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Sunday, January 31, 2021

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

The long-lived burial site of Saqqara, Egypt, has been studied for more than a century. But the site we visit today is a palimpsest, the result of thousands of years of change, both architectural and environmental. Elaine A. Sullivan uses 3D technologies to peel away the layers of history at the site, revealing how changes to sight lines, skylines, and vistas at different periods of Saqqara's millennia-long use influenced sacred ceremonies and ritual meaning at the necropolis.

The author considers not just individual buildings, but re-contextualizes built spaces within the larger ancient landscape, engaging in materially-focused investigations of how monuments shape community memories and a culturally-specific sense of place. Despite our modern impression of the permanent and enduring nature of the site, this publication instead highlights that the monuments and their meanings were fluid, as the Egyptians modified, abandoned, resurrected, forgot, or incorporated them into new contexts. Virtually placing the reader within a series of landscapes no longer possible to experience, the author flips the top-down view prevalent in archeology to a more human-centered perspective, focusing on the dynamic evolution of an ancient site that is typically viewed as static.

Elaine A. Sullivan is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz.


The ancient Egyptian necropolis of Saqqara is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the location of the first monumental stone structure in the world, and one of Egypt's most popular tourist destinations, visited by some twenty thousand visitors a week before the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.1 Despite more than a century of intense archaeological excavation and the importance of the site for political, religious, and architectural history, Saqqara has never been the sole focus of a major synthetic landscape study. This is a result, firstly, of the denuded nature of the site, as the superstructures of many of the monuments have collapsed, suffered purposeful destruction, or disappeared under more than 2000 years of sand drifting in from the western desert. These monuments, some of them originally many meters in height, do not today represent their visual or spatial impact at a given time in the past. Second, the long history of the site actually complicates landscape studies. Many elements of the original form of the ancient space are difficult to examine in the field today, as the patchwork pattern of development at Saqqara (which was in use for more than 3000 years) means that the structure of the site at any given chronological moment has been obscured by later (but still ancient) changes at the cemetery.

Many ancient societies assigned non-economic value to the landscapes they inhabited; places were ascribed special meaning, constructed to enhance (or interpreted as possessing) religious and communal significance.2 Constructing the Sacred addresses the sacred landscape of Saqqara from a unique perspective, using advanced 3D technologies to examine questions of development at this complex, multiperiod archaeological site. Using a 3D Geographical Information System (GIS) reconstruction model of the necropolis covering the Pharaonic Period (Dynasties 1–30, 2950–343 BCE), this work digitally peels away layers of later construction and considers each phase of the cemetery in isolation, demonstrating how 3D modeling allows archaeologists to approach a series of now-disappeared landscapes. For the first time, there is a clear means of accessing and evaluating the specific choices made by the ancient Egyptians in constructing the ritual landscape through monumental architecture. In examining the site of Saqqara and its surroundings at distinct time periods, this publication explores how concepts of sacred space were reinvented as the built and natural landscape changed, creating new meanings as individuals and communities reimagined the form and use of the site over time.

I contend that, at Saqqara, visibility was an important but as yet undertheorized aspect of royal and elite sacred landscape production. Monument visibility played a key role in the formation and organization of Saqqara, and the visual environment of the necropolis was intentionally crafted at each moment to express current royal or elite political and religious views. Egyptian kings and high elites intentionally shaped the monumental form and placement of their tombs in order to increase their prominence, connect them visually with other ritual places, or hide them from view. The importance of visibility at the cemetery was related to emic Egyptian concepts of the ritualized power of sight, which could create powerful and effective relationships between the deceased, the king, and the gods.

While architectural monumentality and engineered aspects of visibility and experience were critical to forming a funerary landscape demarcated from both near and far and set apart as sacred at Saqqara, it was just one of a series of strategies adopted by the royals and high elites in creating sacred funerary landscapes in the Pharaonic Period. In the larger work, I contextualize strategies of landscape intervention at Saqqara as parallel to those used at other royal and high elite funerary sites in the Nile valley. I identify a consistent practice of sacred landscape creation across multiple locations and suggest that these practices inscribed royal and elite hierarchies directly into the funerary space. Such strategies included connecting disparate sacred zones into networks through ritual movement, incorporating multiple sites into larger cosmic landscapes, and adapting characteristic aspects of the local natural environment into ritual service through religious metaphor. These methods are in evidence at a number of royal funerary sites like Abydos, Amarna, Giza, and Thebes. While employing consistent practices of sacred landscape formation always contributed to reinforcing state hierarchies, comparing techniques used at Saqqara and other sites shows that such tactics were also selectively employed to create regionally specific, unique spaces that reflected local interests and traditions. Offering a close examination of the important site of Saqqara, this publication thus contributes to the larger discussion of the creation and perpetuation of sacred space in Egypt, critically examining how visibility, historical architecture, natural forms, and religious ideology were all purposefully combined to produce ritual spaces at necropolises across the Nile valley.


  1. Exploring an Ancient Site with a 3D Model
  2. Archaeological Landscapes and 3D Technologies
  3. Model Visualization Choices: Construction and Design Issues
  4. Summary

Begin with "Exploring an Ancient Site with a 3D Model"

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Saturday, January 30, 2021

Egypt announces new archaeological discovery in Alexandria

Egypt announces new archaeological discovery in Alexandria

Rock-cut tombs discovered were popular in Egypt's Greco-Roman era

A joint Egyptian-Dominican mission has announced the discovery of 16 burials in rock-cut tombs, or burial shafts, at the Temple of Taposiris Magna, west of Alexandria, Egypt.

The mission, headed by lawyer and archaeologist Kathleen Martinez, features experts from the University of Santo Domingo.

