Egypts Unexplained Files (2019) s01e07 Episode Script

Lost City of the Sun

1 NARRATOR: Pyramids, temples, tombs-- these ancient wonders promise even greater secrets still to be found under the sands of Egypt.
Now cutting-edge science finally decodes the mysterious land of the pharaohs.
With modern technology, we are gaining an insight into the way the ancient egyptians lived and the manner of which they died.
NARRATOR: This time, the mysteries behind the rise of a superpower.
Can a new discovery at last explain how the ancient egyptians built the pyramids? The papyrus gives us the final piece in the jigsaw.
NARRATOR: Will reconstruction technology reveal the true face of Egypt's powerful Queen, Cleopatra? Oh, my gosh.
She is not this most-amazing beauty.
NARRATOR: Can modern DNA analysis finally uncover the surprising origins of Egypt's ancient people? This is something we've never seen before.
This changes everything.
NARRATOR: Ancient clues unearthed Long-lost evidence re-examined Precious artifacts brought into the light of the 21st century.
These are Egypt's unexplained files.
-- Captions by vitac -- captions paid for by discovery communications 125 miles east of Cairo, archaeologists dig on the shores of the Red Sea.
They unearth perhaps the greatest egyptian discovery of the 21st century-- a handwritten diary that's over 4,500 years old.
These are the oldest papyri we have to date.
It's probably the closest thing we're going to get to having a time machine.
NARRATOR: Experts believe the ancient scrolls could finally solve one of Egypt's most enduring mysteries-- how the ancients transport vast quantities of stone to build the great pyramid in the isolation of a desert.
NAUNTON: Why build at Giza? The papyrus gives us the final piece in the jigsaw.
NARRATOR: The great pyramid.
A masterful feat of engineering Designed to provoke awe and wonder in all who behold it.
The great pyramid at Giza is 50 stories high, and for the ancient egyptians, it's meant to be sunlight, sunlight translated into stone.
NARRATOR: Egyptologists now know what we see today is the monument's inner structures.
COONEY: When the outer casing stone was on these pyramids, they were bright white, and they would have been blinding to look upon when the sun was shining on them.
NARRATOR: Under the orders of the great Pharaoh Khufu, construction begins around 2580 BCE And takes decades to complete.
There were probably 20,000 to 30,000 people involved with building the great pyramid.
It's beyond belief.
It's still the largest stone structure in the world.
It is the great pyramid.
NARRATOR: Within sight of the great pyramid lie two others.
All three built within just 70 years.
COONEY: Looking up at these three mountains of stone, they seem impossible to have built.
It's something that can't possibly exist in this world.
NARRATOR: It makes egyptologists question how the ancients are able to build these vast and complex structures in a desert wilderness.
NAUNTON: Why is it that they come to be built so far away in such an inhospitable environment? This is one of the driest, hottest places on Earth.
NARRATOR: The quest for an answer triggers decades of research, yet a mystery remains.
Archaeologists have long known that some of the rock used in the construction of the pyramids is sourced from two remote sites-- Tura, about 15 miles from the pyramids, and Aswan, a phenomenal 500 miles away.
Experts doubt the ancients could drag sleds across the desert, so they investigate how else they could transport vast amounts of stone hundreds of miles.
Clues emerge using a new archaeological tool-- images captured from high above the Earth of the river Nile.
NAUNTON: Satellite imagery is proving to be something of a revelation.
We had been thinking that the river Nile is where it is and that that is where it always was, but the satellite images are showing us that that's not the case and that actually it might have moved over time.
If that river is moving hundreds of meters, then how we understand the relationship between archaeological monuments and the river is completely transformed.
NARRATOR: Egyptologists begin to consider an astonishing possibility-- the stones of the great pyramid at Giza could be transported vast distances by boat along the Nile.
To explore this remarkable new theory, scientists peer beneath the sands of the Giza plateau.
We're using remote-sensing techniques, including drill coring.
It's a kind of keyhole-surgery form of archaeology which allows us to see deep beneath the ground in areas where water would have been.
