Recreating the Face of a 4,000-Year-Old Stone Age Woman
A highly-skilled 3D artist has brought back to life a 4,000-year-old Stone Age woman’s skull. This story can only be written after 300 grueling hours of work by archaeologist and artist Oscar Nilsson, a respected pioneer in reconstructive archaeology who recently brought the ancient woman back to life.
The woman was discovered a century ago in a stone-lined grave deep in the forests of northeastern Sweden. Beside her was a 7-year-old boy that Swedish researchers think was most probably her son. Archaeologists think the pair belonged to a nomadic group of hunters who had been following animal migrations along the 430-kilometer-long Indalsälven river.
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The woman was buried in her thirties having died of an unknown cause. However, in 2020, archaeologist Oscar Nilsson, who is known for his facial reconstructions achieved using clay, was consulted by the curators of Västernorrlands Museum in Sweden, who had the woman’s skeleton. Nilsson is known as a “pioneer of reconstructive archaeology,” because over the last 20 years he has personally recreated over 100 ancient people.
The 4,000-year-old Stone Age woman was discovered back in 1923 in a stone-lined grave near Lagmansören, Sweden. ( Swedish National Heritage / Gustaf Hallström)
The Lagmansören Woman: A Stone Age Woman with No Face
The museum curators were involved in a major project designing a new attraction following 9,500 years of human activity in Sweden. The 4,000-year-old Stone Age woman’s skull, along with the boy, are the oldest skeletons ever found in that region of Sweden. The museologists wanted to show new visitors “the oldest face from the north—the woman from Lagmansören.” However, they didn’t have a clue what she might have looked like.
According to National Geographic the skull was “exceptionally well presented” having been found in a region where harsh conditions usually forbid the preservation of ancient bodies. In 2019 Live Science reported that in order to recreate the faces of ancient people Oscar Nilsson, a forensic artist based in Sweden, first creates 3D printed replicas of their skulls. He is renowned for first gathering big scientific data on the people he intends to reanimates, including conducting DNA analysis and studying the human remains.
In order to create the reconstruction of the Stone Age woman, Oscar Nilsson scanned the ancient skull before creating a life-sized replica and layering on clay to represent her facial muscles. ( Oscar Nilsson )
3D Printing Ancient People
The woman’s skull was first scanned and a 3D printer was programmed to created a life-sized replica of the woman's skull. Pegs determined her tissue depth, upon which Nilsson layering on clay to represent her facial muscles. This model was entirely covered by a layer of plasticine clay skin and the finished face was re-cast in a skin-tone silicone, into which the creator carefully carved wrinkles and lines.
The woman measured around five feet high which the museum archaeologists say “is short even for her time.” With protruding teeth, a bent nose and low set eyes, her lower jaw bone (mandible) is described as being “quite masculine.” While the woman from Lagmansören was well preserved, no useable DNA was retrieved. This meant the woman’s skin and hair coloring couldn’t be chemically determined. However, Nilsson analyzed historic migration patterns and discovered she would probably have been light skinned with dark hair.
Front and back of the reconstruction of the 4,000-year-old Stone Age woman whose remains were discovered in Lagmansören, Sweden. ( Oscar Nilsson )
Creating Ancient Emotions Inaccessible to Technology
3D printers are great at making skulls based on scans, but one thing technology cannot recreate is a person’s expression. Skin, muscle and cartilage are long gone in these cases and this means the archaeologist has to leave the safety of science and deep-dive his own emotions, to better understand the people he plans to recreate.
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The artists explained that recreating strong feelings like anger, for instance, “is strictly forbidden” in historic facial reconstructions , and he focuses on weaving together emotions to give the sense that the face is in motion, “and therefore, alive.” In the instance of the Lagmansören woman , Nilsson said she was “not threatened,” and that she feels safe and at home as she looks at the child. But while the face of the Stone Age woman has what the artist described as a “safe feeling,” it is also a bit cocky. This is a woman you wouldn’t want to mess with, despite her height.
Top image: Reconstruction of Stone Age woman discovered in Sweden. Source: Oscar Nilsson
By Ashley Cowie