scorecard10 things about ancient Egypt that movies and TV got wrong, according to an expert
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10 things about ancient Egypt that movies and TV got wrong, according to an expert

Marianne Guenot,Carter Thallon   

10 things about ancient Egypt that movies and TV got wrong, according to an expert
LifeScience7 min read
  • Movies and television shape what people think about ancient Egypt.
  • But they often get even the basics wrong, from cruel pharaohs to booby-trapped pyramids.

Movies and television have a way of influencing the way we see the world.

When it comes to ancient Egypt, they can draw the portrait of pharaohs ruling Egypt with an iron fist, cruel torture, and wicked booby-trapped pyramids.

But is any of that true? Insider interviewed Egyptologist Anthony Browder to assess facts about ancient Egypt in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), "The Mummy" (1999), "Moon Knight" (2022), "Gods of Egypt" (2016), "The Ten Commandments," (1956), and "Cleopatra" (1963).

A normal explorer could not casually remove the lid of a sarcophagus

It's a common trope among movies and TV shows, such as Disney's "Moon Knight": one or two explorers come across a sarcophagus and push aside the lid, with moderately strenuous effort.

"All of the sarcophagi that I've seen in Egypt were made of stone," said Browder, an author of several books on ancient Egypt.

That means the top of the sarcophagus would have weighed about the same as a car — much too heavy for someone with normal strength to push aside, he said.

When thieves broke into tombs, "there were typically several men and they used heavy-duty instruments," he added.

Men and women wore kohl eyeliner

Elizabeth Taylor rocked audiences with her portrayal of Cleopatra in 1963. Her character's intricate eyeliner, traced all the way to her temples, became quickly iconic.

While ancient-Egyptian eyeliner, called kohl, would have been used for cosmetics, it wasn't its only use, said Browder.

"That was used primarily as protection from the intense sunlight," said Browder.

"It's the same thing that you see on a football field or a baseball field where the athlete would put black underneath their eye to absorb the intense rays of sunlight so that they could see clearly," he said.

It also wouldn't have been a female trait. Both men and women sported the eyeliner, said Browder.

Queen Cleopatra would probably have been much darker-skinned than Taylor.

"Again, the use of white actresses to depict Cleopatra is taking liberties with historical truths based on the archaeological evidence that has been found of Cleopatra's sisters and other family members," said Browder.

"She was probably closer to Halle Berry than Elizabeth Taylor," he said.

Ushabti, figurines buried with the deceased, would not have been found in the sarcophagus

In Disney+'s "Moon Light", a god is trapped in an ushabti, a type of figurine often found in ancient-Egyptian tombs. The mini series' protagonist finds the ushabti inside the sarcophagus.

But Browder, who has funded and led 23 archaeological missions to Egypt, said the figurine would not have been found near the body.

"Ushabtis were never put inside of the bodies of a mummy. They were typically buried around them, outside of the sarcophagus," he said.

Ushabtis were meant to serve the deceased in the afterlife, he said. They weren't meant to trap gods.

Tombs would have been well-preserved and colorful — the one "Raiders of the Lost Ark" got right

Tombs in movies are often covered in hieroglyphs, and these are often shown to be colorless.

But when the tomb was first sealed, it would have been painted and colorful, said Browder.

"If you were to walk into a well-preserved tomb, the colors would be as vibrant today as they were when the tomb was created 3,000 years ago," he said.

"One of the most spectacular tombs in Egypt, in the Valley of the Kings, is the tomb of Seti I. And the colors are so rich, so vibrant, it looks as if it was just painted recently."

When Indiana Jones enters the tomb in "Raiders of the Lost Ark", that's exactly what the tomb looks like.

Browder was also impressed by the way the hieroglyphs were painted in the movie.

"The images on the wall of a priest coming before Osiris, that is an image that comes from the papyrus of Hunefer," said Browder.

"I appreciate the attention to detail," he said.

Imhotep, the villain in "The Mummy," was a genius and would never have met his love Ankhesenamun

In the 1999 movie "The Mummy," the villain, Imhotep, is raised from the dead to exert his revenge for the curse bestowed upon him.

Imhotep, portrayed as an advisor to Seti I, is punished for killing the Pharoah with his lover, the Pharoah's mistress Ankhesenamun.

Browder says Imhotep and Ankhesenamun were real historical figures, but they were misrepresented by Hollywood.

"Imhotep was a third-dynasty priest to the King Djoser," Browder said. Djoser ruled about a thousand years before Seti I.

There's no mention of Imhotep murdering the king.

Imhotep would have held many more hats than just priesthood.

"Imhotep is also considered to be the world's first multigenius. He was a physician, deified by the Greeks. He also was an architect and an engineer," said Browder.

Ankhesenamun was also a real historical figure, but she was not a mistress. She was king Tutankhamun's wife, living about a century before Seti I, Browder said.

The curse that set Imhotep on his murderous path in "The Mummy" has no historical basis

In the movie, Imhotep is condemned to be mummified alive, his tongue cut out and his body bound tightly in wrapping before he is tossed into a sarcophagus filled with carnivorous beetles.

Browder said there are no historical records of anything like this happening.

"The reference to Imhotep's tongue being cut out, to my knowledge, that was not done," he said.

"Mummification was a very time-consuming and expensive process, so there's no reason why a person in the past would've been buried alive," he said.

Pyramids were not booby-trapped

Movies like "The Mummy" would have you believe pyramids were often booby-trapped. But that's not based in fact, said Browder.

"The idea of booby traps in ancient-Egyptian tombs is something that comes from the imagination of film writers," he said.

"There were false doors to some tombs, a corridor designed to lead a potential thief to a dead end. There were false corridors, and there were shafts to prevent thieves from coming in to access the treasure that was buried in a tomb, but there were no booby traps that I'm aware of," he said.

Pyramids were likely not built by enslaved people

In the 1956 movie, "The Ten Commandments," enslaved people are seen dragging blocks across hot desert scenes to build the pyramids.

Though this topic has been hotly debated, there's "no evidence whatsoever of slaves having built the pyramids," said Browder.

"In recent years, Egyptian archaeologists have actually found the tombs of the builders of the pyramids adjacent to the Giza Plateau. That honor would not have been given to a slave. We know that it was built by master craftsmen, master masons, master engineers," he said.

Pyramids were not built as tombs

Movies often depict pyramids as giant tombs for pharaohs. But that's wrong, said Browder.

"The pyramids were not used as tombs. Pyramids were built over tombs," he said.

Ancient Egyptians were not white

The 2010 movie "Gods of Egypt" received criticism because the actors playing Egyptian gods were mostly white and spoke in British accents.

"No, there were not British white guys in Egypt," said Browder.

"The original name for Egypt was Kemet. Kemet is a word which means the land of the Blacks," he said.

The idea that ancient Egyptians were paler-skinned comes from early Egyptologists, many of whom were themselves white and saw Black people as inferior, he said.

"A lot of it, unfortunately, has to do with racism," per Browder.

"History has been used as a tool to subjugate people and to create false notions of superiority and inferiority," he said.

There's no evidence that Cleopatra died of a snake bite

The epic 1963 movie also concludes with Cleopatra holding an asp on her breast, which bites her, leading to her death. Browder says this is "fiction," as there's very little evidence of how Cleopatra died.

"There is no evidence to validate that is how Cleopatra died," he said. However, ancient historians and playwrights also seemed to have heard the story. In the 1606 tragedy "Antony and Cleopatra" by William Shakespeare, Cleopatra dies after being bitten by two snakes.

You can watch Insider's full video with Browder here: