Archaeological Landscapes and 3D Technologies

We’re pleased to present an adapted excerpt from the Introduction of Constructing the Sacred:Visibility and Ritual Landscape at the Egyptian Necropolis of Saqqara» by Elaine A. Sullivan.

3D model render of a Dynasty 1 mastaba tomb (3506), with elaborate exterior niching on façade
3D model render of a Dynasty 1 mastaba tomb (3506), with elaborate exterior niching on façade; render in Vue Infinite
Source: Render by the author

In more than a century of considering archaeological landscapes, scholars have adopted a variety of theoretical viewpoints, imagining the changing relationship between humans and their environment as determined by geographical, ecological, climatic, or demographic forces. The past twenty years have seen dramatic changes in these frameworks, with the social production of space moving to the fore, as the definition of ‘landscape’ has transitioned from an independent space within which humans act (influenced by outside forces) to one constructed and made meaningful through human perception.[1] These shifting intellectual grounds have provided important opportunities for reconsidering the interaction between humans, culture, and the natural and built environments. In parallel to this movement (and as part of the increasing digital turn in the field in general), archaeologists have applied new (or newly enhanced) technologies to recording, interrogating, and representing archaeological landscapes. This includes the use of tools that move beyond two-dimensional capabilities, such as airborne and satellite imagery for the creation of 2.5D digital terrain models, as well as photogrammetric capture and representation of modern terrains and landscape spaces as fully 3D digital meshes.[2] These two strands of change may initially have seemed irreconcilable, as many of the technological advances mentioned were incorporated into Geographic Information Systems (GIS)-based studies, and deemed environmentally determinist and functionalist by their detractors. Indeed, practitioners in archaeology have vigorously debated the use of GIS for the study of past places, with some criticizing GIS as positivistic and lacking engagement with cognition, symbolism, and culture. Yet many scholars reject such binaries as unnecessary and regressive.[3] As a discipline charged with documenting humanity’s historical record (and one that often destroys the very context of our research), many of us archaeologists have committed to improving documentation practices with technologies like GIS. But digital tools can also be used fruitfully in considering the social means with which humans construct and make sense of their world, especially when explicitly grounded in an ancient group’s cultural and historical realities.[4] I argue that the 3D plus GIS offers another means to expand the scope of landscape studies, blending technological innovation with the close examination of human cultural change.

New Perspectives on Landscape Analysis

The explosion in the availability and affordability of digital mapping technologies in the private sector has directly contributed to a methodological and intellectual shift in the discipline of history and the larger humanities, the so-called ‘spatial turn’.[5] Despite the use of quantitative digital tools and GIS software, this turn has in many cases focused on the cultural aspects of place-making. For archaeological landscape studies, always centered on space as a critical factor, this turn has also injected cultural questions into the discussion in new ways. Spatial analysis, a long-standing form of archaeological inquiry, has responded to these trends, with studies increasingly considering quantitative and qualitative issues.[6]

Cover page thumbnail for Constructing the Sacred
Utilizing 3D technologies, Constructing the Sacred» addresses ancient ritual landscape from a unique perspective to examine development at the complex, long-lived archaeological site of Saqqara, Egypt.

