Project Abstract

PROJECT ARCHIVE UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Under the direction of PI Elaine A. Sullivan (History, UC Santa Cruz), the 3D Saqqara project offers the first fully integrated GIS + 3D modeling project re-creating a truly four-dimensional investigation of the ancient site of Saqqara, Egypt. The temporal model of Saqqara traces change at the cemetery from Egypt’s First to Thirtieth Dynasty, from 2950-332 BCE, visualizing the separate architectural phases now obscured by later alterations of the site. The model was funded by an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant, a UCSC Faculty Research Grant, an ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowship award, and the W.M. Keck Foundation.

Project Description

The 3D Saqqara project addresses ancient ritual landscape from a unique perspective, utilizing emerging 3D technologies to examine development at the complex, multi-period archaeological site of Saqqara, Egypt. Using a 3D + Geographical Information System (GIS) reconstruction model of the ancient Egyptian necropolis of Saqqara (covering the Pharaonic period, circa 2950-350 BCE), the project 'peels away' layers of later construction and environmental modification at the site, re-imagining the ancient site a series of time-slices. Harnessing the temporal layering abilities of digital environments, it demonstrates how 3D modeling allows archaeologists to approach questions of meaning and human experience in now-disappeared landscapes in new ways, visualizing change over time from a human point-of-view. The ancient Egyptian cemetery of Saqqara, served as a burial place and cult center for kings, administrators, royal family members, artists, and (less frequently) non-elites over more than 3000 years. Pyramids, mastaba tombs, and huge funerary enclosures still attest to the site’s original grandeur. But questions relating to the creation and perpetuation of sacred space at Saqqara are difficult for modern researchers to address, due to the degradation of the site. Years of ancient and modern change to both the built and natural landscape make it difficult for scholars to re-imagine the interaction between ancient place and environment. The integration of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and 3D modeling now allows for the recreation and visualization of entire ancient landscapes like Saqqara. The project 3D Saqqara uses these digital capabilities to create a four-dimensional exploration of the cemetery: through both space and time. By simulating the built and natural landscape of the site across thousands of years, the project demonstrates how the nexus between landscape, memory, and identity can be examined in innovative ways. Four-dimensional visualizations of ancient places allow scholars to question how the transformation of such places over time effected peoples' interpretation and memories of these spaces.

Research Objective

In 2015, the 3D Saqqara project received NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Level II funding to complete the construction of a 3D + Geographic Information Systems (GIS) model of the archaeological site of Saqqara, Egypt (Latitude 29.872513; Longitude 31.205370). The goal of this funded project is to create, publish, and distribute a geotemporal reconstruction model of the site for interactive use by scholars and students. The ancient Egyptian cemetery 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 Egyptian Revolution in 2011. The cemetery served as a burial place and cult center for kings, administrators, royal family members, artists, and non-elites over more than 3000 years of almost continual use. Covering some 700 hectares (7 square kilometers), pyramids, mastaba tombs, and huge funerary enclosures are still visible at the site today. Despite almost two centuries of intense archaeological excavation, few synthetic investigations have considered visibility in the sacred landscape of this vast and important site across space and time. Modern archaeological field interpretation on questions concerning visibility are hampered by the significant temporal change at the site, as well as the degraded nature of many of the original monuments. Such investigations are especially difficult for the earliest phases of the site, whose monuments deflated or were intentionally re-used or disassembled in ancient times. As well, dramatic environmental change in the Memphite region (including the shifting of the Nile river, the rising of the alluvial plain, and the influx of desert sands from the west) has altered basic elements of the larger landscape since ancient times. Visual and spatial relationships today in the region thus do not accurately or fully reflect those relationships in the ancient past. Examining visuality and visual links within and across these ritual spaces can thus only be accomplished through a reimagining of these lost landscapes. The goal of the project therefore focuses on the integration of archaeological and environmental data in order to visualize aspects of the historic site no longer observable in the field today. With the aim of digital ‘reconstruction,’ the model incorporates scholarly hypotheses on the original form and appearance of ancient monumental structures, along with archaeological and geographical knowledge about the contemporary natural and physical environment. The creation of the Saqqara model todate has encompassed six major steps: 1. Establishing monument footprints for Central, North, and South Saqqara, as well as major monuments at the neighboring archaeological sites of Abusir, Abu Ghurab, Helwan, Dahshur, Giza, Abu Roash, Heliopolis and Memphis in a GIS system with appropriate attribute information 2. Creating terrains and elevation models to reflect ancient ‘ground horizon’ at Central and North Saqqara; building low-resolution terrains representing the entire Memphite ritual zone based on existing topographic maps and satellite imagery 3. Modeling the superstructures of archaeologically-documented monuments at Saqqara and select monuments at neighboring sites to-scale using a 3D software program, approximating ancient height and materials via texture mapping 4. Combining 2D GIS information, 3D models, and terrain data in an urban simulation software program; generating procedural-based models from 2D GIS information in that program 5. Importing the resulting data model back into GIS software for further spatial analysis with GIS toolkits 6. Importing the resulting data model of Central, North and South Saqqara into the VSim real-time navigator for first-person navigation within the 3D space

