Constructing the Sacred: Visibility and Ritual Landscape at the Egyptian Necropolis of Saqqara

Archaeological Landscapes and 3D Technologies

In more than a century of considering archaeological landscapes, scholars have adopted a variety of theoretical viewpoints, imagining the changing relationship between humans and their environment as determined by geographical, ecological, climatic, or demographic forces. The past twenty years have seen dramatic changes in these frameworks, with the social production of space moving to the fore, as the definition of ‘landscape’ has transitioned from an independent space within which humans act (influenced by outside forces) to one constructed and made meaningful through human perception.5 These shifting intellectual grounds have provided important opportunities for reconsidering the interaction between humans, culture, and the natural and built environments. In parallel to this movement (and as part of the increasing digital turn in the field in general), archaeologists have applied new (or newly enhanced) technologies to recording, interrogating, and representing archaeological landscapes. This includes the use of tools that move beyond two-dimensional capabilities (characterizing twentieth century archaeology), such as airborne and satellite imagery for the creation of 2.5D digital terrain models, as well as structure-from-motion photogrammetric capture and representation of modern terrains and landscape spaces as fully 3D digital meshes.6 These two strands of change may initially have seemed irreconcilable, as many of the technological advances mentioned were incorporated into GIS-based studies (especially those focused on analyzing physical terrains, facilitating studies of ‘least-cost-paths’, or predictive modeling), and deemed environmentally determinist and functionalist by their detractors. Indeed, practitioners in archaeology have vigorously debated the use of GIS systems for the study of past places, with some criticizing GIS as positivistic and lacking engagement with cognition, symbolism, and culture. Yet many scholars reject such binaries as unnecessary and regressive.7 As a discipline charged with documenting humanity’s historical record (and one that often destroys the very context of our research), many of us archaeologists have heeded the call to “expand our range and scope of training to include computing technologies in the twenty-first century.”8 Improving the efficiency and accuracy of documentation in the field with technologies like GIS is clearly necessary. But digital tools can also be used fruitfully in considering the social means with which humans construct and make sense of their world, especially when explicitly grounded in an ancient group’s cultural and historical realities.9 I argue that the 3DGIS model used in this study offers another means to expand the scope of landscape studies, blending technological innovation with the close examination of human cultural change. 

New Perspectives on Landscape Analysis

The explosion in the availability and affordability of digital mapping technologies in the private sector has directly contributed to a methodological and intellectual shift in the discipline of history and the larger humanities, the so-called ‘spatial turn’.10 Despite the use of quantitative digital tools and GIS software, this turn has in many cases focused on the cultural aspects of place-making. Humanities scholars have questioned how community identity and social spaces are interwoven, how “concepts of space bind history, culture, and memory as much as they do attributes of the physical world.”11 For archaeological landscape studies, always centered on space as a critical factor, this turn has also injected cultural questions into the discussion in new ways. Spatial analysis, a long-standing form of archaeological inquiry, has responded to these trends, with studies increasingly considering quantitative and qualitative issues.12 


Spatial Analysis and Subject-Centered Landscapes

The term ‘spatial analysis’ in archaeology describes any study that uses the location of the subject (where) as a major axis in making sense of that subject (the why or how). A key part of processual archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s, spatial analysis has made a resurgence with the expanding use of GIS since the 1990s. New computing power allows scholars to capture, process, and integrate data at a scale unimaginable forty years ago.13 Although such capabilities have certainly increased the number of studies in archaeology that center on forms of quantitative analysis, clear attempts have concurrently been made to foreground the investigation of human experience and social relationships in space. The same computational power has been harnessed to examine how built environments influence the relationships of people in and movement of people through space, impacting power structures, social groupings, and the creation of meaning.14 This work explicitly attempts to use digital capabilities for a form of spatial analysis directed at interpreting meaning-making at an ancient ritual site over time. It is because of the new capabilities of the digital world that new scales of information can be brought together and the methods that the Egyptians used to actively structure their landscape can be examined from a fresh perspective. Constructing the Sacred attempts this intervention through the new affordances allowed by pairing 3D modeling with GIS technologies. It explicitly centers on the material world and built environment that visually shaped ritual space. How the ancient Egyptians viewed, perceived, and moved through the physical world will be the main object of spatial analysis. My interpretations rely heavily on the ideas of subject-centered landscape theory, which in turn have been influenced by phenomenological approaches to archaeological landscapes.