The type of rock-cut tombs discovered were popular in Egypt's Greco-Roman era.  A number of mummies were discovered in the shafts, although they are reportedly in a poor state of preservation.

The mummies feature the characteristics of mummification in the Greco-Roman era, and were found with the remnants of gilded sarcophagi, in addition to gold foil amulets. The latter were shaped in the form of a tongue, and placed in the mouth of the mummy in a special ritual to ensure their ability to speak before the Osirian court in the afterlife.

Martinez said that among the most important of these mummies were two that preserved the remains of scrolls and parts of the sarcophagi. The first was found with the remains of gilded decorations showing the Ancient Egyptian god Osiris, the god of the afterlife.

The other mummy was discovered wearing a crown decorated with horns, and the cobra snake at the forehead. The chest of the mummy shows a gilded decoration representing the wide necklace from which hangs the head of a falcon, the symbol of the ancient god Horus.

Khaled Abo El Hamd, Director General of the antiquities authority in Alexandria, said that during this season the mission made a number of archaeological discoveries. The most important of these were: a funeral mask for a woman; eight golden flakes representing the leaves of a golden wreath; and eight masks of marble dating back to the Greek and Roman eras.

Abo El Hamd noted that the masks, which depict the facial features of their owners, show high craftsmanship in sculpture.

In the last 10 years, the mission has found several important archaeological finds that have changed our perception of the Temple of Taposiris Magna.

A number of coins bearing the name and image of Queen Cleopatra VII were found inside the temple walls, in addition to many parts of statues. The temple grounds were found adorned in the past to reveal the temple foundation panels, which prove that it was built by King Ptolemy IV.

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Friday, January 29, 2021

Register for February Virtual Lectures

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Upcoming February Virtual Lectures

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You must register for the lecture if you wish to attend 

Public Access* 
In Honor of Norma Kershaw 
Title: Egyptian Rule and Canaanite Resistance as Seen from Jaffa 
Date and Time:  February 4th at 1:00 PM Eastern Time/ 8:00 PM Eastern European Time
Speaker: Aaron A. Burke; Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, UCLA 
The excavations of the Egyptian New Kingdom fortress in Jaffa, on the southern side of Tel Aviv were undertaken from 1956 to 2014. It was the only Egyptian fortress excavated in Canaan. Its archaeological record, particularly the evidence from several dramatic destructions, provides a unique perspective on Egyptian rule and local resistance to it from ca. 1460 to 1125 B.C. The archaeological evidence, taken together with textual sources, yields a picture of Canaanite resistance to the Egyptian military presence in Jaffa. This originated in centers located throughout the coastal plain and persisted for several centuries. This talk is drawn from excavations directed by the author and undertaken by the Jaffa Cultural Heritage Project between 2011 and 2014. Dr. Aaron Burke is the Kershaw Chair of Ancient Eastern Mediterranean Studies at UCLA.
*Registration will close 24 hours in advance of the lecture time. 

Members Only* 
Title: Rosetta Project: Change in Action at the Amasili House 
Date and Time: February 6th at 1:00 PM Eastern Time/ 8:00 PM Eastern European Time
Speakers: Mohamed Kenawi and Cristina Mondin
The Amasili Complex comprises the Amasili House, Hasiba Gazal House, and a granary. The houses were built sometime during the 18th century and contain some unique architectural features. The Amasili House is the largest of all Ottoman Houses still standing in Rosetta. Rosetta flourished during the medieval period becoming Egypt's most significant transit city. Commercial activities relocated to the city as it became the main access to the Mediterranean. During that time its collection of Mameluke and Ottoman mansions and citrus groves attracted many European and Arab travelers. But as Alexandria prospered, Rosetta was left behind and almost forgotten. Today the city's fame is mostly associated with the inscribed stone that allowed the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs (aka the Rosetta Stone). Rosetta is attracting an increasing number of visitors interested in its archaeological, cultural heritage, and atmospheric medieval souk.
*Registration will close 48 hours in advance of the lecture time. 

Public Access Series*
Africa Interconnected: Ancient Egypt and Nubia
Title: Hands Unto Ethiopia: The First African Americans to Visit Nubia 
Date and Time: February 20th at 1:00 PM Eastern Time/ 8:00 PM Eastern European Time
Speaker: Jeremy Pope; Associate Professor in the Department of History at the College of William & Mary
Dr. Pope's lecture will seek to fill this historiographical void by reconstructing the history of the first African American visitors to Nubia. The sources will include their private correspondence, interviews with their descendants, and an unpublished essay on the African past that was penned by one of the travelers following his return to the United States. Since at least the middle of the 18th century, people of African descent in the Americas have invoked ancient Nubia. The "Ethiopia" and "Cush" of the Bible- as exemplar of African history and a signifier of a global racial identity. The prophecy in Psalm 68:31 that states, "Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God" became the shared slogan of political, religious, and literary movements on both sides of the Atlantic that are known collectively to historians as Ethiopianism. By 1902, Pauline Hopkin's serial novel, Of One Blood, would cast a fictional African American traveler to Nubia as the Harbinger of Pan-African liberation and mutual uplift of Africans and African Americans. Yet, no published study has ever analyzed- nor even documented- the experiences of the first African Americans who actually traveled to Nubia. This silence is all the more remarkable, this analysis has been performed for the first Europeans, white Americans, and Canadian Iroquois visitors to Nubia. The narrative of the first African Americans to travel to Nubia instead demonstrates how these disciplines and movements have intersected with histories of global politics, international commerce, and intellectual inquiry beyond the circle of professional scholars. 
*Registration will close 24 hours in advance of the lecture time.