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updated: 4/22/2014 11:06 PM

Dead 12,000 years, Magdalenian Woman's makeover begins

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  • Video: Examining an Ancient Skull

  • Video: Scan of an Ancient Skull

  • Piecing together shards of bone and filling in the rest with plaster, anthropologists at Chicago's Field Museum rebuilt this skull of a 12,000-year-old woman in 1932. Now, a special X-ray machine in Bensenville delivers 3-D digital images of the skull, which allows the museum to create a more accurate depiction of how the woman once looked.

      Piecing together shards of bone and filling in the rest with plaster, anthropologists at Chicago's Field Museum rebuilt this skull of a 12,000-year-old woman in 1932. Now, a special X-ray machine in Bensenville delivers 3-D digital images of the skull, which allows the museum to create a more accurate depiction of how the woman once looked.
    Courtesy of The Field Museum

  • While leveling the floor next to Ice Age cave carvings in France, workmen in 1911 uncovered the "Magdalenian Woman," a 12,000-year-old skeleton. The remains, known as the "Magdalenian Woman," belong to Chicago's Field Museum.

      While leveling the floor next to Ice Age cave carvings in France, workmen in 1911 uncovered the "Magdalenian Woman," a 12,000-year-old skeleton. The remains, known as the "Magdalenian Woman," belong to Chicago's Field Museum.
    Courtesy of The Field Museum

  • The remains of this 12,000-year-old woman were discovered by workers in France in 1911. The skeleton was in good condition, but a worker's pickax accidentally smashed the skull. Using modern technology, the Field Museum is reconstructing the skull using ultra-high-quality digital images.

      The remains of this 12,000-year-old woman were discovered by workers in France in 1911. The skeleton was in good condition, but a worker's pickax accidentally smashed the skull. Using modern technology, the Field Museum is reconstructing the skull using ultra-high-quality digital images.
    Courtesy of The Field Museum

  • The reconstructed skull of a woman who died at the end of the Ice Age is X-rayed at Alloyweld Inspection Co. in Bensenville, as company Vice President Jennifer Anaya studies the 3-D images.

       The reconstructed skull of a woman who died at the end of the Ice Age is X-rayed at Alloyweld Inspection Co. in Bensenville, as company Vice President Jennifer Anaya studies the 3-D images.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • The Field Museum's JP Brown, conservator of anthropology, holds the model skull of the "Magdalenian Woman," as the actual 12,000-year-old skull gets X-rayed in the room behind him.

       The Field Museum's JP Brown, conservator of anthropology, holds the model skull of the "Magdalenian Woman," as the actual 12,000-year-old skull gets X-rayed in the room behind him.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Protected inside this box, the skull of the Field Museum's 12,000-year-old "Magdalenian Woman" undergoes an ultra-high-quality X-ray scan at Alloyweld Inspection Co. of Bensenville.

       Protected inside this box, the skull of the Field Museum's 12,000-year-old "Magdalenian Woman" undergoes an ultra-high-quality X-ray scan at Alloyweld Inspection Co. of Bensenville.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Holding a resin model of a 12,000-year-old skull, Jennifer Anaya of Alloyweld Inspection Co. in Bensenville says the ultra-high-quality X-ray of the actual skull will give the Field Museum a more accurate depiction of how the "Magdalenian Woman" once looked.

       Holding a resin model of a 12,000-year-old skull, Jennifer Anaya of Alloyweld Inspection Co. in Bensenville says the ultra-high-quality X-ray of the actual skull will give the Field Museum a more accurate depiction of how the "Magdalenian Woman" once looked.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 

This woman who has everyone so excited, where is her head?

"It's in my Subaru Forester, riding in the back seat with the seat belt," says anthropologist JP Brown, conservator for Chicago's Field Museum and protector of the "Magdalenian Woman."

Dead for more than 12,000 years, the ancient woman's skull, rebuilt from pieces of bone and plaster, makes the trip to Bensenville inside a waterproof, plastic cooler filled with "a boatload of packing," Brown says. Once the skull arrives at Alloyweld Inspection Co., in a nondescript building in a suburban industrial park, the real drama begins.

