Episode 1 · Sacred Sites 2: King Arthur
Monday 13th Aug 2018 at 9:00 p.m. on Smithsonian Networks
Most experts believe King Arthur was simply a mythical figure. But exciting new evidence from Britain’s ancient sacred sites suggests the myths could be based on fact. So was this renowned king a legend or an actual person?
For many years experts have puzzled over whether the incredible tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have any basis in fact. Was he really born in Tintagel Castle in Cornwall? Could his advisor, the wizard Merlin, have been a real person? Where is the lake where Arthur received the sword Excalibur? And what connection, if any, did he and his knights have with the Holy Grail? According to the medieval historian Geoffrey of Monmouth, Arthur was conceived and born at Tintagel Castle in the 5th century AD, the illegitimate child of Uther, the King of Britain. Many dismiss this story as an invention with no basis in fact, but exciting new archaeological research is now taking place at Tintagel and other Arthurian sacred sites across Britain. Combining evocative location footage and expert contributor input with atmospheric drama re-enactments, ͞Sacred Sites: King Arthur explores whether there is any factual foundation for the tales of Arthur and his knights. The journey concludes at Glastonbury Abbey in England, where an archaeologist reveals the incredible new evidence that could connect Arthur with this ancient sacred site.
The legends say that towards the end of his life, King Arthur fights against his treacherous son Mordred in the Battle of Camlann. Arthur is fatally wounded and taken to the Isle of Avalon, the entrance to the Land of the Dead. It is said that he still sleeps here waiting to be reborn. Many believe that Avalon is the cone-shaped Glastonbury Tor. For centuries this hill has been a sacred site, the centre of a prehistoric cult where pilgrims underwent a sacred journey through life, death and rebirth. These beliefs influenced the legend that Arthur will be reborn again. But there is something else that connects him to Glastonbury. In 1191 the monks of Glastonbury Abbey proclaimed that Arthur and Guinevere’s tomb was located there, and in the 20th century archaeologists dug up the site and claimed to have rediscovered the tomb. Now, Dr. Roberta Gilchrist reanalyzes the evidence to determine if this really is Arthur’s long-lost mausoleum. She also finds fascinating evidence of a previously unknown ancient structure that could solve this riddle once and for all.
Episode 2 · Sacred Sites 2: Maya
Monday 20th Aug 2018 at 9:00 p.m. on Smithsonian Networks
The ancient Maya built many of their sacred sites to watch the sky, but new research suggests these places were also linked to underground cave systems. A recent scientific discovery unlocks a fascinating secret about the most famous Mayan temple of all.
On ancient documents known as codices, Mayan scribes made elaborate mathematical calculations, revealing their fascination with astronomy and the heavens. But they also believed in another great realm, a supernatural underworld that was just as mysterious as the cosmos. New research at the great cities of Palenque, Tikal and Chichen Itza shows how these fascinating beliefs shaped the Maya’s monuments, and the discovery of underground caves and water channels reveals why they built them where they did. Powerful and destructive forces from beneath the earth also threatened the culture’s very existence, and the documentary explores newly-discovered evidence of a volcanic eruption near the Maya heartland in the 6th century AD. This catastrophe almost destroyed the city of Tikal and plunged the Maya into a Dark Age. When Tikal recovered, its inhabitants built tall pyramids as sacred volcanoes, burning incense and making offerings to the gods that nearly destroyed them.
Deep in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula stands the most-visited of all ancient Mayan cities: Chichen Itza. Every year the city’s great pyramid, El Castillo, attracts thousands of tourists, especially during the Spring and Autumn equinoxes when an amazing sunlight and shadow effect reveals the shape of undulating snake on the pyramid steps. Some experts believe this is a signal, pointing to something hidden beneath the surface, and now a scientific team searches for the truth. Using groundbreaking technology known as ERT, the team probes the ground beneath El Castillo with electrical currents. What they discover could reveal the location of the most sacred Mayan site of all: the center of the world.
Episode 3 · Sacred Sites 2: The Camino
Monday 27th Aug 2018 at 9:00 p.m. on Smithsonian Networks
Every year thousands of pilgrims complete the Camino de Santiago, a journey to the shrine of St James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. But this great Christian pilgrimage could have much older pagan roots, and the most famous of its sacred sites may really be the burial place of a forgotten heretic.
