en.3dbaz-While it might not be the first academic application of 3D printing you could think of, the technology is increasingly finding its way into the archeological faculties of universities around the world – where it is used to create tangible artefacts that can be easily studied.
But as a huge collaborative effort involving scientists and researchers from Monash University, the University of Melbourne, the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine has just shown, the archeological potential of 3D printing is much bigger than previously imagined. They have actually used 3D scanning, 3D printing and forensic reconstruction techniques to breathe new life into the mummified skull of a young Egyptian woman who may have lived anywhere from 2000 to 3500 years ago.
It’s a remarkable achievement that could provide numerous research opportunities within the field of Egyptology. For while Ancient Egypt has fascinated people for millennia – even Caesar, Alexander the Great and Napoleon were mesmerized by the pyramids – it is quite difficult to study. Especially mummified remains can very fragile, and in general we know very little about what is going on inside those ancient bandages. Opening them up, unfortunately, completely destroys the relic forever.
This is also the case with the mummified head of an 18 to 25-year-old woman, which has been in the archives of the University of Melbourne for at least a century. The researchers themselves call her Meritamun (beloved of the god Amun), and she was probably part of the private collection of Professor Frederic Wood Jones who had worked on digs in Egypt in the 1930s. Just the head has been preserved, and is kept in a special archival container. “Her face is kept upright because it is more respectful that way,” says museum curator Dr Ryan Jefferies. “She was once a living person, just like all the human specimens we have preserved here, and we can’t forget that.”
As Jefferies revealed, he was concerned about the state of the head – which might have well been decaying from the inside without anyone noticing. Fortunately, CT scanning offered a study solution that would not damage the skull, and even revealed that it was in excellent condition. This, in turn, created a research opportunity that could not be resisted. “The CT scan opened up a whole lot of questions and avenues of enquiry and we realized it was a great forensic and teaching opportunity in collaborative research,” says Jefferies, a parasitologist.
Together with a research team that brought together specialists from medical, forensic, CT scanning, 3D printing, Egyptological and artistic backgrounds, he therefore set out to learn all about Meritamun that they could. For the skull, and the way she died, holds important clues as to what diseases she had, where she lived, what she ate and a whole lot more. “Through her, students will be able to learn how to diagnose pathology marked on our anatomy, and learn how whole population groups can be affected by the environments in which they live,” biological anthropologist Dr Varsha Pilbrow argued. “This way she can become much more than a fascinating object to be put on display.”
For starters, forensic Egyptologist Dr Janet Davey confirmed that Meritamun was indeed Egyptian, and further determined Meritamun’s gender from the bone structure of her face. Markers such as the smallness and angle of the jaw, the narrowness of the roof of her mouth and the roundness of her eye sockets provided vital clues in that process. She further guessed that Meritamun was about 162 cm tall, though the skull alone does not hold enough clues to verify that. The young woman’s tooth decay, finally, was used to date her to Greco-Roman times (after in 331BC) – when sugar was introduced. However, she could be more than 1,200 years older, as the fineness of the linen bandages suggests a high enough status to be embalmed in earlier times when such procedures were reserved for the elite. Radiocarbon dating will hopefully provide answers in the near future.
Biomedical master’s student Stacey Gorski, meanwhile, is using forensic pathology to uncover how Meritamun lived and died. The CT scans have already revealed two tooth abscesses, while parts her skulls are pitted and thinned as well – a clear symptom of anemia. That might have been caused by malaria parasites, which were common hazards in the Nile Delta in ancient times. “The fact that she lived to adulthood suggests that she was infected later in life,” Gorski adds. “Anemia is a very common pathology that is found in bodies from ancient Egypt, but it usually isn’t very clear to see unless you can look directly at the skull. But it was completely clear from just looking at the images.”
While the absence of the rest of the body makes it impossible to draw any conclusions, the anemia and abscesses can certainly have contributed to her death. Through DNA analysis (using a tiny tissue sample), conclusions about the anemia-causing parasites could be reached in the near future. By studying the isotope residue in Meritamun’s mouth (the carbon and nitrogen atoms of her food), Gorski is also hoping to determine the mummy’s diet – which could also place her in certain periods of history and determine her social status.
But at the same time, imaging technician Gavan Mitchell was working to reconstruct the young woman’s face. Cutting the 3D model in two, he 3D printed a very high quality model in about 140 hours using Ultimaker hardware. By separating the model into two sections, he was ultimately able to better capture details on all sides, as a print is always more detailed on the top side. “It has been a hugely rewarding process to be able to transform the skull from CT data on a screen into a tangible thing that can be handled and examined,” says Mitchell. “We can now replicate specimens with really interesting pathologies for students to handle and for virtual reality environments without ever touching the specimen itself.”
Sculptor Jennifer Mann, finally, applied forensic and artistic skills to reconstruct Meritamun’s actual face – which would not have been possible without 3D printing. She previously used the same facial reconstruction techniques for unidentified murder victims. “It is really poignant work and extremely important for finally identifying these people who would otherwise have remained unknown,” Mann says of her work. “I have followed the evidence and an accepted methodology for reconstruction and out of that has emerged the face of someone who has come down to us from so long ago. It is an amazing feeling.”
Using data from the skull scan, facial musculature data and plastic markers that indicate tissue depth (based on Egyptian population data averages), she was able to ‘build’ upon the 3D print using clay. This resulted in a remarkably accurate model. While the mummy’s own nose was squashed by bandages, Mann recreated it through calculations based on the existing nasal cavity. The 3D printed skull also displays a small overbite, taken directly from the skull. The final model was then covered in polyurethane resin and painted in tones that are believed to be predominant skin color of ancient Egyptians. The wig itself was based on that of another mummy, now located in the Egypt Museum in Cairo.
While it took a lot of effort, the final 3D printed model is thus about as accurately as can be, and will be an excellent educational tool. What’s more, the researchers believe that they are treating Meritamun as respectful as possible. “By reconstructing her we are giving back some of her identity, and in return she has given this group of diverse researchers a wonderful opportunity to investigate and push the boundaries of knowledge and technology as far as we can go,” Davey argued. It just underlines that 3D printing can make a huge contribution to archeological studies as well.