TV Review: The Pharaoh Who Conquered the Sea

The Pharaoh Who Conquered the Sea, BBC4

LONG before the reign of Queen Nefertiti and the events depicted in Carry On Cleo, ancient Egypt was ruled by its first female pharaoh, Queen Hatshepsut. Though she governed the country for over 20 years, little is known about her today because for some mysterious reason almost all remnants of her legacy were destroyed after her death. Weirdly, the otherwise diverting documentary, The Pharaoh Who Conquered the Sea, failed to posit even a vague theory as to why this might have happened: proof perhaps that even the most imaginative historians must admit defeat when faced with a paucity of evidence. The programme did, however, build a convincing case to support the hypothesis that, contrary to popular belief, the ancient Egyptians possessed the technological wherewithal to sail the high seas.

As depicted in a bas-relief found in the temple where Hatshepsut was entombed, the legend goes that, determined to prove herself a strong and ambitious leader, she sent a fleet of ships to a mythical land by the wonderfully prosaic name of Punt (presumably twinned with the enchanted Duchy of Dennis). Furthermore, she relinquished her femininity by shaving her head and sporting one of those natty rolled-up umbrella beards. That's commitment to your calling.

Skip forward 3,500 years and archaeologist Cheryl Ward (who looked like the mother of Velma from Scooby-Doo, which is as it should be) oversaw the construction of a replica of one of Hatshepsut's ships so as to validate the queen's achievements. A history, mystery and mission-doc all rolled into one, at times it resembled a particularly esoteric episode of Grand Designs.

Despite opposition from sceptical colleagues, Ward was adamant that this project would provide definitive proof that the ancient Egyptians had sea-legs to spare. After all, she was already in possession of some pretty persuasive evidence, not least the recent discovery of some decrepit wooden boxes inscribed with "the wonderful things of Punt", which I suppose is a bit like finding a rusty trident with "made in Atlantis" written on it.

The bas-relief only depicted the fleet from one side – damn those ancient Egyptians and their stubbornly two-dimensional artworks – so Ward and her team had to make a few leaps of faith. Nevertheless, in order to conserve the credibility of the project, they made sure that the ship was built according to ancient techniques.

By the time it was completed it resembled, in the words of one team member, "a pig, a short fat boat that's going to move terribly through the water". Even that seemed optimistic: following its initial runs off the jetty, it became waterlogged until they sealed its gaps with plant fibre and beeswax. That's what the ancient Greeks did, so it stands to reason the Egyptians did it too. Doesn't it?

Once sea-shape, it was so unsteady it looked like a nauseous drunk plunging through a ball-pond. But it stayed afloat, proving Hatshepsut's fleet was no myth. Probably. No-one had any idea where Punt was, though.

Narrator alert # 479: this one sounded like Miriam Margoyles as the sexy rabbit from the Cadbury's Caramel adverts. Seeing as the soft-focus dramatic reconstructions – Hatshepsut feeding grapes to her royal monkey etc – resembled a Flake ad, I suppose that was tenuously apt.