Best known from Christopher Tilley’s foundational work A Phenomenology of Landscape and most closely associated with the field of prehistoric British landscape archaeology, phenomenology stresses interpreting landscapes through the human sensorium, describing lived human experience and sensation within the material world of the past.15 Critical for Tilley was the dialectic between humans and the environment, each influencing, impacting, and molding the other in ways that cannot be disassociated.16 These ideas, part of the post-processual archaeology movement of the 1980s and 1990s, usefully reimagined the landscape as culturally formed and culturally experienced.17 However, critics of phenomenological approaches identified numerous weaknesses in the methodology. In the social science of archaeology, objective or replicable results are standard, and detractors dismissed the sensations of the contemporary archaeologist experiencing a site as subjective and empirically impoverished. Further critique construed it as presentist/atemporal, assuming the universality of the body, and overly focused on sight for a method supposedly concerned with the full sensory experience.18 

Responding to these claims, archaeologists have explored new methods for addressing landscape meaning while maintaining phenomenology’s valuable insights about centering the human lived experience and acknowledging the social aspects of landscape.19 For example, Hamilton and Whitehouse, working on Neolithic ditched enclosure sites in the Tavoliere plain, combined 2D spatial analysis with testing sound, communication strategies, and human movement and visibility in the field in a form of experimental archaeology.20 A number of others have placed GIS and mapping technologies in direct dialogue with phenomenological techniques. Eve combined field interpretation at Peel Gap Turret in Northumberland with augmented reality to simultaneously apply a sensory and computation-based approach to landscape.21 Rennell’s work in coastal Scotland blended GIS (and other digital toolkits) with phenomenological, taking a subject-centered approach, what she termed “research based primarily around observations concerning landscape experience, recorded in the field by embodied participants.”22 GIS survey data and viewshed analysis were treated as “hypothetical scenarios” interrogated via field observation to understand how different visual and physical landscapes impacted Iron Age settlements. Gillings, however, expressed skepticism about fully aligning GIS and digital technologies with existing theories of experiential landscape; he argued instead for paving a new theoretical path, one focused on representing the “experiential affordances” of ancient landscapes.23 It is here that 3D modeling seems best positioned to make a significant impact. Like phenomenological approaches, landscape simulations encourage human-centered investigation, considering ancient spaces while embedded within a three-dimensional world. 
Many phenomenological approaches suppose great consistency over time in the ancient landscape, assuming a constant sensorium that can be experienced today similarly to hundreds or thousands of years ago. Yet the archaeological sites we visit today are palimpsests, the result of layers and layers of change. Due to significant modification and degradation, direct field observation of embodied past spaces is often impossible today.24 Building superstructures have collapsed or been remodeled. Monuments have been purposefully modified or destroyed. Modern construction has surrounded or subsumed ancient towns. Present-day fences and roads circumscribe original pathways. Rivers have shifted, lakes have disappeared, and ports have silted up.
At most long-lived ancient sites, direct access to aspects of the ancient landscape are simply unattainable. What we see, hear, feel, and smell on site is dramatically altered. 3D visualizations accomplish something different from phenomenological approaches – a chance to rigorously and deeply consider aspects of the cultural and physical world that cannot be part of our perceptions today because they no longer exist. This is its ‘experiential affordance’, and, while it is related to the ideals of phenomenology, we must admit it differs significantly in aim and promise.  

