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

Saqqara Through Space and Time

Visiting Saqqara today is both an exhilarating and a disorienting experience. The sprawling layout of the site and the hundreds of monuments in seemingly random arrangement tax all but the most enthusiastic tourist. Centuries of history are collapsed into layers that can be tread over in minutes. Even scholars frequently need maps to help them identify their exact location or that of a specific monument when faced with the vast expanse of structures and ruins. If the site today is difficult to navigate, understanding its development in the past over time is even more of a challenge. Monument reuse, disassembling, and deflation over time—in addition to the temporal and spatial complexity—have gradually transformed the ancient landscape from a functioning ritual space into something wholly new and different: an archaeological site. This work intends to recapture elements of that ancient landscape for a new form of consideration.

Using a dynamic, online (low-resolution terrain) model of the core Saqqara area, this section presents a spatial and temporal tour of the development of its major monuments in 3D space. The growth of the site is detailed, starting in Egypt’s Dynasty 1 (~2950 BCE) and covering the major architectural additions through the end of the Pharaonic period (fourth century BCE). The model focuses on visualizing the monuments of the core central Saqqara zone; royal pyramids and solar monuments in South Saqqara and Abusir (modeled with less detail) are included only to represent their visual impact on the core area.1 The web viewer includes access to basic metadata about each model reconstruction, with more detailed metadata and discussion of uncertainty in Sections 6 and 8. Major architectural changes are visualized, as well as significant environmental shifts (reflected in the model through changing terrains/digital elevation models).2 This approach to the site is a conscious one (made possible using new digital technologies), an attempt to engage more directly with the multiple dimensions and numerous histories that comprised real spaces in the past. Unlike solely textual descriptions, which allow for significant glossing of gaps, blank spaces, and awkward silences, the model leads us directly to questions about empty spaces and what filled them: Why then? Why there? And what was present before? The next section of this work delves deeper into those questions of meaning and decision-making at the necropolis, but such questions cannot be effectively addressed individually or within a vacuum. It is only by first looking critically and deeply at the development of the site as a whole, identifying specific moments and types of change, that we can begin to imagine how ancient people created value and a sense of the sacred that persisted for hundreds of years.

Saqqara and the Field of Egyptology

Saqqara’s impressive step pyramid not surprisingly captured the interest of nineteenth-century European explorers, and that monument was the focus of research in the burgeoning field of Egyptology in the 1820s and 1830s. The discovery of the Serapeum by Auguste Mariette in 1850 jump-started excavation at the site, and almost two centuries of intense archaeological excavation has followed.3 Excavations have included Egyptian and international teams from across the world studying architecture; human, animal, and plant remains; two- and three-dimensional art; texts; religion; topography; and geology. Because of the incredible richness of the preserved remains, most scholars working at the site focus on one tomb (or area), one type of evidence, or one chronological period, publishing in-depth documentation on that specific aspect of the site. A few very useful examinations of the development and spatial significance of the cemetery as whole have been attempted, publications that synthesize and evaluate the decades of work at the necropolis.4 Nevertheless, some of these are now over twenty years old, and thus do not reflect more recent fieldwork and discoveries at the site. This section provides not only an update of some of this work but also an augmentation through the 3D model and the use of satellite imagery, which can help the reader better locate, visualize, and contextualize the places and monuments discussed. 

Interactive Saqqara: Limitations and Parameters

The online interactive 3D reconstruction model presented in this section, while offering new potential for examining the site, focuses specifically on large-scale architectural development (mainly visible monument superstructures) and thus has many limitations. It ignores a great many aspects of the site. Numerous rock-cut tombs were present at Saqqara, cut into the side of the escarpment (such as the New Kingdom tombs south of the Bubastieion) or in areas of steep elevation change (such as those cut into the rise south of the Unas causeway). These are excluded from the model, although they are mentioned in the text below. The 3D monuments display only basic elements of the form, size, color, and texture of monument superstructures, excluding interior spaces and elaborate architectural detail. For example, substructures, the underground elements that were an incredibly important part of burial practices, are not modeled. Nor are many interior rooms of pyramid complex memorial temples or mastaba tomb chapels. Most mastaba tombs are symbolized in the web viewer by highly schematic procedural models, a simple form generated by the extent of the monuments’ lengths and widths (indicated in 3D_MODEL_TYPE metadata field in the web viewer). These representations mask significant original variation in the plan and form of these tombs, creating a false sense of standardization and simplicity. In addition, landscaping at the site (the presence of trees or shrubbery) is not hypothesized due to lack of information (see Section 6). Saqqara could be (and has been) profitably investigated by tracing the titles of tomb owners, changing artistic representation and style, burial good distributions or types, or many other cultural elements of great import. To focus with clarity on the visual and spatial elements of the site over time, those other elements are consciously absent, left for other models or other studies. While the model illuminates some aspects of the site, it obscures others.

The interactive model is also limited in its spatial and chronological scope. In this section, only the main Saqqara area (ending north of Abusir and north of Dahshur) can be explored by the reader. This section thus exclusively focuses on the history of the core Saqqara region, artificially isolating this place from the larger context. In Section 3 of this work, an expanded (but not interactive for the reader) version of the model is presented, including terrain and monuments from other areas in the Memphite region. That section better situates Saqqara in the larger landscape. In addition, the model created for this project focuses on the Egyptian dynastic period, covering Dynasties 1–30 (the beginning of the Egyptian state through the end of the Late Period). It does not include Ptolemaic constructions and Roman materials, although those periods are briefly mentioned and described. After a few centuries of abandonment in the Roman Period, Saqqara was again occupied by Coptic Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. The Copts founded monasteries at Apa Antinos (on the sacred animal necropolis site) and Apa Jeremais (east of the New Kingdom temple tombs), as well as contemporary settlements and cemeteries, but these are not reconstructed in the model or discussed here.5 Saqqara is now an archaeological site open to tourists and archaeologists under the auspices of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities; modern settlement and cemetery expansion is now intentionally restricted by the government.

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