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


This work has argued that sacred funerary landscape in ancient Egypt showed remarkable coherence across time and space, and that this consistency was the result of a series of curated practices by royals and high elites that emerged with the beginning of the state in the early dynastic period and Old Kingdom. A number of royal funerary sites were reviewed, and I attempted to articulate a set of strategies used over time that contributed to sacred place-making in Pharaonic Egypt. I have contended that aspects of visibility were key elements in shaping the cultural construction of sacred landscape at Saqqara, in parallel with other major royal cemetery zones, and that this emphasis on seeing was directly related to Egyptian cultural concepts regarding the power of ritualized sight. Using a 3DGIS visualization of the necropolis through time, I have analyzed sight lines and aspects of visibility that are not accessible in the field today due to the degradation of monuments over time at Saqqara and the loss of many contemporary Memphite structures to the rising floodplain and modern urban expansion. I have addressed questions about visual links in the Memphite area with a new methodology, seeking to rigorously test, adjust, or challenge current ideas based on scholarly hypotheses. The model has thus provided new means to access and address questions about development and change in the ancient sacred landscape of Saqqara. I contend that it offers something new to the field of Egyptology, and that it demonstrates the potential for 3D in the larger field of archaeology. 

The 3D Saqqara Model and Data Sharing

The increasing use of technologies like 3D modeling and GIS has already resulted in new ways to approach the archaeological record, making possible the digital integration of the multiple scales of data that characterize any excavation, new forms of analysis that integrate quantitative and qualitative data sets, and forms of recording that preserve three-dimensional aspects of a site or excavation unit in ways never before possible. One remarkable aspect of these new digital workflows is their collaborative nature, echoing the collaborative nature of traditional archaeological practice. The 3D model for this project started with digital data shared by other scholars documenting the site. But it expanded out exponentially, incorporating a vast pool of labor from international teams of researchers (via published legacy data and excavation reports), individual scholars who contributed unpublished digital and analog data, student interns who assisted in 3D modeling many of the monuments at the site, and campus technologists who provided the expertise to make the modeled content accessible online. In addition, field research conducted by the author at Saqqara in 2018 harnessed the knowledge and skills of surveyors, Egyptologists, and the years of on-the-ground experience at the site possessed by colleagues in the Ministry of Antiquities. It has also necessitated new experimentation (and leaps of faith) from librarians and publishers who have worked with me (and other archaeologists) on how to publish and archive digital objects, which have proven in the past decade to be more ephemeral than perhaps anticipated. The 3D model of Saqqara, as well as most of the new forms of digital archaeological projects, are thus generative works that depend on the contributions of a large number of people, all willing to share knowledge in the interest of pushing forward our collective capacity to study the past in new ways.   

Perhaps most exciting for the field of archaeology is the potential outcome of these projects following their initial production and publication. The Saqqara model, like other projects that integrate huge amounts of disparate data in online and digital formats,1 acts as a new type of information archive, combining decades of published and unpublished research (written in multiple languages and often available only in specialized libraries), making information accessible in new formats and to new publics. These projects bring materials together in conversation in ways that are uncommon because of the concentrated nature of modern archaeological research: each scholar or team focused on one building, one section of a site, or one specific time period. Digital projects synthesizing decades of research can instead turn our view outward, sparking new opportunities for future collaborations, and bringing scholars together to focus on the field’s major gaps in knowledge and to come up with strategies for addressing them in partnership. I see especially significant benefit to our field in the ease of sharing and flexibility that are characteristic of digital formats, which provide a chance to work together to develop projects that harness the digital data of researchers working across regions and chronological periods. Archaeologists are perfectly positioned to capitalize on the potential of big data, as we are already adept collaborators. Unlike our colleagues in history, who spend hours alone in archives, our work at the site and in the lab is always a cooperative effort; we are practiced in calling on the sustained input of others to accomplish our goals. In this spirit, I hope that this project offers one example of how the digital environment can usefully integrate and disseminate decades of collectively generated knowledge. 

Visibility and the Senses in Historical Perspective

The conclusions here concerning the importance of visibility in the cultural construction of sacred landscape at Saqqara speak to wider conversations about human vision and its historical framing. Scholars in art history and media studies once posited that ‘modernity’ was characterized by a new human preoccupation with the visual, in contrast with premodernity. Following Foucault’s discussion of the panopticon, theorists focused on the nexus between vision and observation and claimed it as the dominant sense of the nineteenth century and after.2 Technologies that enhanced our ability to examine and process visual information—such as the printing press, microscope, and, more recently, video surveillance—supposedly changed our relationship with the eye, and vision was deemed the “master sense” of the contemporary.3 More recent studies have problematized these ideas, demonstrating that smell, taste, and touch were equally impactful on modern development, and that sight “functioned to iterate key aspects of pre-Enlightenment societies.”4 

Interest in the human sensorium has grown in the past decade in archaeology, as scholars employ the rich archaeological record to explicate how the senses were impactful in culturally specific ways in the past.5 This body of scholarship clearly shows that, as in the early modern and modern worlds, all the senses were vital to meaning-making in the ancient world, and that these meanings were highly contextual and varied considerably. As discussed in Section 3 of this work, I fully acknowledge the value of other senses in ritual activities in Egypt, especially the oral aspects that are most difficult for archaeologists to reconstruct. Nevertheless, this work emphasizes the importance of visual culture and highlights the complex manner in which the Egyptians of the Dynastic Period approached vision. Recent scholarship emphasizes how vision structured and influenced the way a number of ancient societies made sense of human relationships between the living, the dead, and the natural world in ways that challenge any identification of emphases on visual observation and discovery as ‘modern’. The ancient Greeks, for example, theorized the link between the eye and knowledge, the evidentiary and mathematical significance of vision, and the subjectivity of seeing and being viewed.6 Greek and Roman doctors considered close visual observation of patients and symptoms as one of the most critical elements of diagnosis.7 Mayan elites may have structured their cities explicitly to observe and monitor those subjected to their power.8 In the Egyptian context, ‘seeing’ could take on layered meanings concerning sacred knowledge, privilege, and access. I offer this work’s conclusions as (another) counterpoint to arguments that understate the prominence or intellectual sophistication of vision in ancient societies. It is only through the deep study of the texts, objects, architecture, and constructed landscapes of ancient groups that we can better understand the nuances and layered significances of the ancient sensorium and usefully include ancient cultures in comparative studies across time and space.

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