Documentaries: TV's Not-So-Great Pyramid

"The Lost Pyramid" is one of those rare documentaries with a revelation so stunning, it's made headlines before anyone has seen it. The film, debuting next week on the History Channel, follows a team of archeologists as they unearth Egypt's fourth Great Pyramid at Giza, which, as the title says, has been lost for years to the desert sands. Even more amazing, this new pyramid (built by the Fourth-dynasty Pharaoh Djedefre) is actually the highest one of all—27 feet higher than the Great Pyramid of Cheops. "I'm a pyramid man, and what I've seen now has made me change many things," says Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. "Every history book in every language is going to be rewritten."

The only problem is that statement—indeed, the entire documentary—is arguably as solid as the crumbling pyramid itself. Egyptologists have known about Djedefre's pyramid for years. It was discovered a century ago—or rediscovered, since tomb raiders and stonemasons had been picking it over for centuries. If it hasn't been explored until recent years, that's in part because the pyramid sits close to a military exclusion zone, probably the site of nearby surface-to-air missiles. For the record, the structure isn't really on the Giza plateau, which is five miles to the south, and while it may appear larger than Cheops, that's only because Djedefre's hill is so high—the Great Pyramid is more than twice as tall in absolute terms. Some Egyptologists say that the slope of Djedefre's walls—60 degrees, as opposed to the 52-degree slope of the major pyramids—mean that the star of "The Lost Pyramid" is really just a sun temple. "It has never been lost," says Vassil Dobrev of Cairo's French Institute of Archaeology, "and it is not even a pyramid."

How could this happen? Very easily. "The Lost Pyramid" is just the latest entry in the competition among documentary makers to find the latest new old thing, especially in Egyptology. Atlantic, the producers of "The Lost Pyramid," is also working on an eight-part series for the National Geographic Channel on Egypt, and has done three King Tut documentaries and at least three others on ancient Egypt, with "several more" in production, says Atlantic CEO Anthony Geffen. Among them, "Egypt's Lost Tomb" and "Nefertiti Resurrected" speculate that Nefertiti, who may or may not have been Tut's stepmother, may be in a new tomb, known as KV63, found near his. The Discovery Channel has "Egypt's New Tomb Revealed," about a find in the Valley of the Kings, but its own experts concede there's "nothing definitive" to say that it is even a tomb—though there is the supposedly suggestive evidence of a fragment of an inscription reading PA-ATEN, which could possibly be part of the former name given to Ankhesanamun, Tut's presumed wife. Anyway, you get the idea. The pyramids may have been picked clean by tomb raiders and archeologists of yore, but put them on TV and there's still gold to be found in them.

Not surprisingly, the producers of "The Lost Pyramid" say they've got the real deal. "We don't do films on Egypt unless there is something new to say," says Geffen, who maintains that the Djedefre discoveries are not generally known while also discounting the results from a 1995 excavation of the site because there is no final published report. "When we do something new, these things get four times the ratings than normal. You make it right and it will do well." "The Lost Pyramid" certainly looks like a high-ticket item. It opens with an attractive blond narrator, Tessa Dunlop, intoning "assassination, incest, megalomania, feuding families" to a dramatic soundtrack. (Identified on the program as a historian, she's a British TV and radio host working on her master's degree in history.) The film is filled with ambitious, computer-generated reconstructions of what the temple might have looked like in 2500 B.C., give or take a few years. Standing on the rubble-strewn hillock of Abu Rawash, an observer can see that Djedefre's pyramid is in an impressive position, with a view of the three Great Pyramids and, on a clear day, other pyramids even farther away, at Saqqara. The burial chamber, now fully excavated, had been dug deep into bedrock, and seeing it fully exposed is a window into ancient engineering feats that are possibly the most enduring mystery of the pyramids.

If that's what you'd call this pile of rocks. Dobrev ticks off a list of reasons "The Lost Pyramid" doesn't measure up to its billing. There is only one pit for burial of the sun boats that take the resurrected pharaoh to the afterworld; nearly all pyramids come equipped with two of them. No inscriptions of Djedefre have been found inside, just objects—which could have been brought by cult worshipers to a sun temple—and the objects are of quartzite, which the ancients associated with the sun. Though interviewed on camera for "The Lost Pyramid," Dobrev's contrary views are given short shrift in the program; he says he suspects Djedefre's pyramid is at another place altogether, Zawyet el-Aryan, south of Giza, where the remains of a pyramid with a 420,000-square-foot base has been found, far bigger than the thing at Abu Ruwash, and also with Djedefre's name on a foundation stone, he claims. Most archeologists wouldn't dare to contradict Hawass, the pharaoh of Egyptian archeology, who participates in most of these TV documentaries (he's National Geographic's "explorer in residence"). "I was born in Bulgaria and moved to France, so I know what it is to be free, and I didn't come to Egypt not to be," Dobrev says. "It's clear, clear, clear, this is not a pyramid; it's a complete perversion of archeological fact to say it is."

Name-calling isn't likely to stop the filmmakers. Hawass reckons only a third of Egypt's monuments have been discovered, and the record box-office take from last year's King Tut traveling exhibition has inspired a second show, now in the planning stages. New excavation tools have become available, too: ground-penetrating radar, miniature cameras on robots to penetrate the unexplored interiors of Cheops' burial chambers, nonintrusive CT scanners to use on fragile mummies. "It's a whole new era where we start to look under the sand where you couldn't before," says Geffen. "It's almost like 'Egypt CSI'." And with any luck, these shows will pull in "CSI"-size ratings, too.