How, then, can we posit the potential for a 3DGIS model for an archaeology that foregrounds the cultural and social? How can we capitalize on the digital world’s ability to let us consider aspects of lost places in creating more human-centered field of landscape studies? While the digital world cannot yet fully replicate the senses of touch, smell, or emotional presence in a place, I propose that 3D landscapes do allow for a type of limited and mediated subject-centered landscape analysis, one that lacks the full embodiment described by Rennell, but in which the researcher can be situated in a way that approximates important aspects of human agents in space.25 The advantage of 3D visualizations lies in their potential to reframe GIS mapping, creating analysis opportunities that, as Vis advocated, consider “spatial situations from an inhabitant’s perspective.”26 Indeed, part of what gives meaning to landscapes is the physical, spatial, and visual relationships between inhabitants and the material world.27 Thomas argued that the value of phenomenological approaches lies in their invoking an “encounter between the archaeologist and the places and monuments that they study,” and he expressed that, even if these encounters are imagined, they place us “inside a set of material circumstances which were integral to a meaningful world in the past…”28 I argue that 3D modeled landscapes offer access to one such type of encounter, one that explicitly attempts to reproduce, experiment with, and reimagine the material circumstances that are unavailable for direct encounter today. The value of that encounter lies in how we use it to question and inform on past peoples’ cultural practices. Especially in landscapes like Saqqara, which maintained ritual importance over sustained periods of time, the 3D model provides new points of entry to the monuments and tombs that constituted an intentional community memory. 3D (and other forms of spatial mapping) can assist us in gaining new forms of access to these “artifacts of social memory,” allowing us to consider the rich interplay of humans, monuments, and space over time.29 

One of the risks for archaeologists inherent in such digital encounters is treading through the same universalist or ahistorical muddy waters that delegitimized phenomenological approaches. By viewing and moving through the 3D landscape as a disembodied person, with a presentist relationship to the ancient place, it is just as easy to make simple judgments about meaning and importance based on our own cultural ideas about power and value. A number of scholars have stressed the need for reflexivity in approaching past spaces, and this seems even more critical in the digital environment.30 Real individuals living and moving within these places in the past had memories, traditions, and prior knowledge of spaces that shaped the way they interpreted and interacted with those spaces and with each other. Social conventions, symbolism, season of the year, or other factors would have significantly impacted their experiences in important ways.31 I have therefore tried to use the 3D landscape model for critically examining meaning at Saqqara (Section 3) in ways fully grounded in the cultural record of ancient Egypt (Section 5). This means closely filtering my viewpoint through the lens of historical understanding, based on the rich textual and pictorial record from the Pharaonic Period. 

While we can never recover each ancient individual’s unique experience in a landscape, we must also acknowledge that different social groups would have moved through and responded to these places in different ways. Gender, status, profession, ethnicity, age, and other factors would have shaped a person’s interpretations profoundly. As Thomas suggested, “the same location may effectively be a different place for two different persons.”32 Kosiba and Bauer similarly called attention to the fact that landscape analyses (especially those using technologies like GIS) frequently “assume commonalities among past social actors’ use, experience, and perception of the environment…[and ignore] how people of different social stations may experience and perceive the same physical environment in remarkably distinct ways.”33 Their work explicitly questions how constructed barriers or borders within an ancient landscape shaped power relationships between different groups. I have therefore tried to be explicit in defining agency, positing who is constructing or impacting the landscape, why, and how these alterations might shape the use and meaning of ritualized spaces to various groups (Sections 3–5). Although, for ancient Egypt, the preserved record is dominated by elite male adults, I have attempted in Section 4 to contemplate alternative viewpoints and examine spaces reused by other groups.34  A dearth of textual material focusing on personal experiences unmediated through the thick filter of funerary language makes such suppositions difficult, but I think it is critical to acknowledge that landscapes did not have a single meaning, even at one moment in time.

Visibility and Qualitative Analysis

In investigating the relationship between people and the ancient landscape, Constructing the Sacred explicitly examines how the material world and built environment visually and spatially shaped a sense of sacred space at Saqqara. It proposes that the visibility35 (and invisibility) of monuments played a key role in the formation and continued structuring of the site, and that the visual and material environment was intentionally crafted at each moment to express current royal or elite political and religious views. Monumental structures, like those appearing at Saqqara at the earliest moments of the Egyptian state, are understood by archaeologists as acting as a ‘materialization of ideology’, a means of concretely and permanently communicating concepts of power and social hierarchy within a landscape.36 The meaning of these monuments and the role they played in structuring human movement and social interaction can be tied to their visibility, because how and when they were meant to be seen is a key element of the ‘social landscape’.37 Monuments should not be considered in isolation, as they are one element in the whole and can intentionally be positioned to take advantage of natural landforms (mountains, volcanoes, peaks, caves, etc.) that cross-culturally provoke a strong emotional response.38 Visual, material, and spatial qualities of a landscape were actively manipulated and harnessed by ancient peoples to express complex ideas about identity, hierarchy, and power in many types of spaces, and it is interpreting these choices that is the role of the archaeologist today.39 Such work is especially meaningful at sites of ritual or ceremonial action, like Saqqara, because many ancient societies used these qualities to create nuanced layers of meaning that tied these places to concepts of cosmic order.40 Equally important is examining how such visual qualities were “actively assigned meaning” by those viewing and dwelling within such spaces, as the intended ideological messages were reinterpreted across space and time.41 

