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

Exploring an Ancient Site with a 3D Model

This work presents an innovative methodology for examining the sacred landscape at a multiphased, complex archaeological site through the use of a Geographic Information System (GIS) + 3D model. The model combines individually authored and procedural rule-based 3D architectural visualizations of ancient monuments and 2.5D terrain models of the ancient environment with the documentation and analytic capabilities of 2D GIS systems. It focuses on the site at the landscape level, virtually reconstructing monumental structures and major landscape features at the site and in neighboring regions in order to investigate patterns and trends at the site or regional level. Most vitally, the model stresses geo-temporal investigation, representing eighteen different chronological phases at Saqqara, and tracing major architectural and environmental change from Egypt’s Dynasty 1 (~2950 BCE) through the last period of native Egyptian rule in Dynasty 30 (~343 BCE).  

The model of Saqqara appears within this publication in a variety of formats: an interactive web-based platform, which illustrates the main changes over time from overhead macro-views of the modeled landscape, capable of querying and accessing basic metadata (Section 2); video and screen-shots from a human point of view, where movement through the space is replicated by embedding the viewer at human eye-level in a real-time 3D navigation program that mimics human walking through space (Section 3); video and screen-shots of the original model in a GIS program, which allows for qualitative and quantitative spatial analysis (Section 3); and in its component parts for individual download and manipulation by the reader with fuller metadata and paradata (Section 8). These multiple means of accessing the model are intended to allow for better understanding and more engagement by the reader than static screen-shots or model renders alone. The interactive model also provides access to much of the data based on which I draw many of my conclusions, and I see the sharing of this material as critical for scholars who wish to evaluate and verify my work. 

Because of the explicit focus on 3D materials, this publication differs intentionally from traditional books in a number of important ways. To make the 3D content dynamic and include significant multimedia material, this publication is fully born-digital. There is no printed book to put on your shelf, or simple PDF to download and archive. The 3D content is not relegated to an accompanying website or set of supplementary materials; the entire work has instead shifted fully online. This has many risks (sustainability being just one) and clear negatives (readers must be online), but it also opens up great possibilities. An attempt is made here to fully integrate the 3D model into the narrative of this work, providing the model with clear historical context, explanations, and descriptions. The goal is to use the model to analyze, explain, and interpret the site in a way that makes it a fundamental part of the publication, equal to the accompanying text. This work stands as a direct response to the marginalization of 3D scholarly materials in archaeology and history to the category of ‘illustration’ in relation to the primacy of textual narrative. It also directly addresses the (valid) counter-critiques that, without clear textual explanation and orientation of the reader in a 3D space, 3D visualizations “do not promote much understanding of archaeological and historic sites or landscapes.”3 Publishing elaborate 3D spaces without guidance to their reader is ineffective; textual narrative that describes rather than shows what we learn from a model equally frustrates. This work thus aims to find a middle ground, to imagine new potentials for publishing long-form scholarly 3D material in ways that bring 3D to the fore without abdicating the role of the interlocutor or the necessity of analysis.4 As a result, this publication is a hybrid that does not fit into traditional categories; I consider it part digital research monograph, part 3D scholarly edition and part scholarly review.

This publication consists of ten sections. The first contextualizes the use of 3D visualization modeling within the broader study of landscapes in archaeology and discusses the role of visibility in these investigations. Section 2 presents a 3D geo-spatial approach to understanding the history of the site, implicitly arguing that such considerations across the axes of space and time are imperative for identifying patterns of change in complex places like Saqqara. Section 3 looks closely at how meaning was made at the cemetery. Using the 3D model, it argues that visibility was a key structuring element in the formation and importance of the site and offers specific case studies for the importance of visibility in the creation of ritual space at the necropolis. Graffiti and secondary burials are considered in Section 4 to hypothesize how non-royal, non-elite audiences understood and experienced the landscape in ways parallel to, but different from, the high elites. Section 5 situates the production of ritual space at Saqqara in the larger framework of sacred landscapes in Pharaonic Egypt. I argue that royal and elite Egyptians used a number of common strategies to construct a sense of the sacred, using visibility and monumental construction, creating layers of cosmic meaning around entire landscapes, connecting spaces through networks of ritual movement, and associating elements of the natural landscape with religious concepts in order to inscribe royal and elite power into lived spaces. Section 6 discusses the process of the 3D model construction, critically discussing many of the choices made in the production of the model and highlighting the creative process of construction. Following a brief conclusion in Section 7, Section 8 makes many of the 3D content files available for download by the reader and presents more detailed metadata and paradata for the custom-designed 3D monuments. Section 9 includes project documentation and data credit for the 3D model based on the “guides to good practice” created by the Archaeology Data Service and the Digital Antiquity Initiative ( Section 10 consists of a full bibliography. 

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