NARRATOR: The analysis confirms that the ancient path of the river Nile runs close to the pyramids.
In areas which are completely dry in the 21st century, we now know would have been filled with water in the old kingdom at the time of building of the pyramids.
NARRATOR: When archaeologists dig to find physical evidence of a harbor, they discover something on a truly grand scale.
A marina estimated at over 1,500 feet long and 1,300 feet wide.
DASH: It was really waterfront property back then.
The harbor at Giza was probably the largest harbor in the world at its time.
NAUNTON: The idea that there's a harbor at Giza is so far removed from the idea we previously would have had.
We now know they would have arrived on water, on boats.
NARRATOR: Yet, if all this is true, another riddle emerges-- precisely how did the pyramid boatmen transport stone sometimes weighing up to 10 tons hundreds of miles along the Nile? In 2013 comes the final piece of the puzzle.
Excavating more than 30 honeycombed caves on the banks of the Red Sea, archaeologists uncover beautifully preserved scrolls, the oldest-known papyri in the world.
MANUELIAN: You may have gold statues or colossal figures in other places, and so scraps of papyri may not seem that exciting, but it's the words-- it's what they tell us that brings so much.
NARRATOR: Translating the writings, experts conclude this is the diary of a man named Merer, a transport inspector in charge of a team of 40 boatmen working on the great pyramid.
These are really day-to-day records of a person who clearly participated in the construction of the pyramids.
It's really remarkable and not something that would have been expected.
NARRATOR: Merer's diaries reveal in intricate detail how the pyramid stones make their long journey from the quarry.
NAUNTON: Merer is traveling from the Red Sea westwards towards Giza, and he stops in the area of Tura, which is a place well-known for the quarrying of the very finest kind of limestone to provide the final layer, the casing on the pyramids.
It confirms that it is the Nile that allows the stone to be conveyed to the site, and that explains why Giza is chosen as the place for pyramid building.
NARRATOR: As the only known firsthand record in existence of how the pyramids are constructed, the scrolls prove that without the waters of the Nile, one of the world's greatest architectural feats would not have been possible.
Ancient Egypt's most famous Queen and ultimate seductress.
She is this extraordinary femme fatale.
NARRATOR: Now facial-reconstruction technology may finally shed light on a discovery that baffles experts for decades, to reveal the real Cleopatra-- a great beauty or hardened leader.
FLETCHER: We have these two opposing faces.
So which one is the real Cleopatra? NARRATOR: She is the name on everybody's lips, immortalized by the world's most glamorous actress.
Cleopatra, for us, is Elizabeth Taylor, a very glamorous, sensual woman.
Played fast and loose with the hearts of any roman who happens to pass by.
But is that how she really looked? NARRATOR: A twist of fate means, for egyptologists, this is not an easy question to answer.
We don't know what Cleopatra looks like because we don't have her body.
We've never found her.
NARRATOR: To explore the truth behind the legend, experts first trace the origin of Cleopatra's image as a seductress and find it stems from roman writings detailing her relationship with two of rome's most infamous men-- the Emperor Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, a military General.
These historical records describe Cleopatra as a great beauty, yet egyptologists are reluctant to rely upon roman testimony as unbiased.
We have to remember that history is written by men.
There's a roman propaganda campaign against her to just frame her as a seductress.
NARRATOR: And then, by complete chance, another clue to Cleopatra's appearance emerges, one which leads researchers in an entirely different direction.
Experts rediscover a hoard of roman coins long forgotten in a bank vault in Newcastle, England.
JOHNSTON: In amongst that huge collection of coins, there is a coin, a silver denarius.
NARRATOR: The coin dates back to 32 BCE.
It is minted in armenia when under the control of the roman General Mark Antony.
On one side, it shows Mark Antony, but on the reverse, we have a representation of Queen Cleopatra.
- She has a hooked nose.
- And a pugnacious chin.
FLETCHER: Masculine, if you like.
JOHNSTON: It's not the Cleopatra that we've come to learn from films and television series.
