Facial reconstruction breathes new life into ancient citizens of Sagalassos

A look into the past. It’s usually just a metaphor, but archaeologists Jeroen Poblome and Sam Cleymans have made it a physical reality. Together with the University of Burdur, Turkey, they have reconstructed the faces of two centuries-old residents of Sagalassos.

For over thirty years, KU Leuven researchers have been examining the archaeological site of Sagalassos with an international and interdisciplinary team. Layer by layer, they’re reconstructing the past of this ancient city in what is now Turkey. 

From now on, the Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project literally has a face. On the basis of skeletal remains, the researchers have reconstructed two lifelike faces - one of a Roman man (early third century CE) and one of a Middle-Byzantine woman (11th-13th century CE). The researchers have called them ’Rhodon’ and ’Eirčnč’, respectively, as their real names are unknown. 

"As the director of the Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project, I’ve always had the ambition to get a better picture of everyday life in Sagalassos," says Professor Jeroen Poblome. "Archaeologists are often obsessed with superlatives - the first, the biggest, the most beautiful - but our research focuses on the life of everyday men and women. These facial reconstructions fit in perfectly with this approach."

"Eirčnč’s skeleton was found in 1995 by a research team led by my predecessor, Marc Waelkens. Her final resting place was in a graveyard surrounding a chapel. We discovered Rhodon’s remains on the final day of the excavations in 2016. He was found in a brick burial chamber that is part of a larger complex of several graves. Both skeletons were nearly complete and well preserved." 

Two life stories

Their burial places and skeletons offer more insight into the lives of these citizens. "We estimate that the Roman man was older than fifty when he died," says postdoctoral researcher Sam Cleymans. "His burial place tells us that he came from a middle-class family. We found some beautiful grave goods, for instance: an epistomion - a golden leaf placed on the mouth of the deceased - decorated with the image of a bee, and a gilded bronze ring." 

"The remains show that the man has had a physically hard life. We found several joint lesions and bone fractures. His age plays a role, of course, but physical labour in a difficult landscape with many differences in height has clearly had an impact on his body." 

"For the Byzantine woman, fewer clues are available. Estimates put her between 30 and 50 years old when she died. She had fewer joint lesions, perhaps because of her younger age. Compared with that of the Roman man, her burial place was also a lot more sober, which fits with the Christian traditions in the Middle-Byzantine period."

Picture: In 1995 the skeleton of the Middle-Byzantine woman was found in a graveyard surrounding a chapel.


Beauty and the beast

The researchers wanted to know how the citizens lived, but also what they looked like. The first stage of the reconstruction was a completely digital process. A research team from the University of Burdur created a 3D scan of the skulls. The face shape was calculated on the basis of the form of the skull and the muscle origins. Layer by layer, the face was reconstructed: first the muscles and the layer of fat, and finally the skin. The size and shape of the nose, eyes, and ears were calculated as well. The digital facial reconstruction has an accuracy of 75 per cent. 

The next steps involved a bit more educated guesswork, says Jeroen Poblome. "A facial reconstruction is a combination of science and creativity. We cannot deduce the skin tone or the colour of the eyes and hair from the skull, so we have to determine these on the basis of other sources. That’s why we based our decisions on the contemporary population of A?lasun, where the archaeological site is located. Most citizens have brown eyes there, dark brown hair, and fairly light skin. So these seemed the best choices for Rhodon and Eirčnč as well." 

For the hairstyle and beard shape, the researchers turned to historical sources. Sam Cleymans: "Physical appearance was important in the Roman age. The Romans could be quite vain. Written sources teach us that men generally didn’t like being bald, for instance. The beauty ideal for Roman men in the second century CE is based on Emperor Hadrian. That’s why we gave Rhodon relatively short hair and a well-groomed beard."

"In the Byzantine period, the average population paid less attention to physical appearance. Modesty and simplicity were the norm. The limited descriptions and images suggest that women typically wore their hair long - loose or braided. For Eirčnč, we chose loose hair with a thin braid." Now that the faces are complete, the general public will get to meet Rhodon and Eirčnč as well. The researchers have published a book (in Dutch - ed.) about the lives of these protagonists and the history of Sagalassos. As of 25 May, the facial reconstructions will also be on display during a one-month exhibition in the University Library in Leuven. 

After the exhibition, it will be time for Rhodon and Eirčnč to return to their home country. "The faces belong in their historical context," according to Professor Poblome. "In autumn, there will be a large Sagalassos exhibition in Istanbul, after which the faces will get a permanent place in the museum of Burdur." 

sagalassos research project

Bregt Van Hoeyveld, translated by Katrien Bollen


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