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Using 3D Technology to Recreate the Lost Faces of Herculaneum

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After 800 years of silence, Mount Vesuvius came dramatically to life in August of 79 CE, belching forth deadly gas, molten rock, and searing volcanic ash onto those unfortunate enough to occupy the surrounding towns during its first day of eruption. The following night a pyroclastic surge barreled through the town of Herculaneum at speeds upwards of 100 mph. After that blast of superheated air, estimated to have been around 500°C, the town was buried beneath a further six flows and surges. It was long believed that the town had been evacuated prior to its scorching demise, but in the 1980s excavations along the beachfront revealed the skeletons of 350 people who had been awaiting rescue.

Their deaths are horrifying to consider, but were mercifully quick as the extreme temperature of the air blast killed them instantaneously. Regardless of the shelter they occupied as they waited for rescue, the intensity of the heat cooked them as soon as it reached them, causing the brain to boil and burst out of the skull, as well as damaging bones and destroying teeth. Their flesh was vaporized and the skeletal remains preserved under a layer of volcanic ash. According to Dr. Pier Paolo Petrone of the University of Naples Federico II:

“The residents in this seaside town, which was just six kilometers from Vesuvius, were not suffocated by the ash. The reality was they were killed in less than a fraction of a second by searing heat, before they even had time to display a defensive reaction. Their hands and feet underwent thermally induced contraction in about one second, and the positions of their bodies were fixed by the sudden deflation of the ash bed occurring over the next few seconds. As the scorching heat fell, water from the corpses caused the ash deposit to cool and harden. Centuries later, we found these skeletons, cleaned to the bone, perfectly preserved and in a three-dimensional frozen pose.”

Now, one man who perished in that ancient disaster is getting some new attention as part of a joint project between scientists in Italy and Brazil who have worked to recreate his face based on his skull. His face was officially revealed in Priverno, Italy as part of an initiative by the Association for Research and Education in Art, Archaeology, and Architecture (AREA3) and shows an olive skinned man with a full head of curly black hair.

Leading the initiative is Gianfranco Quaranta, who explained the idea behind the project:

“This is the beginning of what we’re hopping will be an on-going project to reveal the faces of the ancient Roman inhabitants of Herculaneum and Pompeii. This summer we’re running fieldwork courses, here in Italy, for students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in America who will learn how to use data collected with a 3D camera and a 3D scanner to reconstruct the face of a person. For many, it will be the first time they have used anything like this in the field of cultural heritage. By revealing a snapshot of life at the moment it expires, we can learn more about the people who died.”

The hope is that this type of program will be offered to students around the world in the future as a continual effort to give faces to remains. This particular project required about 150 photos of the skull as well as some artistic license. The skull gives a general shape to the head and some clues about things like ear placement and distance between eyes, but other aspects had to be guessed at. We can’t know for sure, for example, if he had attached or unattached earlobes or exactly how his nose would have continued after the bone. That imagination was left in the competent hands of Brazilian 3D artist Cicero Moraes, who described some of the difficulties in this kind of facial reconstruction:

“I faced a few challenges because the skull had no teeth. So, I used the dentures of a compatible virtual donor placing it on the cranium to get an idea of their positioning and the region for the lips. I consulted a study that measures the thickness of the skin of hundreds of present day Europeans and placed the corresponding markers for a man of his age. It is a complicated process, but rewarding when you see the final face appear.”

A further digital donor was used to accurately place and align the eyes, and the rest was pulled from the experience and artistic understanding of Moraes who has extensive experience in the area of facial reconstruction of figures from the distant past. His technique consists of working with free software and he has described it in detail in papers and conference presentations. His experience recreating the faces of famous figures in Padua’s history as well as figures as diverse in origin as Lord Sipan, an ancient Moche leader from Peru and Celakovice, a Czech “vampire” have demonstrated his ability to reach into the past and pull the human figures forward.

Would this fifty-year-old victim of Vesuvius recognize himself in the facial reconstruction? It’s impossible to know, but what is for certain is that it gives the skull a firmer place in our understanding that these were people who lived, and died, as part of the unfolding of human history. Thanks to 3D technologies, we are able to learn and understand more about those in Herculaneum and Pompeii when Vesuvius erupted. Discuss in the Mount Vesuvius forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: Daily Mail / Images: Cicero Moraes/Caters News via Daily Mail]

 

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