Oh, my gosh.
She is not this most-amazing beauty.
NARRATOR: Egyptologists believe Cleopatra's unflattering depiction may be evidence she demands a quality with her male counterpart, an image of her own creation.
FLETCHER: So, on one side, you have Mark Antony, the famous soldier.
On the other, you have Cleopatra, the equally famous soldier.
JOHNSTON: Represented as equals.
She portraying herself as the correct and genuine ruler of Egypt.
NARRATOR: The coin not only suggests the modern stereotype of Cleopatra as a seductress is deeply flawed, but that she is a master of political spin.
Still, experts have a problem.
Neither the historical records nor her image on coins can be fully trusted.
So egyptologists devise an innovative way to investigate the face of Egypt's most famous Queen.
They examine records of Cleopatra's family.
One tragic sibling stands out.
We know that Cleopatra's sister, Arsinoe, is murdered in Ephesus.
NARRATOR: Historical records reveal Arsinoe is buried in Turkey.
Some experts believe her tomb resembles the great lighthouse of Alexandria in her native Egypt.
If archaeologists can pinpoint her remains, they may be able to determine what Arsinoe looks like from her skull and, from there, paint a reliable picture of her older sister, Cleopatra.
Experts re-examine a tomb in Turkey.
Although the bones within are discovered decades before, only recently have experts considered the potential importance of the find.
JOHNSTON: In 1926, in Ephesus, we find a skeleton of a girl who is between 15 and 18 years of age.
NARRATOR: The tomb appears to match the descriptions of Arsinoe's final resting place.
FLETCHER: And because the tomb has certain architectural features that relate to egyptian architecture, they assume the person buried inside must be egyptian.
NARRATOR: Many researchers believe the grave yields an incredible link to Egypt's most enigmatic Queen.
This may well be the sister of Cleopatra.
It may well be Arsinoe.
NARRATOR: But there is a problem with the skeleton.
Sadly, we no longer have the skull.
NARRATOR: Archaeologists search the records collected at the time of the dig, hoping to uncover information about the missing skull.
JOHNSTON: We do have photographs, we do have measurements that were taken at the time of its discovery.
NARRATOR: From these measurements, scientists generate a likeness of the woman they believe is Cleopatra's sister.
JOHNSTON: Using facial reconstruction, we're able to build up the layers of muscle on the bone, we're able to get a clearer indication of how to flesh up that skull so that we can see what the face might have looked like.
NARRATOR: If researchers are right and this is the face of Cleopatra's sibling, then this process will reveal the most accurate likeness of Cleopatra yet.
JOHNSTON: You see a face which is much younger, much more feminine than the coin portrait that we have of Cleopatra.
It's hard to see any resemblance at all.
NARRATOR: It is so different, in fact, that some egyptologists are skeptical of its accuracy.
FLETCHER: The experts who are reconstructing the face have to work with the limited data that they do have-- a set of measurements of the skull-- and they can only hope to create a partial likeness.
NARRATOR: Others believe there can be an even bigger problem, a question surrounding the identity of the remains.
ANTHONY: The skeleton, the body that was found there was that of a 15-year-old girl.
And there is a slight problem in that we understand that Arsinoe was probably in her mid-20's when she died.
NARRATOR: Egyptologists remain divided.
JOHNSTON: I think it's safe to say, at this time, the question of Cleopatra's appearance still waits to be answered.
NARRATOR: 2,000 years after her death, the legend of the most famous Queen in history lives on.
Built by the iconic Pharaoh Akhenaten, the utopian city of Amarna is legendary.
Akhenaten wants it to be an incredible city, something that people are going to remember.
NARRATOR: Now a new discovery could explain why the city is abandoned less than two decades after its construction, to reveal a deeply sinister side to Akhenaten's paradise.
Was Amarna a glorious revolution or was it hell on Earth? NARRATOR: 1350 BCE.
A new Pharaoh ascends the throne of Egypt, his name, Amenhotep IV.
Amenhotep IV comes in, and he says, "we're going to completely change things up.
