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Seated Mesolithic woman was likely a shaman.         Source: © Gert Germeraad/Trelleborgs Museum

Mesolithic Woman Stuns Onlookers With Her Electric Gaze


Thanks to modern facial reconstruction techniques, experts are now able to recreate the faces of our ancestors in stunning detail. This has recently been done to shocking effect with an extraordinary burial found in Sweden. A specialist has recreated the face and body of a woman who died some 7000 years ago. She probably belonged to some of the last hunter-gathers in Europe and was possibly a shaman.

The remains of the woman were found at a Mesolithic burial site at Skateholm, near Trelleborg, in south-west Sweden, over 30 years ago. Some 80 graves have been found at the site and these burials range in date from 6,000 to 4,000 BC. The burial ground is believed to be one of the oldest in Europe. The National Geographic reports that ‘a variety of burial types, including people interred in pairs or with dogs, and individual dogs buried with rich grave offerings’ have been found at the site.

Mesolithic woman

Tests revealed ‘that the woman was between 30 and 40 years old when she died, and she stood about 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall’ reports Live Science. She was buried seated upright, with her legs crossed ‘on a throne of red deer horns’ according to Trelleborg Museum. She was interred wearing a belt made from approximately 130 animal teeth. The dead woman was buried wearing an elaborate cape of feathers and with a stone pendant around her neck.

The burial was elaborate, and the woman was highly adorned. (© Gert Germeraad / Trelleborgs Museum)

The burial was elaborate, and the woman was highly adorned. (© Gert Germeraad / Trelleborgs Museum)

DNA evidence was able to show that she lived 7,000 years ago. Like other people in ancient Scandinavia at this time, she had very dark skin and light-colored eyes. Her remains have been stored at the Trelleborgs Museum since she was taken from the prehistoric burial ground at Skateholm. The dead woman is officially known as Burial XXII  but she has become known as the ‘seated woman’ to the staff at the museum reports The National Geographic.

Facial Reconstruction

While experts learned a lot about the woman, they did not know what she looked like. In order to help to bring the woman back to life, it was decided to reconstruct her face. Oscar Nilson, a world-famous expert in facial reconstructions was given the opportunity to recreate the face of the long-dead woman.  He is quoted by The National Geographic as stating that ‘The human face is a motif that never ceases to fascinate me: the variation of the underlying structure as well as the variety in details seem endless’

Nilson worked from a CT scan of the prehistoric woman’s skull and was able to create a 3-D model. The sculptor then applied modelling clay to the model. He recreated her face ‘muscle by muscle, building her singular expression through layers of cartilage and soft tissue’ reports Live Science. Nilson believes that the best approach is to treat all the faces as unique and this has been the secret of his success. When recreating the body of the prehistoric woman he asked some colleagues of his, who were similar in height and age to pose for him.

Oscar Nilson created the body based on the bones and on live models of similar age and height. ((© Gert Germeraad / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Oscar Nilson created the body based on the bones and on live models of similar age and height. ((© Gert Germeraad / CC BY-SA 3.0)

A shaman?

The sculptor, who is also a trained archaeologist, believes that the woman was a shaman, and has even begun to refer to her by that name. This is based on the number of grave goods found in her burial, indicating that she was a person of high social standing. It is very possible that she was a shaman, a person who had special access to the world of the spirits. However, it is impossible to prove but it is almost certain that she had a unique position in her society. This gives us a new perspective on the role of women in the Mesolithic period.

The recreation of the prehistoric woman is amazing. It was all based on the latest research and even her ‘antler-throne’ has been reconstructed. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the reconstructed face is her piercing gaze. When looking at the gaze one feels in ‘eye contact with the past’ according to the Trelleborg Museum.

One of the last hunter-gatherers?

Skateholm is a very special site as it is believed to contain the remains of some of the last hunter-gatherers in Europe. Based on the evidence found here, it appears that people in this part of Scandinavia remained hunter-gatherers, despite the introduction of agriculture a millennium earlier. The finds at Skateholm indicate that not all communities adopted agriculture. They also demonstrate that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was one that met the needs of many communities and they did not feel the need to adopt farming. This is something that contradicts the traditional theories on the spread of agriculture in prehistoric Europe.

The reconstruction will soon be revealed at Trelleborg Museum’s main hall. It is going to be part of a permanent exhibition, entitled ‘Eye to Eye’ which includes other recreations of Skateholm burials. The museum hopes that the recreation will bring prehistory to life for members of the public.

Top image: Seated Mesolithic woman was likely a shaman.         Source: © Gert Germeraad/Trelleborgs Museum

By Ed Whelan



Mary Madeline's picture

The first time I heard of someone buried sitting up, how unique, she was definitely someone special.

Mary Madeline

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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