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Nova reveals the construction secrets behind the ancient world's most impressive structures.

Not Built in a Day


How did the ancient Egyptians hoist those humongous 30-ton granite obelisks out there in the desert? How did they build those mammoth siege engines — those gargantuan catapults — back in the 14th century? Sixteen centuries ago, how did the inhabitants of Easter Island raise those gigantic stone moai that stand like sentinels along the coast? The biggest one of these weighs 82 tons. Those are the three questions "Nova" asks and attempts to answer in the first three parts of a five-part series called "Secrets of Lost Empires." The answer to all three questions is the same: Big ropes and big logs. There wasn't much else at hand back in those days. Which makes for a certain repetition factor in the series. The logs-and-ropes theme stops with Part Four, in which "Nova" attempts to rebuild an ancient Roman bath on a hillside in Turkey. The ancient Romans used logs and ropes, to be sure, but they used lots of marble, and bricks and tile, too. But then it's back to logs and ropes again, plus a little ingenuity, certainly, in a final segment titled "China Bridge," in which the series takes on reconstructing a remarkable "rainbow" bridge based solely on a depiction on a 12th-century scroll painting. Keep in mind, however, that this is "Nova," so each of the five parts is excellent — beautifully photographed, thoroughly researched and intelligently presented. If you're attracted to the subject, you may find all five fascinating. If not, you'll still enjoy one or two — probably the siege engine and the Roman bath segments. Part One kicks off in high testosterone. Big logs and ropes are used to hurl big things — 250-pound stone balls. Nobody knows what King Edward I of England's siege engine looked like when he attacked a band of Scots holed up in Stirling Castle back in the 1300s. Two teams compete to build a version of the medieval weapon that will be effective against the walls of a mock stone castle of the 13th century. In real life, the Scots gave up at the sight of Edward's war machine. He fired it anyway. Here, centuries later, it's great fun to watch the stones go crashing into their targets. Everybody who likes to luxuriate in a hot tub will enjoy the Roman bath segment. Unadulterated luxury is the goal as "Nova" reconstructs a vaulted-roof bath house that might have graced a wealthy private home when Nero was learning his scales — and when unisex nude bathing was popular. From tepidarium (the warm room for changing clothes) to caldarium (for a steaming soak) to frigidarium (for a chilly plunge), the experts succeed — except for a few leaks — and they get to enjoy bathing as the emperors did. On the whole, "Nova" succeeds once again in making science enlightening and enchanting with "Secrets of Lost

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