" NARRATOR: He constructs a new order, starting with his own persona.
He changes his name to Akhenaten.
FLETCHER: The name change is like a complete rebranding of the Pharaoh.
NARRATOR: His new name makes him chief representative to the sun god.
With his wife, Nefertiti, at his side, he revolutionizes Egypt's religion by eliminating every god his people hold dear, bar one.
In this radical step, Akhenaten rewrites a nation's entire belief system.
MCGINN: Akhenaten announces to everyone that they're going to completely change the religion, and they're going to change from worshipping hundreds of gods to just worshipping one.
NARRATOR: He builds an entire city dedicated to the worship of this one god, the sun, a new spiritual epicenter.
One of the major physical manifestations of his religious revolution is moving the religious capital of Egypt from thebes to a city now called Amarna.
This is a massive operation.
MACA: He was moving thousands of people to a completely new area of Egypt, hundreds of miles away from traditional capitals.
NARRATOR: For over a decade, Amarna flourishes, a thriving utopia.
And then records show it mysteriously collapses.
Now egyptologists are trying to figure out what disaster may have taken place here.
Searching for clues, they dig in the ruins of the abandoned city.
Over a century, they unearth evidence of great wealth-- opulence that is off the scale.
DARNELL: We know that the elites, they're building very large villas and probably maintained a very lavish lifestyle.
Absolutely no expense is being spared in the building of this city.
NARRATOR: The findings seem to confirm the lives of the people of Amarna are exactly how the legend suggests.
FLETCHER: We know from the texts and the images from the time, Akhenaten and Nefertiti are giving hundreds and hundreds of individual offerings to the sun god on a daily basis-- the best food, the best wine, the best of everything.
Akhenaten wants it to be an incredible city, something that people are going to remember.
NARRATOR: But something puzzles archaeologists.
It is common for pharaohs to display their military conquests in carvings and paintings, but depictions in Amarna appear to show a very different military presence.
When you start to look at the art that's created at Amarna, you're very struck by the number of soldiers.
This is a royal couple who have to maintain a very high military presence to guard against rebellion.
These are people who need their bodyguards.
NARRATOR: It suggests Akhenaten may be at risk from his own people.
DARNELL: There could be some religious reasons for this, but it could've also been purely for security, that he was not beloved by much of his population.
NARRATOR: If this theory is correct, then life for regular egyptians is starkly different from Akhenaten's legend And Amarna is not the utopia he proclaims it to be.
MACA: Akhenaten re-creates egyptian society in Amarna, a utopian society.
But were the people treated as well as a utopian society intends? NARRATOR: In 2006, archaeologists begin to dig at a cemetery in Amarna.
They know the bones may yield vital clues to the living conditions of the people.
Human remains are an extremely effective way to truly understand how people lived their lives in the ancient past.
Everything they did shows up in their bones.
NARRATOR: Archaeologists uncover hundreds of partially intact skeletons preserved by the dry desert heat.
But the graves are not what experts expect.
MCGINN: The bones are found buried directly in the sand.
It becomes clear to the archaeologists working at this site that they are finding the bones of very poor people, because the rich would have been buried in tombs.
NARRATOR: Finding intact remains of everyday people is extremely rare.
When experts examine the condition of the bones and teeth, they find evidence of catastrophe.
Not a natural disaster, famine, or drought, but something far more ominous.
The bones at Amarna really tell us a horrific story.
MCGINN: We can see from these bones that the working-class people of Amarna are doing hard manual labor day in and day out.
MACA: These people didn't have enough food.
MCGINN: They had dental abscesses, cavities, so the diet was poor.
There were high levels of anemia.
Children were sick.
Malnutrition was prevalent.
NARRATOR: Then, in one of Akhenaten's temples, archaeologists examine the remains of 1,700 ritual offering tables, once seen as evidence of the tremendous wealth in the city.
Now the food altars point to a very different reality.
