Secrets of the Dead: Egypt’s Darkest Hour

Air date: 04/03/2019

Secrets of the Dead: Egypt’s Darkest Hour

Premieres Wednesday, April 3 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), and PBS apps



The discovery of a rare mass grave with the bones of nearly 60 people outside Luxor sends archaeologists on a quest to find out who the remains belong to, why they were buried the way they were and what was happening in ancient Egypt that would have led to a mass burial. Could the collapse of the empire’s Old Kingdom provide any clues?

Following the long reign of Pepi II, a series of weak kings ruled ineffectively. Without a strong central government, local leaders asserted themselves, fracturing the country’s power base. As the climate shifted all over the world, the country was then hit by a decades-long drought that caused a great famine and economic failure.

In Secrets of the Dead: Egypt’s Darkest Hour, viewers will go behind the scenes with archaeologists and scientists as they venture through Africa – from the Pyramids to the glaciers of Mt. Kilimanjaro – in search of clues to solve the mystery of the mass grave, examining the political and environmental catastrophes that plunged Egypt and its people into anarchy. Were the bodies found victims of the famine, civil war or something else?

Short Listing

Follow archaeologists examining a rare mass grave from the collapse of ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom.



Long Listing

Follow a team of archaeologists as they examine a rare mass grave dating to the collapse of ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom when political infighting and a changing climate brought down an empire.


Running Time: 60 minutes

Notable Talent

  • Salima Ikram – archaeologist
  • Audran Labrousse – archaeologist
  • Philippe Collombert – archaeologist
  • Martin Bomas – archaeologist
  • Antonio Morales – archaeologist
  • Miroslav Bárta – archaeologist
  • Lonnie Thompson – glaciologist
  • Fekri Hassan – geologist


Notable Facts

  • Egyptian pharaoh Pepi II came into power around 4,300 years ago at the age of just 6 years old – about 300 years after the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx were built. The pharaoh ruled for at least 60 years – some even say 90 years – marking the longest reign in all of Egyptian history.
  • At the start of his reign, Pepi II was very much in control of the country, but, after studying the grander tombs of local governors from the latter part of Pepi II’s reign, archaeologists now know that he was gradually relinquishing control to them.
  • Pepi II died at the age of 94, and there are hardly any traces of his immediate successors. None of his brothers or five sons reigned for very long.
  • Pepi II’s tomb was looted, his sarcophagus had been opened and everything inside was removed, including his mummy which has never been found. There is also evidence that the temple of his father, Pepi I, was intentionally set on fire.
  • Inscriptions in the tomb of governor Ankhtifi, who governed in the years between Pepi II’s death and the creation of the mass grave, state the Southern part of country was dying of hunger and that the whole country became like “starving locusts,” suggesting that Egyptians were suffering from a mass famine around the time of his death.
  • After Pepi II’s death, the level of the Nile dropped so significantly that the islands of eastern and western Elephantine merged into one, and the city expanded into what had previously been the marshes in between, suggesting that Egypt’s climate was gradually changing and becoming dryer during the Old Kingdom.
  • The terrible climate crisis, combined with the underlying political problems, led to war for 130 years. The soldiers in the mass grave most likely died at the end of the protracted civil war that followed the chaos caused by famine.


Buzzworthy Moments

  • In the desert near Luxor, in southern Egypt, archaeologists open an exceptional tomb dating back more than 4,000 years ago. Inside, they find the mummified remains of at least 60 people, all of which appear to be male. A mass grave of this manner is extremely unusual for ancient Egyptians, as they were traditionally buried alone or with close family.
  • Further examination of the bodies found in the mass grave reveals the men died of horrible trauma. Photos of the remains reveal holes that were most likely caused by rocks from a slingshot, being struck by a mace, and arrows going through their bodies, indicating the men died in battle.
  • An examination of ice cores collected from Mt. Kilimanjaro, with 33 meters dating back as far as 11,700 years, reveals a dark layer of dust, recorded about 4,000 years ago. The layer points to evidence of a dramatic climate change around the same time the Old Kingdom collapsed.
  • An examination of mud cores in Egypt’s Lake Qarran reveals that during the Old Kingdom, the lake was much larger and deeper than it is today, with a depth fluctuating around 200 feet. Layers of gypsum and iron ore found in the cores show that the freshwater lake dried up, leaving behind just a few ephemeral pools of water. This study confirms that the global drought seen in the ice cores also hit Egypt at the time of the Old Kingdom’s collapse.


Series Overview

At the intersection of science and history, Secrets of the Dead uses the latest scientific discoveries to challenge prevailing ideas and throw fresh light on unexplained historical events.


Production Credits

Secrets of the Dead: Egypt’s Darkest Hour is a production of Blakeway Productions Ltd. and THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET in association with the Channel 5 Television and France Télévisions. Narrated by Jay O. Sanders. Produced and directed by Davina Bristow. Lucy van Beek is executive producer for Blakeway Productions. Stephanie Carter is executive producer for Secrets of the Dead.



Funding for Secrets of the Dead is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by public television viewers.


About WNET

WNET is America’s flagship PBS station: parent company of New York’s THIRTEEN and WLIW21 and operator of NJTV, the statewide public media network in New Jersey. Through its new ALL ARTS multi-platform initiative, its broadcast channels, three cable services (THIRTEEN PBSKids, Create and World) and online streaming sites, WNET brings quality arts, education and public affairs programming to more than five million viewers each month. WNET produces and presents a wide range of acclaimed PBS series, including Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS NewsHour Weekend, and the nightly interview program Amanpour and Company. In addition, WNET produces numerous documentaries, children’s programs, and local news and cultural offerings, as well as multi-platform initiatives addressing poverty and climate. Through THIRTEEN Passport and WLIW Passport, station members can stream new and archival THIRTEEN, WLIW and PBS programming anytime, anywhere.





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