the people who’d made them had sculpted them for. The moai have a look like nothing else I’d seen before this program. Bernstein’s participation in the Birdman practices was awesome. I’d heard of them before, but there were supposed to be closed to outsiders.

“Mystery of the Anasazi” isn’t as interesting, to me, as most of the other episodes. Again, this was a mystery that too many people are familiar with. They’re also familiar with most of the theories about what happened to them. Still, Bernstein does a good job with the presentation and the landscapes were filmed beautifully.

One of the things that I like best about the DVD set is that my son can enjoy the shows as well. History is one of the most ill-treated subjects in the public school system. I never had a really good history teacher until I was in college. Bernstein is bringing history to life for my ten-year-old in ways that excite and thrill him, and leave him with questions and a desire to learn more. In the end, I believe that’s the mark Bernstein and The History Channel wanted to leave with this set, and they achieved it.

Digging For The Truth The Complete Season 1 is a great addition to the armchair archeologist’s collection. It’s also good to have on the shelves for home schools and for parents who want to expose their kids to history that’s not just found on the pages of books that don’t carry that same excitement and enthusiasm Bernstein brings.

If you're interested in getting a copy of your own, go here.

1 comment:

Angela/SciFiChick said...

Sounds like something I'd love!