In a monumental tomb at Hegra-UNESCO World Heritage Site and trading city of the Nabataean kingdom-scientists discovered remains of a Nabataean woman. Now, thanks to a mix of forensics, paleopathology, and artistic talent, we can meet a member of this ancient culture from around 2,000 years ago.
National Geographic CreativeWorks
By the late fourth century BCE, the Nabataeans, a tribe most likely from central Arabia who had established themselves at what is now Petra in modern Jordan, were becoming wealthy from trade in frankincense, spices, and other luxury goods. As their kingdom expanded, they founded new centers of trade and culture, settling in Hegra–roughly 300 miles, or 500km, south of Petra–in the first century BCE. Their unique civilization incorporated elements from many cultures. They were wealthy from their trade of valuable commodities and carved elaborate tombs into the cliffs of sandstone that surround Hegra.
Two thousand years later, archaeologists studying the tombs carved into Jabal Ahmar (a mountainous outcrop at the edge of Hegra’s residential area) selected one for close examination. It is known as the Tomb Of Hinat, daughter of Wahbu. It was filled with unusually preserved materials, such as bones, skin, and hair, as well as textiles, leather and vegetable matter.
This tomb also had a special attraction. Laila Nehme (director of the Hegra archaeological project) said that the Nabataeans were a bit of mystery. We know a lot about them, but we don’t have any literary records or texts. This tomb was an amazing opportunity to learn more about the Nabataeans’ idea of the afterlife. Besides, this tomb has a very nice inscription carved on its facade, which says it belonged to a woman called Hinat.”
Who was Hinat? We don’t know the truth. But in 60 or 61 C.E., she had carved the following message onto a panel above the entrance to her tomb: “This is the tomb which Hinat daughter of Wahbu made for herself and for her children and her descendants forever. It is not possible to give it away, pledge it, or lease it. Anybody who does anything else than this will lose his share. In the twenty-first year of King Maliku, King of the Nabataeans.”
Analysis of the tomb established that it was the final resting place of as many as 80 individuals. In one area, a wooden coffin held the remains of at least four people–one adult and three children. Other areas contained bones, leather, fabric, and fabric mixed with strings of desiccated date dates, which were apparently used as necklaces.
Gathering as much information as possible from the materials unearthed in the tomb led to an intriguing idea. Analyzing one of the tomb’s skulls led to an intriguing question: Could we use our existing knowledge in forensics (the study of diseases in ancient people) in order to reconstruct the face and body of the person who died and was buried there? This reconstruction, which is the first attempt of a Nabataean woman’s face, would be invaluable in telling the story of Hegra and the Nabataean civilization to a global audience.
But which one? Analysis of one of the skeletons in the tomb revealed it was a woman, aged between 40 and 50, around 5 feet 3 inches tall (1.6m), and the nature of her burial suggested she was of medium social status. Archaeologists took the name Hinat from the tomb’s inscription and made her the project’s focal point.
Then came a gathering of international experts in London to lay the groundwork for the reconstruction project–archaeologists of Nabataean civilization, specialists in digital and physical facial reconstruction, forensic experts, and science communicators–who would translate a computer-generated image into a physical bust of Hinat. The specialists had to carefully evaluate the art and professional rigour of the experts to make important decisions about Hinat’s features. This included her eye-color, skin tone and how many wrinkles she had. They also had to consider the style of any jewelry and ornaments she wore.
Forensic sculptor Philippe Froesch talks about how every scrap of scientific knowledge was exhausted before artistry came into play: “We created a subjective portrait using [pre-existing] data,” he says.
Froesch’s job was to produce an initial computer image of Hinat. Philippe Charlier, a forensic pathologist, helped him to refine her face. Computerized tomography (CT), scans of Hinat’s skull revealed evidence of chronic arthritis and even traces infectious disease in the teeth. These elements were important to consider when shaping Hinat’s mouth. Froesch used technical information on Hinat’s facial musculature, skin thickness, and carefully adjusted individual eyelashes and skin pores to reconstruct Hinat.
While seated in front of his computer Froesch recalls: “There is always an instant which is very touching. It is when you open your eyes to the subject. It’s like you suddenly see the eyes of the subject looking at you. It’s a kind of dialogue that happens, a very intimate moment.”
At that point, Froesch handed the baton to Ramon Lopez, a biologist and sculptor specializing in creating naturalistic reproductions of humans and animals. Lopez and his team used stereolithography–an industrial 3D printing technique deploying resins in individual layers–to create a series of moulds that eventually resulted in a bust of Hinat in silicon.
Experts who worked with Lopez attached Hinat’s hair in individual sections, added makeup to her skin, attached earrings that were replicas of Hegra’s jewelry, and dressed her in artisan woven linen to match fragments from Hegra’s tombs.
After a long, difficult, and scientifically rigorous process, Hinat (or a woman who may have known Hinat) finally looked back at the stunned scientists. Curatorial Manager and archaeologist Dr Helen McGauran identified the value of such a remarkable project for the 21st century. She says that the Nabataean story reveals common threads of humanity. “The openness to the outside world [and] the interaction with other cultures and communities.” Hinat’s two-thousand-year-old face has a lot to teach us.
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