By the late fourth century BCE, the Nabataeans, a tribe most likely from central Arabia who had established themselves at what is now Petra in modern Jordan, were becoming wealthy from trade in frankincense, spices, and other luxury goods. As their kingdom expanded, they founded new centers of trade and culture, settling in Hegra—roughly 300 miles, or 500km, south of Petra—in the first century BCE. Their unique civilization blended elements of diverse cultures, fueled by wealth from their role in trading valuable commodities, and they carved fabulously elaborate tombs into the sandstone cliffs that surround Hegra.
Two thousand years later, archaeologists investigating the tombs carved into Jabal Ahmar, a mountainous outcrop on the edge of the residential area of Hegra, selected one for close study. Known as the Tomb of Hinat daughter of Wahbu, it was filled with unusually well preserved materials such as buried human remains—bones, skin and even hair—along with textiles, leather, vegetable matter, and other substances.
This tomb had another very special attraction, as Laïla Nehmé, the director of the Hegra archaeological project explains: “The Nabataeans are a bit of a mystery: we know a lot, but at the same time we know very little because they didn’t leave any literary texts or records. Excavating this tomb was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about their idea of the afterlife. Besides, this tomb has a very nice inscription carved on its façade, which says it belonged to a woman called Hinat.”
Who was Hinat? We don’t know for sure. But in 60 or 61 C.E., she had carved the following message onto a panel above the entrance to her tomb: “This is the tomb which Hinat daughter of Wahbu made for herself and for her children and her descendants forever. And no-one has the right to sell it or give it in pledge or write for this tomb a lease. And whoever does other than this, his share will revert to his legitimate heir. In the twenty-first year of King Maliku, King of the Nabataeans.”
Analysis of the tomb established that it was the final resting place of as many as 80 individuals. In one area, a wooden coffin held the remains of at least four people—one adult and three children. Elsewhere bones, fabric, and leather lay mixed up together with strings of desiccated dates, apparently created as necklaces.
Gathering as much information as possible from the materials unearthed in the tomb led to an intriguing idea. By analyzing one of the tomb’s skulls, a question arose: Could we use existing knowledge in forensics and paleopathology (the study of disease in ancient people) to reconstruct the face of the person who died and was buried here? Such a reconstruction—the first ever attempted of a woman from the Nabataean period—would have immense value in being able to tell the story of Hegra, and of Nabataean civilization, to a worldwide audience.
But who to choose? Analysis of one of the skeletons in the tomb revealed it was a woman, aged between 40 and 50, around 5 feet 3 inches tall (1.6m), and the nature of her burial suggested she was of medium social status. Taking a lead from the tomb’s inscription, archaeologists affectionately named her Hinat, and she became the project’s focus.
Then came a gathering of international experts in London to lay the groundwork for the reconstruction project—archaeologists of Nabataean civilization, specialists in digital and physical facial reconstruction, forensic experts, and science communicators—who would translate a computer-generated image into a physical bust of Hinat. With almost no images discovered in Nabataean art, and very few human remains surviving, the specialists had to use a carefully judged mix of professional rigour and artistic interpretation to make key decisions about Hinat’s features—her eye-color, skin tone, how many wrinkles she had, what clothes she wore, and the style of any jewelry or ornaments.
Forensic sculptor Philippe Froesch talks about how every scrap of scientific knowledge was exhausted before artistry came into play: “We created a subjective portrait using [pre-existing] data,” he says.
Froesch’s job was to produce an initial computer image of Hinat. To do so, he collaborated with forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier to refine details of her face. A computerized tomography (CT) scan of the skull revealed evidence of chronic osteoarthritis and even traces of infectious disease in the teeth, elements that needed to be taken into account when shaping Hinat’s mouth. Froesch used technical data on facial musculature and skin thickness to reconstruct Hinat’s features in minute detail, carefully adjusting individual eyelashes and skin pores.
Sitting in front of his computer, Froesch remembers: “There is always a moment which is very touching, and it is when you open the eyelids of the subject. Suddenly you see the eyes of this person looking at you. It’s a kind of dialogue that happens, a very intimate moment.”
At that point, Froesch handed the baton to Ramón Lopez, a biologist and sculptor specializing in creating naturalistic reproductions of humans and animals. Lopez and his team used stereolithography—an industrial 3D printing technique deploying resins in individual layers—to create a series of moulds that eventually resulted in a bust of Hinat in silicon.
Experts working with Lopez attached Hinat’s hair in individual strands, added makeup to her skin surface, attached earrings designed as replicas of jewelry discovered in Hegra, and clothed her in artisan woven linen to match fragments recovered from Hegra’s tombs.
At last, after having lain undisturbed in the sands of Hegra for twenty centuries, Hinat—or a woman who may have known Hinat, probably as a member of her family—gazed back at the awe-struck scientists, the result of a months-long, scientifically rigorous, and artistically innovative process. Curatorial Manager and archaeologist Dr Helen McGauran identified the value of such a remarkable project for the 21st century. “There are common threads of humanity that can be recognised in the Nabataean story,” she says. “The openness to the outside world [and] the interaction with other cultures and communities.” Hinat’s two-thousand-year-old face has a lot to teach us.
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