Every day many footsore pilgrims arrive at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwest Spain, having completed a 500-mile Camino de Santiago (Way of St James). The Cathedral is believed to be the final resting place of St James, one of Jesus’s twelve apostles, and the journey to the shrine is one of Christianity’s most important pilgrimages. In the Middle Ages between one and two million people undertook the trip each year, and even today the annual figure is over 200,000. But could these pilgrims be tapping into something much older than Christianity? There are several different pilgrimage routes to Santiago and most of them are known to have existed in pre-Christian times. Galicia is Spain’s most Celtic region, and many believe that the pilgrimage has its roots in pagan practices. Originally pilgrims followed the path of the sun into the west, continuing for another fifty miles to Spain’s Atlantic coast, a practice that seems to have stopped with the coming of Christianity.
And what about the remains that are held in the Cathedral – are they truly those of the apostle St James? In the 1950s, archeologists uncovered the remains of a late Roman martyrium in the cathedral. The discovery suggests that originally, this place was not sacred to St James at all but to a controversial early Christian bishop who was executed for heresy. In the 4th century AD, just as the religion of Christ was starting to gain ground in Spain, it was rocked by the teachings of this maverick bishop, named Priscillian. The early church regarded many of Priscillian’s ideas asheresy. His version of Christianity allowed for women and lay people to participate along with the clergy as part of one religious community.
“Sacred Sites: The Camino” seeks to discover if Priscillian’s bones do indeed lie within the Cathedral, and whether this famous pilgrimage does indeed have its roots in paganism and the ancient sacred sites of Spain. With stunning footage and drone aerials of the sacred sites along the pilgrimage route, this documentary will investigate the true story of Santiago de Compostela.
Episode 4 · Sacred Sites: Malta
Monday 3rd Sep 2018 at 9:00 p.m. on Smithsonian Networks
The Temple People of ancient Malta built amazing sacred sites and a civilization that lasted for nearly 1,500 years. But their distinctive culture fell apart around 2300 BC without apparent cause. Fascinating new research is revealing the likely reasons, which may include a massive, earth-shattering event.
Between 3600 and 2300 BC, a remarkable civilization flourished on the tiny Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo. The mysterious inhabitants of these islands constructed dozens of fascinating temples and underground sanctuaries, leaving behind a microcosm of human existence at the end of the Stone Age. Now, a major science/archaeology initiative known as the Fragsus Project is uncovering the secrets that lie hidden in these sacred sites. New research on human bones, soil, and pollen cores is helping us understand why this society failed – and why other civilizations fail. Around 2300BC the Maltese civilization, along with the great civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece, came tumbling down. Did human activity and exhaustion of resources cause this, or were environmental factors to blame? There is striking evidence to suggest that a massive, cataclysmic event could have completely altered the climate at this time. Featuring exciting scientific sequences and the participation of key members of the Fragsus team, ͞Sacred Sites: Malta͟ will explore this amazing story and its relevance for modern society today.
The landscape of Malta and its sister island Gozo is dotted with ancient ruins. Built from limestone slabs, the remains of thirty Stone Age temples still survive. There are also atmospheric underground burial complexes called hypogea. The civilization that built these mysterious sacred sites is known as the Temple People. Perhaps the most famous of all is the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni near Valletta. Hewn out of the rock, and laid out over three subterranean levels, this silent labyrinth may once have been used as a sanctuary, and it still hides incredible secrets and clues. Ancient Malta is often said to have been the center of a fertility cult, but as the Fragsus team investigates, it discovers that food and ritual feasts were central to the Temple People’s religion. The religion of ancient Malta was not a cult of fertility – it was a cult of fat.
The feasts suggest that food was plentiful, but actually the opposite might have been the case. The climate was unpredictable, food was becoming scarce, and the temples may have been seen as places where death was held at bay. As resources dwindled, the society of the Temple People headed towards a cataclysmic downfall..
