The meticulous process, based on a skull from a Greek cave, reveals how our facial features have changed over the millennia.
Her name is Avgi, and the last time anyone saw her face was nearly 9,000 years ago. When she lived in Greece, at the end of the Mesolithic period around 7000 B.C., the region was transitioning from a society of hunter gatherers to one that began cultivating its own food.
In English, Avgi translates to Dawn—a name archaeologists chose because she lived during what’s considered the dawn of civilization.
Little is known about how she lived and died, but now archaeologists can see the ancient woman’s prominent cheekbones, heavy brow, and dimpled chin.
Avgi’s face was revealed by University of Athens researchers at an event at the Acropolis Museum on Friday.
To reconstruct her face was no small feat. An endocrinologist, orthopedist, neurologist, pathologist, and radiologist were all needed to accurately reconstruct what Avgi would have looked like. The reconstruction team was led by orthodontist Manolis Papagrigorakis, who noted at the museum event that while Avgi’s bones appeared to belong to a 15-year-old-woman, her teeth indicated she was 18, “give or take a year,” said Papagrigorakis.
In addition to the team of doctors, the university worked with Oscar Nilsson, a Swedish archaeologist and sculptor who specializes in reconstructions. He’s worked on bringing so many ancient faces back to life that he even has a favorite period to work on: “the Stone Age,” he says.
“[The Stone Age is] this enormously long period so unlike our age, but we are physically so alike,” he adds.
Nilsson starts with her skull, which was unearthed in 1993 at Theopetra cave, a site in central Greece which has been occupied continuously for some 130,000 years. Researchers take a CT scan of the skull, and a 3D printer then makes an exact replica of the scan’s measurements.
“Onto this copy pegs are glued, reflecting the thickness of the flesh at certain anatomical points of the face,” he says.
This allowed him to flesh out Avgi’s face, muscle by muscle. While some of her features are based on skull measurements, others, like skin and eye color, are inferred based on general population traits in the region.
It’s not the first time Papagrigorakis, Nilsson, and the University of Athens team has brought an ancient face back to life. In 2010, they reconstructed the face of an 11-year-old Athenian girl named Myrtis who lived around 430 B.C. In the almost 7,000-year period between Avgi and Myrtis, facial structure appears to soften.
“Avgi has very unique, not especially female, skull, and features. Myrtis, still a child, does not differ at all in the features we find around us today,” says Nilsson. “Having reconstructed a lot of Stone Age women and men, I think some facial features seem to have disappeared or ‘smoothed out’ with time. In general, we look less masculine, both men and women, today.”
Not much is known about the circumstances of Agvi’s death, but archaeologists know that Myrtis died from typhoid in an epidemic that devastated fifth-century Athens; it’s a disease that still kills thousands today.
As 3D modeling technology advances, archaeologists are using the technique more frequently to reconstruct ancient faces. In December, researchers reconstructed the face of an ancient Peruvian queen, and last January, the world finally saw the man behind the famous 9,500-year-old Jericho Skull.