Facing life after death

Facial reconstructions of ancient Egyptian mummies provide a glimpse of our past

From Napoleon Bonaparte to classic horror movie buffs, people love mummies.

And what’s not to love? Mummies provide a human link to our past that is more than just fossilized bones. Thanks to a variety of ancient preservation techniques, mummies still have skin and bits of hair even though virtually all of their contemporaries have turned to dust over the ensuing millennia

As such, mummies are imbued with a sense of humanity that a simple skeleton does not possess.

Thanks to modern reconstruction techniques that would make them proud on the sound studios of CSI, McGill’s trio of Egyptian mummies are even more lifelike.

Last year, using skeletal data from CT scans and radiocarbon analyses, Victoria Lywood, a forensic artist from John Abbott College, was able to reconstruct the faces of the mummies. The results show a young man and a young woman, as well as a white-haired matron, as they all might have appeared before their deaths.

While perhaps not as daunting a process as building a pyramid, working with mummies is a challenge.

“It is easier reconstructing the faces of regular people even if it is a lost person or the remains of an unknown person,” said Lywood, who has also worked with law enforcement personnel. “Mummies have been dehydrated, coated in resin and wrapped in bandages. Over time, it all just kind of melds together.”

Working with CT scans of the Redpath mummies that were taken at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, physical anthropologists were able to strip the virtual skulls down to the bone.

Those files were then used in tandem with a special 3D printer that actually created a life-size replica of each mummy’s skull. “It’s like a really powerful ink jet printer,” said Lywood. “Seeing the skull [get ‘printed’] is like watching the phoenix rise.”

Once a skull was mounted, Lywood began to apply the tissue. But how much and where? Using ultrasonic assessments of facial soft tissue thickness in adult Egyptians taken from a recent study, Lywood was able to specific landmarks on each skull. Photographing each skull, she then turned them into two-dimensional drawings. These would serve as Lywood’s blueprints.

“With mummies there’s no way to tell how heavy they were when they were alive because there are no live Egyptians from that period of time who we can use for comparisons,” said Lywood. “So we used this study to try to hit the average.”

Once I start applying the clay to the skull then you lose all [the landmarks],” said Lywood. “I need that blueprint so that I can still go back to it.”

Going muscle by muscle, Lywood sculpted each face, taking into account qualities like thickened brow ridges, where the eyelid would have attached on the eye socket and whether missing cartilage in the  temporomandibular joint meant a mummy would have an overbite. Once that was done, she applied the skin.

Hair required more detective work. Did the male mummy have a beard, as seen on male figures that adorn many caskets from the same era. Further study of the original CT scan revealed no remnants of facial hair. As a result, the male mummy is clean-shaven.

An old report said that when the male mummy had been unwrapped in the early 1900s, he had abundant brown hair, though very little of it remains today. But the scans revealed the hair that remained was curly and so, today, he has a thick head of curly locks.

Similarly, the female mummies’ hairstyles were based partially on what the CT scans revealed and partially on the styles that were in fashion for women of the day.

Once the busts were finished, they had to pass Lywood’s final test.

“When I finish [a facial recreation] I like to sit with them around me,” she said. “It may sound weird but I do that for a week or so and that way I get to look at them from different angles to see if I have got it right. When they start looking back at me it means that I know they’re done.”

Reproduced with the kind permission of the McGill Reporter.

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Land Acknowledgement

McGill University is on land which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples, including the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabeg nations. We acknowledge and thank the diverse Indigenous peoples whose presence marks this territory on which peoples of the world now gather.

The Redpath Museum's director EDI statement.

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