FLETCHER: Hundreds of altars open to the sun, to the open air, crammed with the finest cuts of meat, bread, beer-- all the standard offerings-- all left out in the sun for the sun to absorb their goodness And yet the workers who built this place are receiving so very little.
You would think that he's almost going to create a kind of utopian society and treat his people very well.
But that's not what the evidence shows.
NARRATOR: The finds at Amarna are rewriting the story of Akhenaten and his legendary utopia.
FLETCHER: Modern archaeology, it's revealing Akhenaten for the man he was-- a dictator, a brutal, brutal King who worked his people almost to death.
It must have been hell on Earth.
NARRATOR: And now egyptologists have an explanation for why, when Akhenaten dies, his city is abandoned by his people, allowing Amarna's tragic secrets to lie hidden beneath the sand for over 3,000 years.
The mighty pyramids at Giza hide an enduring secret about the men who build them.
Who did the labor? Who actually moved the stones? NARRATOR: Now a set of remarkable discoveries may finally shed light on the mystery to reveal if the pyramids are built by tormented slaves or willing artisans.
NARRATOR: It is a powerful image made popular by hollywood.
Thousands of pyramid builders toil under the desert sun, slaves to an oppressive Pharaoh.
Egyptologists trace this idea of slave labor to an ancient greek historian, writing about the fourth dynasty Pharaoh Khufu, the King who commissions the great pyramid.
DARNELL: Herodotus tells us 2,000 years after the great pyramid is built that 100,000 people participated in its construction.
DASH: Herodotus was the first historian.
He's called the father of history.
He lived during in the golden age of Greece.
He traveled the world and then would write stories about what he had seen.
COONEY: He talks about Khufu as being wicked, almost evil, and exploiting his own people, living so long and demanding such a large structure, that he pushed them too far.
And when we look at that structure today, it's no surprise that slavery might pop into our head.
NARRATOR: In 2002, archaeologists uncover something that could shed light on the popular belief.
They dig on the Giza plateau, uncovering walls and outlines of buildings.
Egyptologists believe it is a workers' village just 1,300 feet from the pyramids.
DARNELL: On the Giza plateau itself, archaeologists have discovered the administrative structures where the workmen who constructed the pyramids both lived and constructed their own tombs.
NARRATOR: They also unearth artifacts that reveal the workers' diet and lifestyle, evidence of how they live.
The most common pottery types we find at Giza are bread molds and beer jars.
We find thousands of them.
So they were eating bread and drinking beer.
NARRATOR: Along with beer jars, archaeologists find something entirely unexpected-- fragments of over 150,000 animal bones from fish, birds, and, remarkably, from cattle.
DASH: At the city of the pyramid builders, we have found enough cattle bone to have fed 7,000 people meat every day for 20 years.
DARNELL: Beef would have been a fairly expensive meat in ancient Egypt.
And the fact that that's one of the things that they were eating shows that this is a major state-sponsored activity, and they intended the workers who constructed the pyramids to be well-fed.
NARRATOR: The evidence from the workers' village suggests a new theory-- that the pyramid builders aren't slaves at all But are living in tailor-made housing, getting paid in beer and bread and the finest cuts of meat.
Then, inside the great pyramid, more evidence emerges.
Archaeologists study writings in a chamber above the King's tomb.
While it's common practice for explorers to leave their names, creating a unique record of exploration, among the modern marks are strange symbols.
Written on one of the massive roof slabs-- a hieroglyph from 4,500 years ago.
Red markings denote which crew was responsible for dragging that giant block.
NARRATOR: This hieroglyph reveals the workers' relationship to the Pharaoh.
It is a crew name-- "the friends of Khufu.
" It suggests a crew united in their task, working for the King.
DARNELL: We should really imagine these work crews with a spirit of togetherness.
And you get more of that sense of highly organized, concentrated labor as opposed to our imaginings of slaves being whipped as they bring stones up the ramps to the pyramids.
NARRATOR: It leads egyptologists to a final conclusion about the pyramid workers, disproving the long-held belief that the pyramids are built by slaves And part of a growing body of evidence that suggests they are highly specialized artisans.
