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Using crystal-clear 3-D images from Meresamun's historic scans, two forensic artists reconstruct the face of a 2,800-year-old Egyptian priestess

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(Photo courtesy Josh Harker)
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(Photo courtesy Michael Brassell)
Two forensic artists working separately and using different techniques reconstructed Meresamun's face. Josh Harker used the latest software and imaging technology (left), while Michael Brassell created more traditional police-artist sketches by hand (right), filling in only the color digitally.

She was more than just a pretty face. The ancient Egyptian Meresamun, who lived around 800 B.C., was a working girl, a priestess-musician who served Amun, the preeminent deity of Thebes. Her mummified remains, sealed 2,800 years ago in a skintight coffin of cartonnage (layers of linen and plaster), were examined by researchers at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute in September 2008 using the latest in CT scanning technology, a "256-slice" machine that produced startlingly vivid images. For months, she has since been the immensely popular subject of the Oriental Institute Museum's exhibition, The Life of Meresamun: A Temple Singer in Ancient Egypt.

Now, the headline-making CT images have helped two individuals--each working separately with 3-D STL (stereolithography) images of Meresamun's skull produced from the scans, but using different techniques--reconstruct Meresamun's face. Michael Brassell is a Baltimore-based forensic artist for NamUs (pronounced "name us"), the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System established by the National Institute of Justice. He created traditional hand-drawn pencil sketches (digitally colored for an "artsy" effect), using the exact same methods he employs when helping the police track down a cold-case victim. Josh Harker, a forensic artist who lives in Chicago and was originally trained as a sculptor, worked digitally, leveraging the latest software and imaging technology.

"I was delighted to have two very different techniques," says Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist at the Oriental Institute Museum and curator of the Meresamun exhibition. "How often do you look at a police sketch in the paper--of some creep or some unfortunate missing person--and say, 'Yeah, I wonder if they really looked like that?' But there is a lot of similarity between the two reconstructions." The main differences, she points out, are in the shapes of the chin and the nose. "But they both have the same overbite, very much the same cheekbones, and the same shape of the eyes."

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(Photo courtesy Josh Harker)
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(Photo courtesy Michael Brassell)
Meresamun in profile, shown without hair to reveal the contour of her skull

Mike Vannier, the radiologist who examined Meresamun, agrees. "These people are superbly skilled in this type of forensic work. We were extremely lucky to have individuals of this quality working with the data sets." Vannier has also continued to study the data from the September scans. In recent months, he has learned even more details about Meresamun since our March/April 2009 cover story ("A Mummy's Life"). He's extracted the dentition for detailed views of Meresamun's jaws and teeth, which were severely ground down by the grit in Egyptian bread, and compared them with those from modern patients who grind their teeth, a condition known as bruxism. He's closely examined Meresamun's feet--toes, toenails, vessels, and tendons all intact--and learned that her right big toe points more laterally than the others, a condition known today as halex valgus, one of the steps toward developing a bunion. He believes it would have been caused by her walking patterns and foot ware. He has even spent valuable time in the library, looking for publications that describe CT scans of other mummies, but is frustrated with the lack of comprehensive comparative references. "If you do this type of research, you really want other people to examine your fundamental materials because they can add their own expertise and interpretations and insight," he firmly believes. "I just hope everybody gets on board and starts to share this type of information."

When first approached about commissioning reconstructions, Teeter was not too keen on the idea. "I wanted the exhibition to be about women and music and life in ancient Egypt--and not a mummy show," she says. "But of course, the mummy stuff just took off." After being asked by numerous curious museum visitors what Meresamun may have looked like, she finally, reluctantly, caved. "It's almost like the criticism some people had of making the Harry Potter films," she explains, "the whole idea of creativity and imagination...When you make a film out of it, that's what it becomes to everybody." But after seeing the results? "Now that I have them, I love them!" she beams. "I absolutely love them! It's like--whoa! Meresamun looks like Egyptians you see at Karnak today." Vannier was equally impressed. "A person who's been mummified looks very emaciated and really much less attractive than they would be before the mummification process, so I think reversing that was the striking thing," he says.

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(Photo courtesy of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago)
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(Photo courtesy Josh Harker)
Egyptologist Emily Teeter suggested that Meresamun should have bangs, as seen on a woman depicted in a contemporary stele making offerings to a god

Teeter was the advisor for the "cosmetic" features of both reconstructions. She based the addition of bangs in the hairstyle, for instance, on a contemporary stele, also on view in the exhibition, that shows a woman making offerings to a god. "I said, okay, bangs, thick, dark hair pushed behind the ears--so you can see the ears--but the length is really based on nothing. Egyptian hair is normally longer than that. This is a suggestion of the color and texture of very dark, thick Egyptian hair, which is typical. The eye makeup is based on contemporary statues." But there are no similarities between her actual face and the one painted on her cartonnage. "These cartonnage cases are formed over mud and straw cores and coffins are never--until a much, much later period--there's never an attempt to get the coffins to look like a person. They're just like icons of that person."

Ancient Egyptian records talk about the ideal sense of womanly beauty. "A lot of the descriptions are about breasts and hips and coal-black hair," says Teeter. "But they do talk about sweet lips for kissing--and Meresamun's got very sweet lips!"



Digital reconstruction of Meresamun's face by Josh Harker

See interviews with Michael Brassell and Josh Harker.

Eti Bonn-Muller is managing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

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