3D Printing Reveals the Youthful Face of a 2,000-Year-Old Woman

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e637cb9c2bdc425bb4aee75cf20b16ce5eb2305d0908aaeaa7013d7b0e7bIt seems to be Mummy Week in the 3D printing world. Just the other day, we covered a story about a Maidstone Museum project that will use 3D printing to reconstruct the face of a 2,500-year-old mummy named Ta Kush. In Australia, a similar project has been completed by a team of researchers and artists at the University of Melbourne. Meet Meritamun, a young Egyptian woman who lived about 2,000 years ago and has now been given a face.

The university isn’t sure where the mummified head in the basement of the medical building came from, but it’s possible it was part of the collection of Professor Frederic Wood Jones, who became head of the anatomy department in 1930 after working on an archaeological project in Egypt. The mummified head is carefully preserved in an archival container in the Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology, part of the School of Biomedical Sciences. The museum is curated by Dr. Ryan Jefferies, who became concerned that the tightly bandaged head could be decaying from the inside without anyone knowing.

There was no way to remove the bandages without damage, so a CT scan was taken to evaluate the condition of the skull, which turned out to be in remarkably good shape. That’s when a much larger project was conceived.

meritamun“The CT scan opened up a whole lot of questions and avenues of enquiry and we realised it was a great forensic and teaching opportunity in collaborative research,” said parasitologist Dr. Jefferies.

Dr. Janet Davey is a forensic Egyptologist at Monash University and is based at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, where the CT scan took place. She was excited for the opportunity to more closely study the skull, which she determined as belonging to a woman based on the fine bone structure and angle of the jaw, as well as the roundness of the eye sockets and narrowness of the roof of the mouth. Her conclusions were confirmed by facial reconstruction expert Professor Caroline Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University, and a name was given to the ancient woman: Meritamun, which translates to “beloved of Amun,” a deity of the Egyptian pantheon.

From there, work began on determining what Meritamun may have looked like when she was alive. Dr. Davey guesses that she was about 162 cm tall, based on the generally accepted assumption that people in ancient times were shorter than people today. Tooth decay suggests that she may have lived after 331 BC, when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and sugar was introduced by the Greco-Romans, but honey could also have caused the decay, so Meritamun could be even older – dating back as far as 1500 BC. Dr. Davey is waiting for radiocarbon dating results to get a better idea.

From the CT scans of the skull, imaging technician Gavan Mitchell from the University of Melbourne’s Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience created a 3D model, which was printed in two parts over a total of 140 hours.


Meritamun’s 3D printed skull.

“It has been a hugely rewarding process to be able to transform the skull from CT data on a screen into a tangible thing that can be handled and examined,” said Mitchell.

The university has been using CT scanning and 3D printing to allow students to examine exact copies of specimens that would otherwise be too delicate to handle.

“We can now replicate specimens with really interesting pathologies for students to handle and for virtual reality environments without ever touching the specimen itself,” Mitchell added.

The 3D print of Meritamun’s skull would become the base for a reconstruction carried out by sculptor Jennifer Mann, who studied facial reconstruction techniques at Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center. Mann, whose work at Texas State involved reconstructing the faces of unidentified murder victims based on skull casts, states that reconstructions can only approximate the appearance of a person, but her work in Texas came very close to the actual appearance of eventually identified victims.

Mann determined what Meritamun may have looked like using the same techniques that were used to recreate the face of Jesus of Nazareth last year. Based on averages in data taken from modern Egyptians, Mann was able to estimate the tissue depth on key points of the face. Although the bandages have pressed Meritamun’s nose nearly flat, Mann approximated the size and shape of her nose using calculations based on the dimensions of the skull’s nasal cavity. The skull also revealed that Meritamun had a small overbite.


Jennifer Mann works on reconstructing Meritamun.

Taking all of that information, Mann applied clay to the 3D printed skull in layers to create facial features. The clay sculpture was used to cast a polyurethane resin model that was then painted, and a local hair salon created Meritamun’s long, braided hair based on the appearance of “Lady Rai,” an extremely well-preserved mummy whose hair had been wrapped in separate bandages. The complexion of ancient Egyptians isn’t universally agreed-upon, so the researchers took a middle road, selecting a dark olive for Meritamun’s skin.

Meritamun’s age was estimated to be somewhere between 18 and 25, and the CT scans also enabled Stacey Gorski, a biomedical masters student at Melbourne, to guess how Meritamun died. The scans revealed two tooth abcesses as well as pitted, thinned spots on the skull, which points to anemia – possibly caused by malaria or schistosomiasis, common afflictions in ancient Egypt.

“Anaemia is a very common pathology that is found in bodies from ancient Egypt, but it usually isn’t very clear to see unless you can look directly at the skull,” says Gorski. “But it was completely clear from just looking at the images.”


Stacey Gorski and supervisor Dr. Varsha Pilbrow.

Gorski plans to do further research based on a tissue sample taken from the exposed neck. The sample could also reveal other information, such as Meritamun’s diet, which may be enable the researchers to have a better idea of what part of Egypt she lived in. Despite all of the mystery still surrounding her, however, the beautiful woman now displayed at the Harry Brookes museum almost appears to be alive again.

“I have followed the evidence and an accepted methodology for reconstruction and out of that has emerged the face of someone who has come down to us from so long ago,” said Mann. “It is an amazing feeling.”

Discuss further over in the Mummy Facial Reconstruction with 3D Printing forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source/Images: University of Melbourne]


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