Cold case artists solve mummy mystery

U. CHICAGO (US)—Drawings by two artists who work on cold case investigations are giving the public a chance to see what the University of Chicago’s mummy Meresamun looked like in real life.

Working independently, a Chicago forensic artist and a police artist in Maryland produced strikingly similar images of Meresamun as she would have looked in 800 B.C., when she would have been in her late 20s.

The drawings are on display at the Oriental Institute Museum and on Meresamun’s Wikipedia listing. The pictures are also on her Facebook page and on YouTube.

Michael Vannier, professor of radiology, began the process of restoring the mummy’s facial features with two exhaustive CT examinations of Meresamun in 2008 at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Meresamun lived in Thebes (ancient Luxor) about 800 B.C. and died of undetermined causes when she was about 30. She was tall by ancient standards—5-and-a-half feet—her features were regular with wide-spaced eyes, and she had an overbite.

“Meresamun was, until the time of her death at about 30, a very healthy woman,” Vannier says. “The lack of arrest lines on her bones indicates good nutrition through her lifetime and her well-mineralized bones suggest that she lived an active lifestyle.”

Emily Teeter, research associate at the Oriental Institute and curator of the museum exhibition about the mummy, says a huge number of CT scans of the skull were used to create a 3-D digital model of Meresamun’s skull. “Those files were given to forensic artists who use methods employed in cold case investigations where skeletal remains need to be identified.”

The Oriental Institute wanted to compare multiple reconstructions, in order to obtain a trustworthy image of Meresamun’s face. Both a digital version of the traditional forensic reconstruction and a missing person-type sketch were submitted.

In the traditional forensic method, layers of fat, muscle, and flesh are built up upon the skull. Starting with a three-dimensional image of the skull created from multiple CT scans, Chicago artist Joshua Harker used a technique known as the Gatliff-Snow American Tissue Depth Marker Method to calculate the contours of the face to digitally recreate Meresamun’s appearance.

“The skull is the driving architecture of the face—all the proportions and placements are there,” Harker explains. “Even the shapes of the lips, nose, and eyebrows can be determined if you know what to look for.”

The method accurately reconstructs a face, both in identifying victims and as admissible evidence in court.

“I try not to make any assumptions without expert direction, whether that be from an anthropologist regarding the race, gender, or age, or from an expert like Emily Teeter who can give me an accurate description about details based on historical evidence,” Harker says. “I am ecstatic that my reconstruction of Meresamun has been so well received by the community who knows the most about her.”

Michael Brassell, who works with the Department of Justice/Maryland State Police Missing Persons Unit, used his skills as a trained sketch artist to produce a second, more traditional reconstruction.

“The project was no different then any of the postmortems drawings I have worked on for cold case homicides. The CT scans were very clear, making my job easy,” he says. “If this was a homicide case, I would almost go as far to guarantee a hit on the profile drawing.”

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