DARNELL: Our modern archaeological discoveries have established beyond a shadow of a doubt that the pyramids were constructed by laborers, paid by the state-- masons, specialists, quarrymen, overseers, architects.
NARRATOR: It means experts can now consider the pyramids as more than tombs for a King.
They're time-tested monuments to the ingenuity and skill of the men who build them.
DARNELL: The workers who participated in the pyramids knew that their labors would be seen for thousands of years, and that sense of pride in creating both immortality for the King and a monument that would stand for thousands of years, it is all really remarkable.
NARRATOR: The people of ancient Egypt are perhaps the most fabled on Earth.
Now analysis of 3,000-year-old remains may shed light on their origins, answering an age-old question-- what is the ancestry of the ancient egyptians? Ancient DNA is actually providing us clues that are opening the door on who these people really were.
NARRATOR: How did this group of remarkable people spark the rise to a superpower nation? BARD: Over 100 years ago, there were theories that ancient egyptian civilization did not originate in the Nile valley, but was introduced from somewhere outside.
NARRATOR: Some believe this outside influence may originate with the oldest civilization on Earth-- Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq, over 800 miles from Egypt.
There was a suggestion that individuals from Mesopotamia came into Egypt and were the catalysts that enabled the egyptians to create themselves.
NARRATOR: The theory suggests this eastward migration takes place even before Egypt is created, over 5,000 years ago.
The problem is, egyptologists can find no archaeological evidence to support it.
BIANCHI: In the intervening years, the theory about the Mesopotamians coming over has been discounted.
NARRATOR: Another theory emerges when experts investigate a more recent dynasty.
They examine the upper Nile valley and Egypt's southern border.
BIANCHI: In the '60s and '70s, there was a renewed interest in Nubia.
NARRATOR: Ancient Nubia is on the southern side of the Sahara desert from Egypt.
Experts study Nubian hieroglyphs that date to around 700 BCE, searching for evidence that these people may have migrated to Egypt.
BIANCHI: We have hieroglyphic inscriptions, and they discuss the conquest of Egypt by the nubians When black africans from Nubia ruled Egypt as pharaohs in their own right.
NARRATOR: The inscriptions show that ancient egyptians have strong connections to sub-saharan Africa, but without biological evidence, experts cannot yet prove an ancestral link.
In 2017, scientists explore ancient genetic ties using the latest technology for DNA testing.
They investigate mummies found in the 19th century in the northern egyptian village of Abusir El-Meleq.
BUCKLEY: This study involves looking at 150 mummies from this one site and looking at their DNA.
NARRATOR: Because the mummies' age range spans nearly 2,000 years, beginning in 1380 BCE, it provides scientists with a broad sample size.
It's really the first scientifically credible study that's telling us something about the origins of who the ancient egyptians were.
NARRATOR: But there is a nagging problem.
When the mummies are discovered, the genetic code is not properly understood.
Archaeologists could not have imagined the mummies would be tested 100 years later.
As a result, they're transported to europe unprotected.
Now experts believe they may be contaminated.
At that time, for sure, nobody was thinking about DNA testing.
Everybody who's touching the mummy leaves his DNA traces.
NARRATOR: Contaminated samples could introduce other genetic profiles to the study, tainting the results.
Despite the difficulties, scientists isolate what they believe is ancient genetic code from the cells' nuclei.
BUCKLEY: Out of 150 mummies studied, they recovered DNA from 90 of those, but only from three of those did they get the full genome, the nuclear DNA.
NARRATOR: Extracting the full genome from the three mummies is an incredible scientific feat, an ancient egyptian first, and the results prove astonishing.
BUCKLEY: These results certainly show population over a long time period, originated in what is now Turkey, Syria, Israel, Palestine.
So these are people coming from the near east, down into Egypt.
NARRATOR: It means the mummies from Abusir El-Meleq have their deepest genetic links with mediterranean neighbors to the east.
But there is a fundamental issue.
Because all the mummies come from a single town, making any large-scale conclusions is impossible.
