Smithsonian Channel’s Sacred Sites explores ancient mysteries

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DUN LAOGHAIRE, Ireland — When David Ryan, a documentary film writer and creative producer, witnessed a Druid ritual in his native Ireland a few years ago, he was shocked – literally.

Ryan and his colleagues with Tile Films, an Irish documentary production company, were filming Sacred Sites: Ireland, a pilot for a proposed series on such places around the world.

“We did some filming in the Slieve Bloom Mountains with a group of local Druids who do rituals in honor of the ancient Celtic gods,” Ryan said during a Skype interview from his office in Dún Laoghaire just south of Dublin. “One of the Druids — quite an old man, a very nice man — brought me around the back of a farmhouse and showed me two standing stones. He said, ‘There’s an energy between these – put your hands out.’

“I was like I suppose your typical, skeptical 21st-century male,” said Ryan, who matter-of-factly noted he’s an agnostic when asked about his spiritual path. “But I did and there definitely did seem to be an energy. I was taken aback. Now maybe there’s a scientific explanation – magnetism or whatever. I’m not quite sure for something like this, but it definitely makes you think there’s more to what’s going on here than meets the eye in many of these places.”

Exploring the religious, mystical, and spiritual mysteries of such places is the subject of Sacred Sites – Season Two, currently airing on the Smithsonian Channel and also available through Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, iTunes and other video portals.

The six episodes of season two include King Arthur, The Maya, The Camino, Malta, Egyptian Priestesses, and Nazi Myths.

The series combines striking aerial footage (filmed via drones) of mythic landscapes and ancient structures, plus commentary from archaeologists and historians who relate the findings of recent research.

The series also includes dramatizations of historical events, such myths and legends as the Arthurian tales, and such ancient religious rites as the goat’s-head animal sacrifices at the 5,000-year-old Tarxien Temple on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Such ritual re-enactments are reconstructed based on scholars’ theories drawn from, say, the hieroglyphics of Egyptian temples, the “traces of charred flesh” at Malta altars, or other historical evidence.

“In this series, we look at the new research that scientists are doing, that archaeologists are doing to see if we can find out a little bit more about why these places fascinated people thousands of years ago, and why they still have some kind of allure,” Ryan said.

David Ryan is a documentary film writer and creative producer for the series Sacred Sites, which airs on the Smithsonian Channel. [Tile Films]

He cited an episode from the first season about the oracle at Delphi in Greece.

“When we were there it certainly had an aura – that landscape and that site,” Ryan said. “It seemed part of the reason why it was sacred during the time of the ancient Greeks was because it had tectonic activity in the area that gave rise to certain phenomena, like possibly an electromagnetic field. It’s more documented that there were vapors issuing from the earth that may have caused people to become intoxicated when they inhaled them, and that could have added to the religious experience that people had of these places.”

Lest anyone believe these documentaries are a rehash of well-worn perspectives on ancient Egypt, the inspirations behind the Arthurian legends, or the archaeological quests that Nazis conducted to prove they were descended from a master race of Aryans from Atlantis, the Sacred Sites series emphasizes new and recent research.

“Science and new technologies are allowing archaeologists and experts now to find out things they wouldn’t have been able to find out 10, 20 years ago,” Ryan said. “Everything from DNA research right up to ground-penetrating radar are opening up new vistas. Maybe in another 10 years all the possibilities will have been exhausted and we’ll be saying we’ve said everything we can say, but at the moment it’s a very exciting time because of that scientific element.”

Ryan cited the Maya program, which includes a segment on a cave under El Castillo, the Mesoamerican step-pyramid that stands majestically at the center of the Chichen Itza archaeological site in Yucatan, Mexico.

“As I understand it, they didn’t know about this cave before they did ground-penetrating radar research at the site, I think it was in 2015 or 2016,” Ryan said. “That opened up a completely new interpretation of why they built that pyramid where they did, and what it might mean.

“One of the experts we interviewed for the program said this cave underneath El Castillo was sitting at the intersection of an axis between four sacred wells around this city. That really speaks to the idea that the Maya see this place as the center of the world, which for them is the most scared place in their universe.”

Ancient people’s “sacred beliefs are what prompted them to build these amazing structures,” said series production manager Maeve Kenny. “A lot of the things we film and look into exist because of their religious beliefs about the afterlife or how they wanted to bury their dead.”

Maeve Kenny is production manager for the series Sacred Sites, which airs on the Smithsonian Channel. [Tile Films]

Akin to her colleague Ryan, Kenny said she “definitely experienced a very special feeling” when the crew filmed at the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a 6,000-year-old underground complex of caves, alcoves and corridors that Malta’s ancient people excavated and used as a temple, cemetery, and funeral hall.

“It’s an underground structure they built to bury their dead,” Kenny said during the Skype interview. “It’s on a street with houses — you’d never know it’s there — and you go in a normal sort of house door. It goes three layers down into the ground and it’s got all these ‘sound systems’ in there.”

The Malta episode explores what archaeologists call the “oracle hole” — an opening carved into the subterranean limestone so that when someone speaks or chants into it, the sound “booms around and amplifies all around the site,” said Caroline Malone, an archaeologist with Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. “In fact, it’s terrifying. It would have been a very extraordinary experience listening to this.”

The Malta episode then focuses on the research of acoustic neuroscientist Psyche Louie of Wesleyan University, who is studying the impact that the sound effects of the Hypogeum oracle hole could have had on the human brain.

Although the series includes the occasional scene of Dark Ages battle gore (King Arthur) or a sacrificial severed goat’s head on a platter (the Malta episode – shades of Dennis Wheatley!), the series aims to avoid hype, Ryan said.

King Arthur goes to battle in a re-enactment featured in the Smithsonian Channel documentary series Sacred Sites — Season Two. [Tile Films]

“That temptation is definitely there,” he said. “As program makers, we have an obligation to tell a story as well. So, we have to balance that and walk a fine line between telling a good story and also being true to the archaeological, historical, and folkloric evidence that we feature. You’re trying to be true to the integrity of what you’re talking about.”

“It’s just fascinating, the sophistication with which these cultures that are thousands of years old built these things and revered their dead,” Kenny said. “That whole subject of the afterlife and death is something that still fascinates us. So, for cultures 5,000, 6,000 or 7,000 years old to have the same questions that we sometimes have, that kind of links us.”

The broadcast schedule of Sacred Sites Season 2, as well as numerous clips from many of the episodes, are available on Episodes are repeated at various times following their premiere.