Forensic Artist Reconstructs the Face of a Teenager Who Lived 1,300 Years Ago

Researchers have spent a decade unraveling the mysteries of the girl’s unusual burial site

Facial reconstruction
Forensic artist Hew Morrison created this rendering based on the skull of the girl. University of Cambridge

Researchers have revealed a facial reconstruction that shows what a seventh-century teenage girl may have looked like.

The girl’s unusual grave was discovered south of Cambridge, England, in 2012, and it’s fascinated experts ever since. Now, based on her remains, forensic artist Hew Morrison has created a model of her face. The image is currently on display in a new exhibition, “Beneath Our Feet: Archaeology of the Cambridge Region,” at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in England. Scientists say that seeing the model helps them relate to the girl they’ve spent so much time researching.

“Personally, it’s really satisfying and strangely emotional to see the face of someone you’ve been studying for years, and to get to share their story,” says Sam Leggett, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, to CNN’s Jackie Wattles.

Sam Lucy, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge who’s been researching the girl, echoes this sentiment, telling CNN that the purpose of the facial reconstruction is to humanize her. “It helps you to remember that these were people who had hopes and dreams, and died young,” she adds.

Finding the cross
Researchers say only five crosses of this kind have ever been uncovered in England. University of Cambridge

The burial was remarkable for several reasons, according to a statement from the researchers: For one, the girl, who was around 16, was buried in a carved wooden bed—one of only 18 bed burials ever found in the United Kingdom. Additionally, she was found wearing gold pins and fine clothing, and around her neck she wore a stunningly ornate cross—which researchers have named the “Trumpington cross,” after the meadows where she was found. The adornments found with her indicate aristocratic or perhaps even royal status. 

Researchers think this girl was a convert to Christianity—perhaps one of England’s first. 

When the grave was discovered in 2012, Lucy told BBC News that burying an individual with “grave goods” was “counter to the Christian belief of soul and not body continuing after death,” and this combination of traditions indicates that the girl lived “right on the cusp of the shift from Pagan to Christian.”

Using an advanced technique called isotopic analysis to study the girl’s bones, researchers have learned a few new details about her life. She was not, in fact, native to England; she moved there from somewhere near the Alps at some point after she turned 7 years old. The isotopic results also match two other women who were found earlier in the area, also buried in beds, indicating a movement of elite women from mainland Europe to England. 

The analysis also revealed that the girl had less access to protein after she moved to England, indicating that her lifestyle changed substantially upon arrival, and previous studies had found that she was likely ill.

“She was probably quite unwell, and she traveled a long way to somewhere completely unfamiliar—even the food was different. It must have been scary,” says Leggett in the statement. “[But] she must have known that she was important and she had to carry that on her shoulders.” 

Trumpington Cross
The Trumpington cross will be on display along with the other adornments found at the grave. University of Cambridge

Morrison’s facial reconstruction is meant to help museumgoers sympathize with her plight. While he had to guess about hair and eye color, he worked hard to ascertain the smallest details of her face, including an unusual detail: One of her eyes was lower than the other. 

“Considering the age of the skull, it was in remarkable condition,” Morrison tells Jennifer Nalewicki of Live Science.  

The exhibition in Cambridge examines discoveries in the area more broadly, and artifacts on view provide glimpses into everyday life in the region over thousands of years. The Trumpington cross—along with other items from the burial—are among these artifacts. The researchers say they’re excited to share their finds with the world. 

As Leggett tells CNN, “I hope the research we’re doing on Trumpington, and on similar burials in England, will help to showcase the importance of women and girls in the early medieval world, the Christian church in particular, and the power and importance they held in society in the seventh century.” 

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