Museum of History: Faces from time immemorial revealed in portraits of 4,000 year old indigenous family

A powerful recreation of a young woman whose remains were found in a 4,000 year old burial site in British Columbia. Photo: Philippe Froesch, Visualforensic

Most every human who has ever lived is an abstraction to those of us who are alive today, for we can only imagine them through artifacts and data, through bones and other bits of archeological discovery. We can never really see them, we can never look at their faces and experience their presence as living, breathing individuals. That’s what makes a new exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History so vivid. 

Four members of a powerful, wealthy indigenous family, who were buried in splendour about 4,000 years ago, have been brought back to life, so to speak, through facial reconstruction and 3D animation. The results are — and I use this word specifically — transfixing, for the faces are so photorealistic, so alive with subtle facial movements, that I was struck still. 

The burial site was discovered by members of the shishálh Nation on ancestral lands north of Vancouver, and the site was evidently that a “high-status” family. The bodies included a man of about 50 years, a woman aged 19-23, twin males aged 20-25 and an infant. Also in the graves were 350,000 stone and shell beads, each crafted by hand. It was, says museum curator Matthew Betts, like a “bathtub full of beads,” and represented “decades worth of labour, so that tells us something about the wealth of these people,” Betts added. The capacity for such production also reveals that the people were skilled, well-fed and had the energy to manufacture, and lived peacefully. 

This is the face of a 50 year old man, whose remains were found in a burial site in British Columbia. Photo: Philippe Froesch, Visualforensic

Some beads had been woven into the hair of the young woman, and it’s believed that many had been sewn into a ceremonial cape worn by the man, a garment that would have weighed at least 50 kilograms. Merely wearing such a cloak would require considerable physical strength. 

The wealth committed to the burial leaves no doubt of the man’s status and power, and of his importance to the ancient history of the shishálh people. What happened after the disinterment — done with the museum and the University of Toronto — is a first of its kind in North America, and the results say a lot about society and technology 4,000 years ago and today.

From the skulls, the “world’s foremost forensic CGI studio,” Visualforensic, rebuilt the muscles and tissues and then, in collaboration with the shishálh Nation and museum experts, recreated the “hair, jewelry, facial expressions and clothing” that would have been worn by the people. 

“These are as accurate as scientifically possible.” Betts says. 

Contemporary technology can build faces with incredible accuracy, but at some point the task of  imparting life — character, personality, the wrinkles of age, the fluidity of facial expressions — takes something more deft and more artful, and for that the community provided old photographs and other guides as reference. 

The resulting faces are about as close as we could be today to standing face to face with a living individual from four millennia ago — the eyes blink, the lips and cheeks are alive with the infinitesimal movements that we all display at most every moment and hardly notice. Somehow, here, those tiny, involuntary movements are unmissable and thrilling to see, as if each twitch and flutter is part of a bridge that spans time. 

The four faces are a key exhibit in the new Canadian History Hall, which fully opens July 1. Another version is being made for the Tems Swiya Museum, in Sechelt, British Columbia, not far from the burial site and where the shishálh people still live today, as they have for 4,000 years, and much longer. 

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.