My own work explicitly attempts to use digital capabilities for a form of spatial analysis directed at interpreting meaning-making at the ancient ritual site of Saqqara, Egypt, over time. It is because of the new capabilities of the digital world that new scales of information can be brought together and the methods that the Egyptians used to actively structure their landscape can be examined from a fresh perspective. Constructing the Sacred attempts this intervention through the new affordances allowed by pairing 3D modeling with GIS technologies. My interpretations rely heavily on the ideas of subject-centered landscape theory, which in turn have been influenced by phenomenological approaches to archaeological landscapes. Best known from Tilley’s foundational work A Phenomenology of Landscape, phenomenology stresses interpreting landscapes through the human sensorium, describing lived human experience and sensation within the material world of the past.[8] These ideas, part of the post-processual archaeology movement of the 1980s and 1990s, usefully reimagined the landscape as culturally formed and culturally experienced.[9] However, critics of phenomenological approaches identified numerous weaknesses in the methodology. In the social science of archaeology, objective or replicable results are standard, and detractors dismissed the sensations of the contemporary archaeologist experiencing a site as subjective and empirically impoverished. Further critique construed it as presentist/atemporal, assuming the universality of the body, and overly focused on sight for a method supposedly concerned with the full sensory experience.[10]The term ‘spatial analysis’ in archaeology describes any study that uses the location of the subject (where) as a major axis in making sense of that subject (the why or how). A key part of processual archaeology in the 1960s and 1970s, spatial analysis has made a resurgence with the expanding use of GIS since the 1990s. New computing power allows scholars to capture, process, and integrate data at a scale unimaginable forty years ago.[7] Although such capabilities have certainly increased the number of studies in archaeology that center on forms of quantitative analysis, clear attempts have concurrently been made to foreground the investigation of human experience and social relationships in space.

New computing power allows scholars to capture, process, and integrate data at a scale unimaginable forty years ago.

Indeed, many phenomenological approaches suppose great consistency over time in the ancient landscape, assuming a constant sensorium that can be experienced today similarly to hundreds or thousands of years ago. Yet the archaeological sites we visit today are a type of palimpsest, the result of layers and layers of change. At most long-lived ancient sites, direct access to aspects of the ancient landscape are simply unattainable. What we see, hear, feel, and smell on site is dramatically altered. Archaeologists have thus explored new methods for addressing landscape meaning while maintaining phenomenology’s valuable insights about centering the human lived experience and acknowledging the social aspects of landscape.[11] It is here that 3D modeling seems best positioned to make a significant impact. Like phenomenological approaches, digital landscape simulations encourage human-centered investigation, considering ancient spaces while embedded within a three-dimensional world. But 3D visualizations accomplish something different from phenomenological approaches – a chance to rigorously and deeply consider aspects of the cultural and physical world that cannot be part of our perceptions today because they no longer exist.

While the digital world cannot yet fully replicate the senses of touch, smell, or emotional presence in a place, I propose that 3D landscapes do allow for a type of limited and mediated subject-centered landscape analysis, one that lacks full embodiment, but in which the researcher can be situated in a way that approximates important aspects of human agents in space.[12] The advantage of 3D visualizations lies in their potential to reframe GIS mapping, creating analysis opportunities that, as Vis advocated, consider “spatial situations from an inhabitant’s perspective.”[13] Indeed, part of what gives meaning to landscapes is the physical, spatial, and visual relationships between inhabitants and the material world.[14] Thomas argued that the value of phenomenological approaches lies in their invoking an “encounter between the archaeologist and the places and monuments that they study,” and he expressed that, even if these encounters are imagined, they place us “inside a set of material circumstances which were integral to a meaningful world in the past…”[15] I argue that 3D modeled landscapes offer access to one such type of encounter, one that explicitly attempts to reproduce, experiment with, and reimagine the material circumstances that are unavailable for direct encounter today. The value of that encounter lies in how we use it to question and inform on past peoples’ cultural practices. Especially in landscapes like Saqqara, which maintained ritual importance over sustained periods of time, 3D (and other forms of spatial mapping) can assist us in considering the rich interplay of humans, monuments, and space over time.[16]

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[1] Wendy Ashmore and Arthur Knapp, Archaeologies of Landscape: Contemporary Perspectives, Social Archaeology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999), 7; Wendy Ashmore and Chelsea Blackmore, “Landscape Archaeology,” in Encyclopedia of Archaeology, ed. D. Pearsall, (Oxford: Elsevier, 2008), 1569–78; Matthew Johnson, Ideas of Landscape (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007); and Robert Preucel and Stephen Mrozowski, Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: The New Pragmatism, 2nd ed. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 55.