"Magdalenian Woman" is getting a makeover.

A box containing her skull sits alone in a small room dedicated to an ultra-high-quality X-ray scanning machine. The scanner records images from multiple angles so the museum can reconstruct the original bone pieces and fragments digitally to give anthropologists a much better idea of how this woman looked when she was alive.

"When you look at something that has been reconstructed wrong, some people find that difficult to live with, and I guess I'm one of them," Brown says of the skull that was pieced together in 1932 and had a prominent brow and an almost Neanderthal look. "What we know now is that there is basically no difference between us and the people at the end of the Ice Age that can't be explained by diet."

More than 12,000 years ago, the woman was buried alone in a French cave facing carvings of horses in the Cap Blanc rock shelter, near the famous Lascaux caves. In 1911, workmen were leveling the floor to make it easier to see the horse carvings when they discovered the woman's full skeleton.

"Unfortunately, they found it by hitting it full on the head with a pickax," Brown says. "The pickax went through and penetrated the other side of the skull. We're grateful that they found her. We just wish they had hit a foot."

The skull was in at least six pieces by 1926, when Henry Field purchased the skeleton and brought it in his suitcase by train to Chicago. A 2012 scan done with a mobile machine in the parking lot of the museum showed about three dozen fragments and led to a more modern depiction of the woman. Brown says the scan conducted by Alloyweld promises much more detailed images and will let them know if the skull has deteriorated in recent decades, requiring changes in how it's displayed.

Controlling the X-ray machine, Jennifer Anaya, daughter of Alloyweld founder Stanley Piecko, says the high-quality scan requires the object to remain absolutely motionless.

"With dead specimens, it's not so much of a problem," Brown says. "Hold your breath? It's not a problem."

The X-ray machine, which cost almost $1 million, generally scans metal parts for commercial airlines or military equipment looking for potential flaws, says Ed Piecko, president of the company, who stands next to his 86-year-old father as they watch the skull images appear on a screen. Alloyweld donated the $2,000 test, which uses higher radiation levels than typical at most hospitals.

"Getting the medical people to turn all the settings to 11 is difficult," Brown says.

The new images can be used digitally or be made into three-dimensional pieces that can be used to reconstruct the skull without touching the fragile bones currently held together with plaster filling the missing sections. While the forehead and both jaws are in good shape, details about the nose, eyes and hair are more difficult to learn. By the end of May, Brown says he hopes that facial-reconstruction experts can give them a more accurate depiction of the woman, who was about 5 feet, 4 inches tall and probably died around age 24.

"When you look at these facial reconstructions, I find that they all look like Patrick Stewart, and clearly, we don't all look like Patrick Stewart," says Brown, who says he expects museumgoers to find the finished product looking more like a modern human.

"I don't want them to think cave men were primitive," Brown says. "They were actually stupendous bad-asses with an ability to survive through the Ice Age and produce extraordinary paintings and carvings at the end of it."

Appreciating the commonality of humans, even those separated by several millennia, Brown says it wouldn't be dignified to coin a nickname for "Magdalenian Woman," who is named after the Magdalenian culture in that area of the world at the time she lived.

With no obvious signs of trauma (other than the pickax damage), whether the woman was rich or poor, had a lover and children or was special in some way can't be gleaned from her skeleton.

"It's not hard to make up a really cool story, but the problem is we don't know," says Brown, whose own story includes his marriage to a medieval historian at the University of Chicago, their son, their young dog, their old cat and that time Brown was written up in The New York Times for designing and programming a robot built out of Legos that could solve a Rubik's cube.

Brown can't solve every mystery about the "Magdalenian Woman."

He does, however, expect to unveil an accurate rendering of her next month in time for the annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works in San Francisco. He promises it will be better than the one done after the 2012 scan and much more accurate than the one completed in 1932 with the technology available then.

"That's what the point of science is. We're never going to get it exactly right," Brown concedes. "But let's do a decent job and let somebody else look at it in a hundred years."

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