The woman from Lagmansören
In 2019 the work began at Västernorrlands museum to re-build the permanent exhibition about prehistoric times in the region, from stone age to late iron age. The museum has since added new archaeological findings, new exhibition labels and content aimed at engaging children to learn more about the region’s history.
One particular story from the stone age had been discussed at the museum for several years. The finding of a stone age grave in Lagmansören with a woman and youngster. They died about 4 000 years ago, which in this region is considered as the late Neolithic period. They were both interred in a cist grave, a burial built with long, flat stones in the shape of a coffin, a unique find in this region. The grave was found already in the early 1920s in connection with road work. Under rainy conditions, the tomb was dug up. Inside the grave, the remains were found of two people who were buried side by side: the woman and a seven-year-old boy. In the grave was also a small piece of flint, possibly a gift to the dead.
The woman died in her late 20s or early 30s, and she was only 4 feet, 11 inches (150 centimeters) in height. Her DNA was too degraded to reveal her hair and eye color. Without DNA there is also no way of knowing if the woman and child were mother and child, sister and brother or even related. The remains didn’t show any signs of malnutrition, injury or diseases, which means we don’t know what she died of. She ate land-based food, an examination of the isotopes in her teeth revealed, which contrasted with the fact that her grave was found near a fish-filled river and near the coast.
Deciding to re-construct
Reconstructions of ancient people are fascinating, but also controversial. How close do you really get to the truth? The museum decided to re-construct the woman to a life like sculpture for several reasons. The stone age and onwards are periods in time which can be difficult to understand and connect to for regular visitors. Most findings consist of simple tools and remnants of graves or houses. We know very little about the people, what they were like, how they lived their lives. To engage the museum’s audiences by having a conversation starter is very helpful, and meeting a life size Neolithic woman is evoking emotions and awe in most visitors.
There have been discussions about reconstructions overall, as they are visualizations from a modern society. We can never know exactly what these people looked like or how they dressed. The standpoint of the museum is however that visitors do understand that this is a qualified guess, and that getting more visitors that stay and engage with the authentic objects as a result, is very important. The re-construction is a conversation starter in many positive ways and is also accompanied by re-constructions of stone age and iron age model houses.
From skeletal remains to a life size sculpture
In 2020, work began to recreate the woman, starting with a 3D scan of her skull. This made it possible approximately identify what she looked like. The face has been built muscle by muscle. There is a special technique for producing the nose. The woman’s characteristics are especially noticeable on her jaw and the placement of the eyes; To recreate the mouth, the design of the teeth has been studied. There is a ligament attachment in the eye socket, which tells partly about the inclination of the eye and how deep the eyes have been placed. In this case, this woman’s eyes are very low.
We have no idea about hair, skin and eye color. The DNA samples taken did not reveal this and the choices have therefore been made based on other research that investigates the groups that may have lived in, and moved into, Västernorrland at this time. She is meant to depict a mix of Pitted Ware Culture and Battle Axe Culture.
The clothes are also an interpretation. Because organic material has degraded over time, we do not know what the woman’s clothes actually looked like. By looking at different techniques and materials based on what has probably been used, the tanner and craftsman Helena Gjaerum has created her clothes and accessories. Everything is made from scratch, design, tanning and manufacturing. The process is long and has taken place both indoors and outdoors: from research and studies of clothing from the period in other areas, to the treatment of leather in a river.
The result, the sculpture, is now on display in the permanent exhibition Forntidsresan, at Västernorrlands museum in Härnösand, Sweden.
About the process
The model maker and archaeologist Oscar Nilsson is one of the foremost in his field and has made realistic models of people around the world. Examples of models in Sweden are Bockstensmannen and Hallonflickan. Oscar uses a forensic technology method. https://www.odnilsson.com
Tanner and craftsman Helena Gjaerum creates unique handmade skins using traditional techniques, with simple hand tools and natural ingredients and without harmful synthetic substances. http://lodbrokan.se/
Oscar and Helena’s work processes, their video diaries can be seen in the exhibition, on the museum’s website and Youtube channel.