The Face of a Bronze Age Woman Named Ava

August 2, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Photo credit: Hew Morrison

After being buried for 3,700 years, Ava gets a facial reconstruction.

One day, roughly 3,700 years ago, a young woman living in the Scottish Highlands died. She was laid to rest in a pit dug into solid rock — an unusual burial for the time — and it was there that she remained until 1987, when several of her bones, including her skull and teeth, were uncovered during an archaeological dig.

Her name is 'Ava,' an abbreviation of the Achavanich site where her remains were discovered, and she is a key player in archaeologist Maya Hoole's Achavanich Beaker Burial Project, which aims to gain new knowledge about Middle Bronze Age in Northern Scotland through a detailed investigation of the site.

Hoole and her team believe that Ava was a member of the Beaker People, a European group defined by their distinct style of pottery and its inclusion in burials. Excavation of Ava’s burial site revealed one such piece of pottery, known as a beaker, along with other artefacts.

But it was the well-preserved skull that allowed forensic artist Hew Morrison to create the reconstruction of her face pictured above.

Credit: Michael Sharpe
Caption: Cranium uncovered from the Achavanich site, and the basis for the reconstruction.

Her skull was unusual in dimensions. Brachycephaly refers to a relatively broad and short skull, and according to Hoole’s measurements, Ava could be classified as “hyperbrachycephalic” or even “ultrabrachycephalic.” Skulls of Beaker People often show signs of having been flattened at the back and top, suggesting that it might have been the result of head binding practices rather than a congenital deformity.

Based on an assessment of the skull, archaeologists determined that it belonged to a Caucasian female. Looking at the degree to which her bones had fused, and noting that her teeth were not badly worn down, it is assumed that her age at death was between 18 and 22 years.

Her lower jaw was missing, so Morrison implemented a formula to get a best guess as to its structure based on the rest of her remains. Then, her skin, eye, and hair colors were estimated by creating composites of the traits seen in members of the current population found in the same area. The enamel on her teeth gave clues as to the thickness of her lips, while the placement of the teeth were used to determine how wide her mouth was.

After all of the details were worked out, Morrison added layers of muscle and tissue to the face, keeping in mind the tissue depth that he extrapolated from contemporary data.

Though some artistic license is always taken in facial reconstruction, the resulting image gives an inkling of how people who inhabited the Scottish Highlands during the Bronze Age may have looked — and remarkably, it’s not far-off from the appearance of people living in the region today.

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