[2] Douglas Comer and Michael Harrower, Mapping Archaeological Landscapes from Space (New York: Springer, 2013) and Maurizio Forte and Stefano Campana, eds., Digital Methods and Remote Sensing in Archaeology: Archaeology in the Age of Sensing, Quantitative Methods in the Humanities and Social Sciences (Cham: Springer, 2016),

[3] Meghan Cope and Sarah Elwood, Qualitative GIS: A Mixed Methods Approach (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009); Dorothy Graves McEwan, “Qualitative Landscape Theories and Archaeological Predictive Modelling—A Journey Through No Man’s Land?” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 19, no. 4 (2012): 526–47,; and Mark Gillings, “Landscape Phenomenology, GIS and the Role of Affordance,” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 19, no. 4 (2012): 601–11,

[4] Heather Richards-Rissetto, “What Can GIS + 3D Mean for Landscape Archaeology?” Journal of Archaeological Science 84 (2017): 10–11,

[5] David Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor Harris, eds., The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Ian Gregory and A. Geddes, eds., Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and Spatial History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014); and Anne Kelly Knowles, Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History (Redlands: ESRI, 2002).

[6] Philip Verhagen, “Spatial Analysis in Archaeology: Moving into New Territories,” in Digital Geoarchaeology: New Techniques for Interdisciplinary Human-Environmental Research, ed. Christoph Siart, Markus Forbriger, and Olaf Bubenzer, Natural Science in Archaeology (Cham: Springer, 2018), 11–25,

[7] Andrew Bevan and Mark Lake, eds., Computational Approaches to Archaeological Spaces (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2013), 17–24,

[8] Christopher Tilley, A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths, and Monuments, Explorations in Anthropology (Oxford: Berg, 1994); Matthew Johnson, “Phenomenological Approaches in Landscape Archaeology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012): 270,; and John Wylie, “Landscape and Phenomenology,” in The Routledge Companion to Landscape Studies, ed. Peter Howard, Ian Thompson, and Emma Waterton (New York: Routledge, 2013), 54–56.

[9] Wendy Ashmore and Arthur Knapp, Archaeologies of Landscape: Contemporary Perspectives, Social Archaeology (Malden: Blackwell, 1999) and Matthew Johnson, “Phenomenological Approaches in Landscape Archaeology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012): 270,

[10] Sue Hamilton et al., “Phenomenology in Practice: Towards a Methodology for a ‘subjective’ Approach,” European Journal of Archaeology 9, no. 1 (2006): 32; Yannis Hamilakis, Archaeology and the Senses: Human Experience, Memory, and Affect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); and Matthew Johnson, “Phenomenological Approaches in Landscape Archaeology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012): 276–77,

[11] Timothy Ingold, “The Temporality of Landscape,” in Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: The New Pragmatism, ed. Robert Preucel and Stephen Mrozowski, 2nd ed. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 59–76 and Matthew Johnson, “Phenomenological Approaches in Landscape Archaeology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012): 273, 275–76,

[12] Rebecca Rennell, “Landscape, Experience and GIS: Exploring the Potential for Methodological Dialogue,” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 19, no. 4 (2012): 511,

[13] Benjamin Vis, “Understanding by the Lines We Map: Material Boundaries and the Social Interpretation of Archaeological Built Space,” in Digital Geoarchaeology: New Techniques for Interdisciplinary Human-Environmental Research, ed. Christoph Siart, Markus Forbriger, and Olaf Bubenzer (Cham: Springer, 2018), 94,

[14] Marcos Llobera, “Reconstructing Visual Landscapes,” World Archaeology 39, no. 1 (2007): 53,

[15] Julian Thomas, “Archaeologies of Place and Landscape,” in Archaeological Theory Today, ed. Ian Hodder (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), 181–82.

[16] David Bodenhamer, “Creating a Landscape of Memory: The Potential of Humanities GIS,” Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing 1, no. 2 (2007): 105-6,

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

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