3D modeling and GIS for temporal visualizations of long-lived ancient sites

Elaine Sullivan
Assistant Professor
History Department
University of California Santa Cruz

Dr. Sullivan earned her MA and PhD  from Johns Hopkins University in Egyptian Art & Archaeology, and is the project coordinator for the Digital Karnak Project: http://dlib.etc.ucla.edu/projects/Karnak/

Abstract: Scholars of the ancient world seeking to understand complex ancient landscapes (both natural and built) commonly use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to organize and analyze surveyed or excavated cultural data. GIS places archaeological information within a two-dimensional (2D) geospatial framework linked to real locations on the Earth’s surface. Human lives are not lived, however, on a flat surface or plane, but are embedded within a three-dimensional world. Archaeologists seeking a more contextualized framework for their data must add a third coordinate, elevation or height, to their analysis. Additionally, change over time (the fourth dimension) is a fundamental aspect of human life, and necessary for any study that aims to understand human experience in the past. These elements – height and time – are often neglected in archaeological GIS projects. The project 3D Saqqara attempts to create a truly four-dimensional visualization of an ancient Egyptian site. The project presents a workflow for how 2D archaeological data can be transformed into 3D representations of ancient built and natural environments, maintaining the geo-spatial coordinate system of GIS and allowing for both quantitative and qualitative visual analysis.

The study of ancient landscapes offers insights into why certain spaces gained and retained their importance and how people continued to interact with the built spaces of their ancestors, based on personal and cultural memory (Yoffee 2007, Van Dyke and Alcock 2003). Ancient peoples “constructed” communal memory through the (re)interpretation of past monuments and landscapes, consciously choosing or rejecting symbols of their forebears, often inscribing new meanings to these places (Yoffee 2007:3-4). 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 of almost continual use. 3D Saqqara strives to tease out ephemeral ideas about the Egyptians’ conceptualization of the places in and around Saqqara and investigate how these beliefs impacted the lifespan and memory of these spaces. By simulating the changes in the built and natural landscape of an ancient site over time, it is possible to show how location was dramatically re-interpreted as the site changed, contributing to a different understanding and utilization of that space. Specifically, tomb prominence and lines-of-sight within the greater ritual space are explored in order to understand royal and private choices in establishing an eternal resting place. The project will also trace how individual and collective decisions shifted the meaning of these spaces and resulted in new interpretations of the built and natural ritual landscape. While the project focuses on Egyptian material, such techniques can be applied by scholars of the ancient world interested in landscape and human perception in general. 

Works Cited:

Van Dyke, Ruth and Susan Alcock, eds.
2003 Archaeologies of memory. Malden: Blackwell Publishers

Yoffee, Norman, ed.
2007 Negotiating the past in the past: identity, memory, and landscape in archaeological
research. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

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