Visibility, 2DGIS, and 3DGIS in Landscape Archaeology

The examination of qualitative and quantitative aspects of visibility spans a long history in the field of archaeology. Within landscape research, this has included focus on long-distance views, monument prominence, networks of sites with visual linkages, and monument or site placement related to visibility, among other topics.42 The myriad factors that must be integrated to understand patterns (and intentionality) of visibility in past landscapes makes such studies challenging, and GIS systems have frequently been adopted by archaeologists to layer data and computationally simplify and process potential patterns in past places.43 The typical method of visibility analysis in a GIS system (termed ‘viewshed analysis’) computationally calculates individual or multiple sight lines between points (objects or people) situated on raster surfaces (digital terrains) in a 2.5D system, with a binary output of ‘visible’ or ‘not visible’. Early on, scholars working with GIS recognized the problematic quality of these outputs, and new techniques were developed to better mimic aspects of real-world vision.44 Emphasis more recently has shifted away from simple questions of visibility to examination of the full spectrum of visual relationships that structure a landscape.45 Part of this change includes the acknowledgement that 2D/2.5D GIS studies are inadequate for examining human perception in three-dimensional environments, especially those with architecture imbued with symbolic meaning.46 Essential aspects of visual interpretation include perspective, distance, shape, contrast, color, reflection, illumination, and decoration, and the representation in a GIS of a monument as a point or polygon is insufficient to express these cultural traits.47 The Memphite region, for example, includes monuments in the form of pyramids, obelisks, and rectangular mastaba tombs, all of which may be more or less visible due to their specific volume, color, and surface texture. 
In 2012, Llobera identified the necessity for better techniques for studying human visual engagement with past landscapes and imagined a GIS that could incorporate human movement and perception of monuments through a landscape, identify shifting points of focus, describe monument appearance, and recognize and understand the textures of the environment.48 In 2013, Ortega and Lake published a chapter suggesting that the examination of ‘situated visibility’, the changing field of view humans experience while moving through space, was possible with the rapidly increasing power of desktop computers.49 Indeed, a small number of scholars have integrated 3D technologies with GIS systems, experimenting with the new types of questions possible in the expanded environment. Examples include projects focusing on individual structures, such as Paliou's use of isovist maps to theorize visibility levels of interior wall frescoes from outside observer points within the city of Akrotiri, Greece, and Papadopoulous and Earl's examination of the impact of illumination on human perception through the simulation of lighting viewsheds in a house from Minoan Greece.50 Dell’ Unto et al. broadened the focus to a Roman insulae at ancient Pompeii, integrating 3DGIS reality-based models (captured via laser scanning and photogrammetry) and suggesting how such integrated models could be used to further consider the “cognitive dimension of the ancient space.”51 Saldana and Johanson used a 3DGIS model of the Roman Forum to hypothesize how architectural construction over time responded to needs of spectators watching gladiatorial games and viewing dramatic performances in that space.52 Wernke et al. modeled a planned early Spanish colonial town in highland Peru, in order to imagine potential patterns of movement through the town and the corresponding views of any past inhabitant while walking.53 At the landscape level, Richards-Rissetto examined questions of visibility by combining monument height data with a LiDAR digital terrain model in a GIS, analyzing intervisibility, topographic prominence, and the relationship of visibility to urban social control at the Mayan city of Copan and then compared quantitative results with first-person point of view from within a fully 3D model of the city in a gaming engine.54 These 3DGIS projects bridge quantitative and qualitative analysis, engaging with cultural questions that 2DGIS cannot.55 They consider visibility through a deeply historically situated lens, addressing issues of meaning and causation from a human point of view, with vision reconceived as something that must take seriously the visual, spatial, and situational aspects of our three-dimensional world.

