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How it was Made: The Facial Reconstruction of Calpeia

Soraya Fernández · Photos: Fran Montes

“Through Forensic data, & the key word is ‘forensic’, we have created Calpeia” – Geraldine Finlayson | Calpeia was petite, light-skinned, had dark eyes and hair and was lactose intolerant

The reconstruction of a prehistoric skull found in a dark cave near Europa Point is breathtaking.

Developments in DNA analysis have made it possible to go back in time and know what this ancient inhabitant of the Rock looked like. ‘Calpeia’ is the name given to the forensic reconstruction of the remains that were found and dug up by the Gibraltar National Museum in 1996. These are the remains of a Neolithic woman who lived on the Rock 7,500 years ago, and you can see this reconstruction for yourself at the museum.

Calpeia Facial Reconstruction

The degree of realism and detail is impressive. Reach-Alcance wanted to find out how this feat of ingenuity was carried out, so we interviewed Professor Geraldine Finlayson, director at the Gibraltar National Museum, and Manuel Jaén, the museum conservator and the sculptor of this surprising forensic recreation.

The process wasn’t easy, but the result was outstanding. It all began a couple of years ago, when the Gibraltar National Museum started a collaboration with Harvard Medical School. The DNA extraction carried out in Gibraltar and was then sent to the researchers at Harvard and to Barcelona.

“Investigations were carried out in several settlements throughout Iberia to determine the possibility of DNA being present in any of the remains found. It is very unlikely that this would happen, especially in this part of the Iberian Peninsula, where the climate is warmer and humid. These conditions do not favour conservation; on the contrary, it causes deterioration. We were asked to collaborate and chose four remains that could be suitable. One of them was a skull found at Europa Point, and the other three were found in a cave near the top of the Rock. The first one was very deteriorated, but we found segments of DNA. The results were surprising,” Finlayson explains.

Geraldine Finlayson: Gibraltar
Dr. Geraldine Finlayson

So much so that the prestigious ‘Science’ journal reported on it earlier this year. With the new information revealed by this study, the Gibraltar National Museum decided to begin a process of forensic reconstruction to put a face to the skull.
These tests have proven with certainty that Calpeia – the name deriving from ‘Calpe’, which is what the Romans used to refer to Gibraltar – was short, between 25 and 40 years old, with light skin, dark eyes and dark, straight hair. In addition, her DNA shows us that she was also lactose intolerant. Her skull and a few more bones were found, but not the pelvis – which would have indicated whether she had given birth.

Skull of Calpeia
Calpeia’s Skull

The reconstruction wasn’t easy. The skull had been deformed post-mortem and, at first, it was impossible to know if it belonged to a man or a woman, but advances in DNA analysis revealed that she was indeed a woman.

Calpeia’s genetics also show that she had 10% ancestry from local Mesolithic hunters-gatherers, but 90% ancestry from Anatolia, present-day Turkey. Either she or her close ancestors moved from the eastern Mediterranean and arrived in Gibraltar, bringing with them new agricultural advances and technologies that eventually spread throughout Europe.

It took six months to complete this forensic reconstruction, which has been carried out entirely at the Gibraltar Museum by the conservator Manuel Jaén. The task was gigantic:

Manuel Jaen Gibraltar
Manuel Jaén

“We started with a scanned skull. A computer program corrected the deformation with 3D cloning and restitution techniques to complete the skull. Then it was time to add a jaw that was consistent with its proportions and morphology. The skull was a little flattened, showing that the jaw could not have been prominent. In nature, everything has a correlation and harmony, but we should clarify that the entire process has been carried out on a forensic-scientific basis,” explains Jaén.

Once the model was completed and corrected, a high-resolution 3D impression was obtained and, the conservator began meticulously modelling a 3D clay skull by hand until the process was completed. “It’s a case of sculpting, inserting each part muscle by muscle. The cranial points determine the depth of the soft tissue on different points of the face. This is determined by many parameters: sex, age, origin, ethnicity… by obtaining data according to that skull we can determine the depth of the tissues and then each of the muscles are made one by one based on that depth.”

Calpeia Facial Reconstruction Gibraltar National Museum

The entire face conforms to these forensic parameters; the nose, hair, skin colour… “There are so many details… We didn’t find any teeth, but the orientation of the fragments were determined via scientific data. She had an overbite and her teeth were set a little forward. In the reconstruction, we have added them because they also condition the shape of the mouth.”

Professor Finlayson further clarifies that the recreation of Calpeia is not an artistic or imaginative portrayal: “It is her face. Based on all the forensic data – and forensic is the keyword here – we have been able to reconstruct her face.”
Although her diet is not yet known, DNA studies have shown that Calpeia was lactose intolerant, which was common at the time. “It is something we have learned from DNA studies. Calpeia belonged to a population that was beginning to farm and had not yet adapted to drinking milk in adulthood,” she adds.

In the reconstruction, the face complexion appears to have been damaged by the sun. The realism is uncanny… “She was light-skinned and had dark, smooth, European hair,” the conservator notes.

One thing that has garnered a lot of attention is the number of people who have said that Calpeia looks very familiar; that they know someone that looks like her. “The news sparked a lot of international attention. In Turkey it has been tremendous. I’ve seen publications in Romania by people who say that you could find Calpeia walking down the street right now,” Jaén explains.

This will not be the only surprise that the research team at the Gibraltar National Museum have in store for us. They are already working on other exciting projects, one of them similar to Calpeia, although they haven’t yet revealed what it is.

“Through Forensic data, & the key word is ‘forensic’, we have created Calpeia” – Geraldine Finlayson | Calpeia was petite, light-skinned, had dark eyes and hair and was lactose intolerant

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