Episode 5 · Sacred Sites 2: Egyptian Priestesses
Monday 10th Sep 2018 at 9:00 p.m. on Smithsonian Networks
Much is known about the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. But new archaeology at Egypt’s sacred sites reveals a surprising undercover power structure– led by women.
For over a thousand years, in the forbidden inner sanctum of Egypt’s holiest temple, a succession of female priests performed mysterious religious ceremonies. Throughout the kingdom, they wielded extraordinary power and influence. They were said to be married to the King of the Gods himself – Amun. Called the God’s Wives of Amun, until recently they were all but forgotten. Now, experts investigate Egypt’s sacred sites to rediscover their story and the mysterious source of their power. Based on exciting new discoveries in ancient tombs and temples, they piece together the story of these priestesses.
The documentary explores how the God’s Wife of Amun’s great wealth and religious importance gave her immense political power, comparable to a medieval Pope. One God’s Wife, Hatshepsut, was so successful that she even managed to become pharaoh. Excavations at the Karnak temple complex reveal Hatshepsut’s connection with an extraordinary religious festival where drunkenness and sex were key ritual activities. Sex, it turns out, was central to the God’s Wife’s religious role and a mysterious ceremony she conducted in the Great Temple of Amun. The power these extraordinary females wielded reflects the unusual independence and sexual freedom of ancientEgyptian women, something that may have enabled them to take the initiative in other walks of life.
The God’s Wives had an unforgettable impact on Egyptian history and blazed a trail for the most famous Egyptian queen of all. Cleopatra epitomized the dangerous and intoxicating relationship between power and sex. But after her death, Rome conquered Egypt and women were reduced to the status of second-class citizens. In the centuries that followed, the memory of these dynamic women all but faded from history. Now, new discoveries and archaeological evidence reveals their incredible story.
Episode 6 · Sacred Sites 2: Nazi Myths
Monday 17th Sep 2018 at 9:00 p.m. on Smithsonian Networks
In Germany’s Teutoburg Forest stands the Externsteine, an incredible natural wonder and sacred site. Believing this place to be the center of an ancient pagan religion, Nazi mastermind Heinrich Himmler set out to prove that Germans were descended from a ‘pure’ Aryan race. But this warped ideology would have horrific consequences for millions.
In Germany’s Teutoburg Forest stand five great sandstone pillars known asthe Externsteine. For centuries this place has been a sacred site, and a medieval Christian chapel is still preserved here. But the Externsteine is no longer the focus of Christian worship. Instead, neo-pagans gather here on Walpurgis night and at the summer solstice to light fires and celebrate the ancient heritage of the Saxons. These celebrants believe that before it was Christianized, the Externsteine was a place of pagan worship.
“Sacred Sites: Nazi Myths” explores how in the 1930s, the Externsteine attracted the attention of more sinister forces. Nazi mastermind Heinrich Himmler believed the site was one of the last vestiges of a “pure” Aryan religion that had been overturned by Christianity. To explore and preserve this “ancestral heritage” he founded the SS-Ahnenerbe, a Nazi society. The Ahnenerbe are said to have used Externsteine as a magical space where occultists could try out “ancient” rituals and spells. This special SS division also carried out archaeological investigations at many other ancient sites. At the temples of Tibet, they looked for evidence that an Aryan super race founded Buddhism thousands of years ago. They also explored sacred groves, seeking the hallowed pillar they believed ancient Germanic peoples worshipped - the Irminsul. More than anything, Himmler wanted to find proof for the Aryan race’s supposed genetic superiority. By hijacking these sacred sites, the Nazis were attempting to justify an ideology that would have horrific consequences for the lives of millions.
In the final years of World War Two, the Externsteine became the focus of an extensive study by Nazi archaeologists. They believed that if they could find evidence that an ancient Germanic people used the Externsteine for ritual practice, centred around the sacred Irminsul, it would prove that modern Germans are descended from the Aryans of Nordic mythology. The episode concludes by exploring if these theories were anything more than dark fantasy.
The sacred sites of the world can serve as warnings of how the past may be manipulated to serve specific ideologies. But they can also offer us windows into the extraordinary lives of the ancients, searching for meaning in existence and seeking to commune with higher powers beyond this world.