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Experts Reconstruct the Face of a Mesolithic-Era Teenager

She was buried in a cave in central Greece around 9,000 years ago

In Nilsson’s reconstruction, the teenager looks skeptical—and steely. (Oscar Nilsson)
smithsonian.com

Around 9,000 years ago, a young woman died and was buried in a cave in central Greece. Archaeologists unearthed her bones in the 1990s, but much about the Mesolithic-era woman remains unknown: her name, her precise age, the cause of her death. Thanks to a new and meticulous facial reconstruction, however, we now have a pretty good idea of what she looked like.

As Sarah Gibbens of National Geographic reports, the reconstruction was unveiled at the Acropolis Museum in January. The sculpture is remarkably life-like, revealing distinct details of the woman’s facial structure: close-set eyes, a strong jaw, a high forehead. Experts who worked on the reconstruction, estimate that she was around 18 years old when she died. They have dubbed her “Avgi,” which means “dawn” in Greek. It's a fitting name because Avgi lived at a time when humans were transitioning from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies—the dawn of civilization.

Avgi’s bones were found in Theopetra, an archaeological site that was occupied from the Middle Paleolithic to the Neolithic periods, according to Megan Gannon of Live Science. Within the cave where Avgi was laid to rest, archaeologists have found ancient footprints, ashes, stone tools and other bones, covering a period of about 45,000 years.

The project to bring Avgi back to life was led by orthodontist Manolis Papagrigorakis, who collaborated with an endocrinologist, orthopedist, neurologist, pathologist, and a radiologist. This multidisciplinary team of experts received vital assistance from Swedish archaeologist Oscar Nilsson, who has recreated the visages of individuals from diverse historical periods: a Viking man, a girl found at a Mesolithic site in Denmark, a Bronze Age murder victim.

Avgi’s skull was too fragile to handle, so researchers began the reconstruction process by taking a CT scan of the skull and using a 3D printer to replicate the measurements. Relying on observations made by the medical experts, Nilsson then used clay to painstakingly to sculpt the minute details of Avgi’s face, paying attention to the nuances of each muscle.

For attributes like hair, skin and eye color, which ancient bone cannot reveal, Nilsson made educated guesses based on general population traits. And when it came time to infuse Avgi with personality, he took a few artistic liberties. In Nilsson’s reconstruction, the teenager’s brows are furrowed, her mouth downturned. She looks skeptical—and steely.

"It is necessary to get the impression that there is something behind the eyes,” Nilsson tells Gannon, “that [the reproduction] actually has a soul."

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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