Making History Accessible: 3D Scanning, 3D Printing and Forensics Archaeology Recreate the Face of the Lady of Cao

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While many say that 3D printing is the technology of the future, it’s often used as a gateway to the past, making ancient history more accessible to everyone. The technology has been used to give faces to a plague victim from the 17th century, an Egyptian mummy, the man behind the Neolithic Jericho skull, Scottish king Robert the Bruce, and millennia-old victims of Mt. Vesuvius; now, researchers have combined 3D imaging technology and forensics archaeology to 3D print a recreation of the face of an ancient Peruvian leader, known only as the Lady of Cao. Her preserved remains were found over ten years ago near a ruined mud-brick pyramid known as Huaca Cao Viejo, in El Brujo Archaeological Complex north of Trujillo in Peru.

Researchers believe that the Lady of Cao, who died in her twenties about 1,700 years ago, was a priestess or political ruler in the ancient Moche society of Peru, which lived in the desert valley of Chicama from about 100 to 700 AD. The Moche were known for ceramics and goldwork, and built irrigation canals so they could grow crops in the desert. Another Moche leader, known as the Lord of Sipán, was another mysterious figure from the culture who was recently brought back to life (well, life-like image) thanks to 3D technologies.

The Lady of Cao’s body, covered in elaborate tattoos including spiders and snakes, was buried with a crown, copper and gold objects, and more than two dozen weapons like clubs and spear throwers — leading archaeologists to assume she was a very important member of the society. The discovery of the Lady of Cao was extremely significant, as it debunked the previous school of thought that the Moche society was ruled by men. Several other Moche female mummies have since been found, and objects that signify a high religious and political standing were found buried with the women as well.

Thanks to the results of a modern-day autopsy, the Lady of Cao is thought to have lived a healthy life, and died from complications relating to pregnancy or childbirth. In addition to the objects that were buried with her, archaeologists also found the remains of a youth who had been strangled; according to the museum at the El Brujo Archaeological Complex, the adolescent may have been sacrificed to lead the priestess into the afterlife.

El Brujo has shared details about the team behind the recreation, including some information about the role 3D printing has played in this involved cultural project. 3D printing giant 3D Systems saw its technology come into use in creating the figure of this mysterious figure from the past. Brian Wilcox, 3D Prototyping Manager at Gentle Giant Studios, 3D printed the Lady of Cao’s bust on an iPro 8000 SLA 3D printer. In addition, Paul Schrier, Senior Creative Director at 3D Systems/Gentle Giant Studios, is noted as having participated:

“In the face reconstruction project of the Lady of Cao, Paul directed the technical and artistic team from 3D Systems/Gentle Giant Studios. He carried out the 3D impression of the mummy using the appropriate technology, and made sure that it was accurately scaled. He has been directly involved in the quality testing of the resulting reconstructions in order to point out any anomalies that may have occurred during the printing process. He also managed the team in charge of safely transporting the mummy to and from the Cao Museum, ensuring proper packaging so that everything arrived intact.”

Earlier this week, Peruvian culture officials and archaeologists introduced a replica of the Lady of Cao’s face. The replica, which took ten months to create, will be displayed in the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, in the capital city of Lima, until July 16th. According to the Ministry of Culture, it was based on analysis of her skull structure and ethnographic research, and created by scientists, using 3D imaging and 3D printing.

The country’s Minister of Culture, Salvador del Solar, said, “We are privileged to announce this strange combination of the future and the past: technology has allowed us to see the face of a political and religious leader from a culture from the past.”

Peru’s Foreign Commerce and Tourism Minister Eduardo Ferreyros (L) and Peru’s Minister of Culture Salvador del Solar (2nd L) present a replica of The Lady of Cao face, at the Ministry of Culture in Lima, Peru.

He further explained that the goal of the project was to remind the people of Peru of their cultural heritage, and allow the rest of the world to get a little closer to one of the country’s greatest archaeological finds. He also said that many Peruvian people would recognize themselves in the reconstruction, which shows an oval-shaped face and high cheekbones.

“Its relevance is really incalculable. We can now show the world her face, a face that Peruvians see ourselves in,” said del Solar.

People take a selfie with the replica of The Lady of Cao at the Ministry of Culture in Lima, Peru

The Lady of Cao’s 3D printed facial replica sits on display under a golden crown, and is a great example of 3D technologies being used to make history accessible, a fact shown by the many people who have enjoyed taking selfies with the replica exhibit in Lima.

The collaboration included the Wiese Foundation, archaeologists, and global imaging company FARO Technologies, which has used its 3D virtual reality scanners to help out in a courtroom, make 3D printed replicas of the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh, and the Neswaiu mummy. El Brujo notes that the 3D scanning technology used for the Lady of Cao has “margin of error of less than 0.025 millimeters, the third part of the width of a human hair.”

After its exhibition at the Ministry of Culture, the figure will be shown at El Brujo museum. Discuss in the Lady of Cao forum at


[Sources: BBC, Reuters, El Brujo / Images: Guadalupe Pardo, Reuters]


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