The most enjoyable thing about Mysteries of the Lost Empires, a five-part Channel 4 series, is the sense of amateurish-ness that it brings to the investigation of ancient feats of engineering: the participants may be professionals, experienced in their various fields, used to constructing buildings and boats or shifting huge weights, but they have to do a good deal of head-scratching when deprived of modern methods and materials.
Last week, the problem was to work out how the Egyptians might have raised granite obelisks, such as Cleopatra's Needle, which can weigh more than 300 tons. The test was to set up a stone pillar of a mere 30 tons and disaster always seemed just around the corner. The engineer who opted for a system of pulleys and rollers had to stop his experiment before he flattened a whole line of rope-pullers.
It was the simpler method involving a pit of dry sand that finally got an obelisk up, proving something or other (though not necessarily something about how the Egyptians did it).
Along the way, one gently learns a little about ancient technologies, from Easter Island to medieval China.
Mysteries of the Lost Empires Channel 4 From June 1, 9-10pm
BEST OF THE REST
Inside Dot Coms was broadcast over four (late) nights on BBC2, from Monday to Thursday this week, and slipped by without my being able to preview it in time for last week's issue. Just as well: four documentaries on how to run a successful nternet company could give many good teachers ideas about escaping.
Not that it made becoming an electronic millionaire seem easy. On the contrary, the first programme showed three potentially successful enterprises which were having problems raising the cash to expand (including an agency providing information on language schools), and finding that financial backing for such schemes was not, after all, to be had for the asking.
The impression of the series as a whole, though, was that the new medium has spawned a huge number of original ideas and that putting them into practice could be satisfying, if occasionally frustrating. And the rewards can be pretty good. But the underlying message remains: hesitate before you leap.
Inside Dot Coms BBC2 June 5-8, 11.20-12pm
Belief File, a four-part series for key stage 3 and 4 pupils, looks at different religions from a variety of angles, including daily rituals, art and architecture. The first two programmes (June 13) consider Christianity in Britain and Islam; the second pair (June 14) are about Hinduism and Judaism.
Each faith is presented in three 20-minute films, which use graphics and documentary to explore the symbolism of the religions and explain what it means to belong to the representative community. The series has non-specialist teachers in mind and there is a range of complementary resources.
Belief File Learning Zone June 13 and 14, 2-4am ROBIN BUSS.