Using 3D digital reconstruction, experts have successfully been able to bring back to life the beautiful face of a mysterious medieval woman who was found on a bed of seashells.

3D digital reconstruction techniques have revolutionised the way in which scientists understand our ancestral history. Using facial reconstruction and computer technology, experts from the University of Bradford were able to create a lifelike animation of the above pictured woman. The woman was found during vault renovations at the ruined Whithorn Priory site in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, in the 1950s. Experts also believe she may have been visiting the priory on a pilgrimage.

Dr Christopher Rynn, a craniofacial anthropologist and forensic artist, explains due to the symmetry of her skull, the mystery woman was likely very beautiful and probably enjoyed a healthy and trauma-free upbringing.

When the face is growing throughout childhood, throughout teenage years, it doesn’t grow symmetrically simultaneously. It grows left and right, kind of like walking. So if there’s any kind of illness, or even just the kind of emotional trauma that could stop you from sleeping and eating for any length of time, then it’s going to throw the symmetry of the face off. The more illness and trauma in childhood, the less symmetrical the adult face will end up.

Dr Chrsitopher Rynn, Craniofacial anthropologist and forensic artist

There is much evidence to indicate the unknown woman was of high status. Her coffin was beside the grave of Bishop Walter who was known to have worked in the diocese of York, becoming bishop of Whithorn in 1209. He was given an elaborate burial and was interred with a gold finger ring and wooden crozier – or crook-headed staff – to represent his high office. The woman was simultaneously buried in a stone coffin set in front of the high altar.

The bed of shells the woman was found upon is another key indicator of strong religious influence. During the medieval era, many pilgrims wore scallop shells around their necks or attached to their back, to mark them out on their journey. Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers explains:

The woman was in her early 20s and was buried on a bed of shells. There may be some religious significance to that considering scallop shells were associated with pilgrimage at the site.

Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers, University of Bradford bio-archaeologist

Pilgrims travelled to Whithorn because it held the tomb of St Ninian, an 8th century missionary who converted the Picts to Christianity. The Venerable Bede wrote that Ninian had been instructed at Rome and was unusual in building his church from stone. Whithorn was also the birthplace of the first known Christian in Scotland, Latinus of Whithorn, who lived around 450AD, and who is mentioned on the Latinus Stone – Scotland’s oldest surviving Christian memorial.

Another way in which experts can determine the woman’s status is to discover what kind of food she ate. This can be done via analysis of the woman’s skeleton in the near future. If it turns out she had a diet high in fish, similar to the bishop, it will confirm that she was from a high-status family.

This project is of huge significance, because while we can never tell the full story of the lives of these medieval people, being able to reconstruct their diet, mobility, and now their faces, allows us to delve into their past and come face to face with them.

Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers, University of Bradford bio-archaeologist

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