Contributor Details

Project Director: Elaine A Sullivan, Assistant Professor, UC Santa Cruz VSim Technologist: Lisa Snyder, GIS/Visualization specialist, Institute for Digital Research and Education, UCLA GIS Specialist Support: Eric Fries, (former) graduate student, UCLA Max Van Rensselaer, (former) undergraduate, UC Santa Cruz Aaron Cole, Senior GIS Analyst, Center for Integrated Spatial Research, UC Santa Cruz Barry Nickel, Director of the Center for Integrated Spatial Research, UC Santa Cruz CityEngine Workflow developers and Assistance: Marie Saldana, (former) graduate student, UCLA Maxime Israel, University of Massachusetts Amherst 3D Modelers: Aria Klucewicz, (former) undergraduate, UCLA Cori Hoover, (former) undergraduate, UC Santa Cruz Sophie Short, (former) undergraduate, UC Santa Cruz Victoria Schniedewind, (former) undergraduate, UC Berkeley Data Contribution: Digital monument footprint files of the area of North and Central Saqqara were created by the University of Pisa (Italy) and updated (2013) by Dr. Emanuele Brienza (GIS Specialist, University of Enna, Sicily). 1m topographic line files of the area of Giza, 5m topographic line files of the area of South Saqqara and the section of Memphis between Abusir and Giza, and the original model for the pyramid of Djoser were provided by Dr. Mark Lehner, Director of AERA. Key topographic maps of the Memphite area were shared by Dr. Ana Tavares. Image and Data Credits: The superstructure of the Dynasty 1 mastaba tomb #3505 was textured using images from: Emery, W. (1958). Great tombs of the First Dynasty: excavations at Saqqara. vol. III, London, Egypt Exploration Society. Plates 6,7,8 (color plates). Images courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society. Satellite images courtesy of the DigitalGlobe Foundation.

Project Sponsorship

The 3D Saqqara project has been supported by: an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant, 2015-2016; an ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowship award, 2012-2013; the W.M. Keck Foundation, as part of UCLA’s Digital Cultural Mapping program; the University of California Santa Cruz, Faculty Research Grant 2014-2015; 2016-2017.


Thanks and credit goes to the many Egyptologists and research groups who have provided data and assistance to this project. This is includes: Dr. Emanuele Brienza and the University of Pisa; Dr. Mark Lehner and the Ancient Egypt Research Associated (AERA); Dr. Peter Manuelian and the 3D Giza Project; Dr. Ana Tavares; the Institute of Egyptology at Waseda University and Dr. Nozomu Kawai; Digital monument footprint files of the area of Central Saqqara were created by the University of Pisa (Italy) and updated (2013) by Dr. Emanuele Brienza (GIS Specialist, University of Enna, Sicily). 1m topographic line files of the area of Giza, and 5m topographic line files of the area of South Saqqara and the section of Memphis between Abusir and Giza were provided by Dr. Mark Lehner, Director of AERA. Major financial support for the 3D Saqqara Project was provided by the American Council for Learned Societies (ACLS) from 2012-2013. Additional support was provided by the W.M. Keck Foundation in 2011. Graduate and Undergraduate student contributors to the project include: Eric Fries, Aria Klucewicz, Victoria Schniedewind, and Mike Rocchio. UCLA Graduate student Marie Saldana provided expert advice and tutorials on City Engine, and without her knowledge, the project could not have moved so quickly forward. Emery, W. (1958). Great tombs of the First Dynasty: excavations at Saqqara. vol. III, London, Egypt Exploration Society. Plates 6,7,8 (color plates) with painted decoration from the superstructure facade from tomb no. 3505 at Saqqara. Images courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society


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Spatial Scope


Temporal Scope

2000-1000 BCE, 1000 BCE - 1 CE

Subject Architecture, Cultural Heritage, Archaeology, Urban Environments, Reconstructions


Snyder, Lisa M.; Fries, Eric; Van Rensselaer, Max; Cole, Aaron; Nickel, Barry; Saldana, Marie; Israel, Maxime; Klucewicz, Aria; Hoover, Cori; Short, Sophie; Schniedewind, Victoria; Brienza, Emanuele; Tavares, Ana; Lehner, Mark

Project Website

Rights Holder

University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC)

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