Uncovering Hidden Relations. Exploring Social Rank Through 3D Models of Egyptian Tombs

Evgenia Filimonov (University of Haifa)
Shirly Ben-Dor Evian (University of Haifa)
Inna Kizhner (University of Haifa & Siberian Federal University)

Saturday, 7 October 2023 | 11:30 am – 12:00 pm


The issue of social hierarchy has been the subject of frequent consideration and
examination in Egyptology discourse. Egyptian society was hierarchic from the onset of Pharaonic culture (Trigger et al. 1983; Candelora et al. 2022). Social status was conveyed in representations through a system of conventions regarding relative size, attributes of dress and hairstyle, and the sort of related activity and proximity to the ruler (Baines 1996; Frood 2010). Such attitudes were also extended towards non-Egyptians both within and beyond Egypt’s borders (Roth 2014). Similar hierarchies were also noted in private tombs
and studied through various case-studies (Kamrin 1999; Riggs 2013).

The proximity of people and animals to rulers in Egyptian iconography, as a measure of social rank and importance in Middle Kingdom tomb scenes at Beni Hasan, has been previously explored (Seidlmayer 2007, Frood 2010). Cohen (2015) noted that different social themes were related to different sides of the tomb decoration scheme. However, data-driven research – as done in Digital Humanities (see, for example Piper 2020) – has yet to be employed to measure the precise geometric distance between people and/or animals in tomb paintings, thus enabling a systematic validation or debacle of these observations.

Distances in a 3D space as a proxy of social hierarchy

Previously, 3D modelling for the spatial analysis of tomb structure in archaeology has been applied to understand the clan-family relationships in China (Yang et al. 2021) or to studytombs in Perugia that are difficult to reach through other methods (Radicioni et al. 2021). Archaeological studies also report on how 3D modeling is used to document tomb iconography for the purposes of conservation and subsequent analysis (Ceccarelli et al. 2021, Sykora et al. 2023). However, to the best of our knowledge, ours is the first attempt
to use 3D modeling of tomb iconography to study the representation of social hierarchy, rank or cultural relations, using quantitative approaches in a 3D space.

Our data sources are the depictions of the Middle Kingdom tombs at Beni Hasan from the publications that reproduce each wall in detail, observing the scale (Kanawati and Evans 2014, Mourad 2020, Kanawati and Barker 2022). They contain complete sets of line drawings, plans, and detailed architectural descriptions of the tombs, allowing us to gain a comprehensive understanding of the geometric arrangements for depicted people and animals to create 3D reconstructions, using the tomb’s dimensions.

This new methodological approach demonstrates the significance of distances and relative figure sizes. It also validates case-driven observations of sizes and geometric distances as a proxy for social rank in the Egyptian social hierarchy. Such rich data will provide valuable insights into the rank and relevance of each figure. For instance, we will be able to determine the importance of foreigners and their distance from Egyptian figures of higher social status, including the tomb owners.

We will build a grid for every wall and a general grid for wall development (one image of all walls from the entrance clockwise in one line). The approach will allow us to see if there is a pattern in the depictions in relation to the general grid. Geometrical measurements will be made to observe the relations and connections between different kinds of scenes and figures. A spatial grid will be built, following the construction of the linear grid. This will help us to test the hypothesis of the spatial relationship of the figures as a proxy for social distance in a 3D space.

It remains to be seen whether the results will be consistent or if there will be varying sizes and arrangements in different tombs. The quantitative data will enable us to analyze,compare, and draw conclusions. The importance of the ongoing research is that the obtained results will show not only the social relationships between Egyptians, but also cultural relations and the relations with the natural world that involve foreigners and animals. This methodology will reveal the social hierarchy between different cultures, as well as their level of contact and connectivity.


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