Ancient Egyptian woman’s face reconstructed from her mummified head

There is more to a serene Ancient Egyptian face than her fine-features suggest. Researchers (from multiple faculties) at the University of Melbourne have combined avenues like medical research, forensic science, CT scanning and Egyptology, to recreate the visage of Meritamun (‘beloved of the god Amun’), an Ancient Egyptian woman who lived at least 2,000 years ago. And the interesting part is – the scientists only had access to Meritamun’s mummified head, which on analysis alludes to how she met her demise at a young age of 18 to 25. But beyond her beautiful face, the researchers with their reconstruction project are looking forth to uncover more clues from the Egyptian’s ancient life, ranging from her actual time-period, diet to even the diseases she contracted during her lifetime.

The researchers were befuddled when they found out that they had full access to a mummified head in the university facility’s basement, possibly a legacy left behind by Professor Frederic Wood Jones (1879-1954), who undertook archaeological projects in Egypt. In any case, the team made a CT scan and found that the skull was in genuinely well-preserved condition, thus initiating the first steps towards a reconstruction process. The researchers then went on to determine the gender of the mummy (head) by analyzing the bone-structure of the specimen. Guided by the relative smallness of the jaw (and its angle), along with the narrowness of the roof of the mouth, the team found out that they were dealing with an Ancient Egyptian female; later confirmed by anthropologist Professor Caroline Wilkinson, who is famous for heading the reconstruction of King Richard III.

Interestingly, while the gender of Meritamun could be determined, the researchers are still working on the actual date of the mummy head itself. To that end, the specimen showcased significant levels of tooth decay, which could have been the effect of sugar, an item introduced to Egypt after its conquest by Alexander – thus placing Meritamun within the Greco-Roman time-frame. On the other hand, honey (known to Egyptians before Greek influence) could have also played its role in causing the tooth decay. Furthermore, the high quality of the linen bandages wrapped around the mummy head hints at how Meritamun was probably a noblewoman, and she could have hailed from the time of native pharaohs – as long ago as circa 1500 BC.

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In any case, researchers are looking forth to radiocarbon dating that can shed more light into the historical time-frame of Meritamun. In the meantime they proceeded with the reconstruction process, by CT scanning and then 3D printing an accurate replica of the mummy skull. In fact, the skull had to be printed in two sections for precisely capturing the features of the jaws. The facial reconstruction was then created by leading sculptor Jennifer Mann, with the aid of practical techniques that are often used in actual crime/murder investigations. As Andrew Trounson from University of Melbourne, explains –

The methodology involves attaching to the printed skull plastic markers to indicate different tissue depths at key points on the face, based on averages in population data. This data is derived from modern Egyptians and has been specifically selected by reconstruction experts from around the world as the best approximation for ancient Egyptians. It was then about applying the clay according to the musculature of the face and known anatomical ratios based on the actual skull. For example, Meritamun’s nose is squashed almost flat by the tight bandaging, but Mann was able to estimate what her nose would have looked like using calculations based on the dimensions of the nasal cavity. The skull also displays a small overbite that Mann has reconstructed. Meritamun’s ears are based on the CT scan results.

Finally the reconstruction was cast in a polyurethane resin and appropriately painted. A slightly dark olive hue was chosen as the skin tone, in line with the hypothetical portrayal of Ancient Egyptians in history. The last finishing touch was applied by recreating the hair style of Meritamun, based on the hair of Lady Rai, another Egyptian woman who hailed from the time period of circa 1570-1530 BC. Now it should be noted that reconstructions such as these are only close approximations of the actual historical scope, as opposed to a completely precise ambit (in spite of the details). However the value of such processes goes beyond accuracy. A closing remark by Dr Janet Davey, a forensic Egyptologist from Monash University, made it clear –

…by reconstructing her we are giving back some of her identity, and in return she has given this group of diverse researchers a wonderful opportunity to investigate and push the boundaries of knowledge and technology as far as we can go.

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Source: University of Melbourne / All Images Credit: Paul Burston.

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