Unknown: The Lost Pyramid 2023 Movie Review
In The Lost Pyramid, directed by Max Salomon, Dr. Zahi Hawass, a legendary Egyptologist, and his team dig at a site near the Step Pyramid of Djoser in the Saqqara necropolis. His hope is to find the Pyramid of Huni, a Third Dynasty step pyramid that’s never been found, despite the best efforts of Egyptologists and archaeologists. Dr. Hawass, a legend in the field, is one of the first native Egyptians to lead digs, in an effort to keep the artifacts found from being taken out of the country by foreign archaeologists and the people who fund their digs. The pyramid and tombs he’s looking to find are over 4,000 years old.
The digging season in Egypt lasts for only 9 months, as the desert conditions are too rough to accommodate digs for the other three months of the year, but as Dr. Hawass’ team digs they find a number of tombs that include a number of statues that indicate that the tombs weren’t looted thousands of years ago.
Meanwhile, about a kilometer away, Dr. Mostafa Waziri, a protégé of Dr. Hawass, searches for an unlooted tomb that’s about 2,600 years old. As his team digs, his lead excavator finds the entrance to the tombs, and months more of digging leads to a discovery: a full papyrus scroll, which is an incredibly rare find.
What The Lost Pyramid showed us is that the Unknown series, which has Dan Cogan, Liz Garbus and Jon Bardin among its executive producers, is that it’s going to try its best to make dry scientific topics an immediacy and sense of adventure that similar documentaries may not have done. The Lost Pyramid‘s style isn’t exactly Indiana Jones, but by putting the narration in the hands of Drs. Hawass and Zawiri, the filmmakers bring something as exacting and meticulous as archaeology work down to a personal level.
Hawass for one always wanted to keep Egyptian antiquities and finds within the country, which is why he set out to become an archaeologist during a time when much of that work was done by foreigners. And while he admired the determination of archaeologists like Henry Carter, who took four years to find King Tut’s tomb 100 years ago, he definitely thinks that these artifacts should be found and in the hands of his fellow Egyptians.
Both men want to lead teams that find amazing discoveries that tell us more about ancient Egypt, but Zawiri’s desire feels a bit more ego-motivated than his mentor’s is, and it’s a welcome contrast. The filmmakers go back and forth between dig sites, intercutting the two digs as if they’re racing against each other to be the first to find something big. It turns out they both have rare and remarkable finds, but the “big get” still eludes Hawass by the end of the film. It makes sense, since a dig generally takes years, not months, to complete.
There are moments during the film that feel somewhat staged, as neither archaeologist is best at acting like something is happening spontaneously. And when they hold up tiny artifacts that look suspiciously clean, the needle on our phoniness detector ticked up a bit. We didn’t see a ton of technical details on how digs are done so as to not destroy artifacts or structures, and watching people in the 2020s examine tombs and bodies that were meant to be buried and undisturbed thousands of years ago feels a bit perverse. But we can’t argue with the sweeping cinematography and the well-paced narrative in the 84-minute film.