The 3D model of the Saqqara area created for this work is intended as part of this larger effort to push the boundaries of GIS to embrace this resituated culture-based framework. Like the aforementioned projects, it attempts to introduce deep visual cultural information into the GIS system, not as attributes to be queried, but as a foundational aspect of the data format and display. The model is used (Section 3) to explicitly address how the ancient Egyptians materialized ideology by harnessing visual and spatial traits of the natural and built environment. I look quantitatively and qualitatively at views from Saqqara to neighboring regional sites, as well as visibility and movement within and around the cemetery itself. This is performed in the spirit of producing a ‘situated subjectivity’, moving beyond (although still employing) the detached overhead view of 2DGIS and into the position of one directly engaged with the landscape.56 In considering how the visual and physical space influenced site development and access to ritual knowledge, as well as how it reinforced social hierarchies, the project makes an argument for the potential for this new form of 3DGIS study in understanding ancient places.

Limitations of Visibility and Spatial Analysis in 3DGIS

This work claims that 3DGIS visualizations of ancient sites allow archaeologists new access points from which to consider questions of space and meaning in complex archaeological landscapes. While 3DGIS affords types of cultural analysis left out of traditional 2DGIS, expanding the scope to three or even four dimensions (time) in a GIS does not overcome all the limitations of the digital medium, both in general and individually in this publication, meant to be read by a single viewer through a desktop computer screen. 

A first important critique is that this attempt at situated subjectivity and digital encounter are of course placing us as modern viewers into a simulated ancient environment. While the goal is to identify visual organization and structures that were meaningful and/or intentionally created by ancient people or communities, we cannot take for granted that vision and seeing are cultural acts, “highly contingent, imbued with power and deeply political.”57 We cannot assume that what strikes us as important or interesting today as archaeologists was necessarily the focus of great interest to people of the past with a different cultural outlook.58 Our interpretations must therefore be as culturally situated as possible, while also acknowledging that such cognitive leaps are always hypothetical. 

Equally challenging is the issue that human perception does not rely solely on vision and spatial situatedness. Perception includes intangible individual knowledge, including “memory, experience, education and expectation.”59 These are not elements that can be reproduced in a digital model. Such mental processes are impacted by the full human sensorium, including sound, touch, and smell—not just vision and physical space. Frieman and Gillings usefully observed that all these “modalities intertwine, blur and blend with one another…. Each of the senses necessarily informs the others.”60 That a fuller study of past places would include multisensory investigations is one highlighted by a number of recent publications.61 I have tried to consider sensory questions in my approach to the site, but they are not the focus of my formal investigations here. More multisensory work is underway by scholars intensely experimenting with multimodal bodily engagement in digital environments, including the use of VR headsets, immersive environments (such as CAVEs), and gesture control.62 These researchers center the learning process on the interaction itself, and they stress embodiment as key to this interaction.63 As the content creator, I am able to export the 3D model and consider the Saqqara visualization using these technologies, but my ability to share those experiences with others remains limited. While this born-digital publication is already pushing the capabilities of new forms of online scholarly publication, including multiple ways of interacting with the 3D content, it does not begin to approach the level of embodied interaction called for by those scholars on the forefront of the field. This is a shortcoming of this work, but one that scholarly publication is not currently able to address.  

Finally, even perception based on the full human sensory experience has its limits. Lock reminded us that the meaning of past places relied not only on the formal material built world and environment, but also on the daily practices and actions of past people. The happenings, the activities of individuals living their lives in these places, and their social relationships were as important in forming meaning as monumental architecture.64 The 3D model of Saqqara does not offer such layered information about the necropolis. In examining visual culture and physical space at the site, it presents only a partial picture of what would have been a very active space. While I maintain that this view is still useful to us in the present, it is an incomplete view, and we must not mistake it for a full picture.

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