It's only from one site in northern Egypt, so it doesn't necessarily inform us on what the population may be like further south in Egypt, for example.
NARRATOR: Despite the complications, it's a hopeful beginning.
And as geneticists sample more mummies from every corner of Egypt, the results will give a precise picture of the migration patterns of the ancients, answering the question of ancient Egypt's ancestry once and for all.
Near the necropolis of thebes, archaeologists uncover a hoard of ancient records.
MANNING: Something like 100,000 documents or so.
It's perhaps the best-documented village not only from ancient Egypt, but for the entire bronze age, globally.
NARRATOR: The documents show egyptian workers hold the world's first labor strike and reveal if they were successful or crushed.
Pharaoh Ramesses III rules Egypt during the tumultuous 20th dynasty.
It's not a quiet reign.
He has several attempted invasions of Egypt from various places-- from the Libyans and from a confederation of mediterranean people we call "the sea people.
" And he's quite proud of fending them off.
He seems to have been a very powerful and successful Pharaoh.
NARRATOR: Experts wonder if his extraordinary military success abroad may come at a cost at home in Egypt.
ENMARCH: But we also know that towards the end of his life, economic problems began to gather in Egypt.
NARRATOR: As egyptologists investigate how a failing economy affects ordinary egyptians, new evidence emerges.
Deep in the valley of the kings, buried in the arid desert sands, archaeologists unearth a previously untouched village dating to the 20th dynasty.
What they discover inside is immaculately preserved by the desert's dry heat.
DARNELL: The community at Deir El-Medina was further out into the desert than your standard egyptian village.
COONEY: It was on the west bank, the land of the dead, deep in the desert.
And the reason that it's so special is because it preserves things that aren't preserved anywhere else on the planet.
NARRATOR: Buried in the ruins of Deir El-Medina, archaeologists find tens of thousands of documents, from work records to intimate letters.
But the most intriguing? Court files giving a window into the everyday conflicts and concerns of the ancients.
Among the documents, experts uncover records that suggest the men living here are employed directly by the Pharaoh Ramesses III, constructing tombs in the royal cemetery of thebes less than a mile away.
The documents show the high social status of these important craftsmen.
COONEY: They knew the greatest elites of thebes because they built coffins for them and finished tombs for them, as well.
So these men were really hanging out with the very wealthiest of thebans even though they were craftsmen themselves.
NARRATOR: Further research reveals something unexpected.
Some documents point to a strained relationship between the craftsmen and their bosses.
DARNELL: During the reign of Ramesses III, we have evidence that the workmen at Deir El-Medina were not being paid on time.
MANNING: And, of course, if you're not paid in bread and beer, which is the normal salary, literally, in ancient Egypt, how can you work? How can anything else happen? NARRATOR: So the craftsmen take matters into their own hands.
Nonpayment leads to the first recorded strike in history.
They demand payment.
COONEY: The documents are pretty clear that they didn't go on strike just once.
This happened repeatedly over time-- this nonpayment and the refusal to work because of the nonpayment.
NARRATOR: What the documents reveal next is remarkable.
DARNELL: They're not fired.
They're not punished.
They seem to be successful.
And the Pharaoh does relent and paid them.
NARRATOR: Egyptologists believe this extraordinary evidence calls into question whether the 20th dynasty Pharaoh rules like a dictator.
MANNING: The King is actually constitutionally constrained by the society, so the limits of royal power were very real even in a place like ancient Egypt, despite the perceptions of the King being this absolute kind of monarch.
NARRATOR: The cache of documents found at Deir El-Medina provides a vivid snapshot of the people who build ancient Egypt.
MANNING: Even though the ancient egyptian world is different than ours in a lot of ways, they are human beings, and human struggles, human emotions, human worries about daily life, about making a living, about feeding your family, about love interests all come to life in these documents.
NARRATOR: It is a discovery that reframes the relationship between the ordinary working man and his Pharaoh And recasts this egyptian superpower as a functioning nation complete with conflicts and conquests, just like any nation today.