See the Reconstructed Face of a Mummy Stored in a High School Library Since 1915

A forensic artist hopes the sculpture will help humanize the mummy, which appeared at Australia’s Grafton High School under mysterious circumstances

Lead bust
The mummified head, reconstructed by a forensic sculptor, belonged to a woman who lived in Egypt during the region's Greco-Roman period, between 332 B.C.E. and 395 C.E. Jennifer Mann

For over a century, a high school in Australia has been home to something inexplicable: the mummified head of an ancient Egyptian woman, kept in a box in the school library. Now, researchers have created a detailed sculpture of the woman’s face.

“There is a point in the reconstruction process that suddenly the face emerges,” Jennifer Mann, a forensic sculptor at Melbourne’s Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine who has brought several ancient faces to life, tells Smithsonian magazine. “I had a sudden, strange realization that I was looking at the face of a real person. … She was a human just like me, only we were separated by 2,000 years in time.”

The mummified head reportedly arrived at Grafton High School in 1915, when it was donated by local doctor T.J. Henry. Its display is accompanied by a note dated July 1960, saying Henry bought the “genuine example of Egyptian mummification” while studying medicine in Edinburgh in the late 1800s, according to Nick Baker and Zoe Ferguson of the ABC Radio National podcast “Stuff the British Stole.” The note reads, “Although no date can be definitely given, it is probably over 2,000 years old.”

But this brief explanation remains uncorroborated, and there is another theory about the artifact’s origin: Some say it was donated by the anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith, one of the 20th century’s most prominent Egyptologists. However the mummified head got to Grafton High, it became a fabled fixture.

Researchers think the woman died between the ages of 50 and 60. Jennifer Mann

The head “brought out very differing responses in people,” Simon Robertson, a history teacher at Grafton High, tells ABC Radio National. Some thought the school should “keep it and look after it,” while others objected to the display.

“It’s instantly recognizable as a person’s head, with a blackened, cracking face and wisps of light orange hair,” wrote Baker, Ferguson and Marc Fennell for ABC Radio National last year. Unobscured by bandages, “the partly opened mouth reveals a few protruding teeth. In the hollows where the eyes would have been, someone has rubbed flakes of gold.”

For over a century, nobody knew the mummy’s sex or age. Then, “Stuff the British Stole” commissioned a forensic analysis, imaging and reconstruction of the head, as Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe reports. Researchers at Australian and Italian universities concluded the head belonged to a woman in her 50s who likely lived during Egypt’s Greco-Roman period, between 332 B.C.E. to 395 C.E.—when gold leaf was commonly applied during mummification.

As Janet Davey, a forensic Egyptologist from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, tells ABC Radio National, the ancient woman was likely wealthy: Along with the gold leaf, the complete removal of the woman’s brain indicates an expensive, high-quality mummification process.

Researchers created a 3D model of the woman’s skull from CT scans, which became a base for Mann’s work. She first added eyes, followed by tissue depth markers and musculature. After consulting a forensic tooth specialist to determine the shape of the mummy’s mouth, she then sculpted the skin, hair and jewelry. Finally, the clay sculpture was scanned and 3D printed in resin, which Mann patinated with a bronze finish.

“I now prefer to finish these as bronze sculptures, so that people are appreciating the facial features,” she tells Live Science. “This is a deliberate choice, because there is no scientific evidence [from recovered DNA in this case] for things like skin tone and eye color.”

Fayum mummy portrait
This limewood painting, one of the Fayum mummy portraits, depicts an Egyptian woman wearing precious jewelry. The Trustees of the British Museum

As Mann tells ABC Radio National, her work is “a blend of science and art,” combining historical research and craftsmanship. For example, Mann designed the sculpture’s hair and earrings herself, taking inspiration from the Fayum mummy portraits—realistic memorial portraits that Egyptians once buried with their dead.

When Robertson first showed his Grafton High colleagues an image of the finished product, it was met with a collective “audible gasp,” he tells ABC Radio National. He’s pleased with the head’s “new lease on life.”

Mann wants her sculpture to humanize the ancient woman in the eyes of viewers, who will soon be able to see the head and the reconstruction displayed side by side. In recent years, museums and institutions around the world—including the Smithsonian—have been grappling with the ethical treatment of human remains in their collections. Per Live Science, the new sculpture is meant to help shift the focus away from the mummy itself, presenting the woman’s story in a respectful manner.

“I hope that the finished sculpture will mean that people will be interested in her as a person,” Mann tells Smithsonian.

Editor’s note, May 15, 2024: This story has been updated to more precisely describe how Mann created the sculpture.

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