This is the reconstructed face of a Nabataean woman who lived more than 2,000 years ago

Silicone bust was produced with input from archaeologists, anthropologists and forensic scientists

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An extraordinary physical reconstruction of a Nabataean woman who lived in the Arabian peninsula more than 2,000 years ago has gone on display to the public.

Hinat, as she has been named, is represented as a lifelike bust made from silicone, with pierced ears and artificial hair individually threaded into her scalp.

Looking uncannily real, Hinat was created through a complex process that melded expert scientific input with artistic flair.

She was an actual person, being a prominent women who was one of 80 people, some of them probably related, found in a monumental tomb at the Unesco World Heritage site of Hegra, north-west Saudi Arabia.

When we think of the Nabataeans, we think of monuments... feats of architecture. This project has enabled us to do is narrow down to an individual, which gives us an insight in a very different way
Leila Chapman, Royal Commission for AlUla

Leila Chapman, narrative experience expert at the Royal Commission for AlUla, the Saudi organisation behind the project, said that Hinat should enable people to see a more human side to the Nabataeans, who were a nomadic Bedouin people of the Arabian Desert.

“What’s really interesting is when we think of the Nabataeans, we think of monuments and we think of scale and these feats of architecture,” she said.

“What this project has enabled us to do is narrow down to an individual, which gives us an insight in a very different way.

“It tells us Hegra wasn’t just a place of tombs, but a vibrant place where people lived and worked and died. It’s lovely to be reminded.”

Hinat was thought to have been aged over 45, suffered from osteoarthritis, may have had a mild form of spina bifida and her teeth were in poor condition.

Her skeleton, which was nearly complete, was in 2008 excavated from the Hegra tomb, where work has been led by the Mada’in Salih Archaeological Project since 2002.

Experts such as archaeologists, forensic scientists, anthropologists and model makers worked to come up with the reconstruction of Hinat.

A one-day, round-table event involving specialists was held to help decide, for example, what her clothing, hair and jewellery should be like.

“We thought doing a facial reconstruction would be a really amazing way of engaging audiences and bringing the story of the Nabataeans to life,” said Dr Helen McGauran, heritage curatorial expert at the Royal Commission for AlUla, which is developing the north-western Saudi region of AlUla as a cultural and tourist destination organisation.

The reconstruction resulted in an “emotional reaction” among even experts, Dr McGauran said, with one of her colleagues experiencing “a tingle and slight gasp” on seeing the reconstruction.

“I don’t think you can describe it as art or science,” Dr McGauran said of the reconstruction project. “It’s about a marriage between the two. It’s very much informed by … an ethical approach with respect towards human remains and reflecting her as a person.”

Hinat, whose eyeballs are made from glass, is thought to be the first Nabataean woman to have had her face reconstructed.

Because the project involved human remains, Dr McGauran said the work, which included carrying out a CAT scan of her skull, was undertaken out in a respectful way.

Those involved had to grapple with a lack of genetic data and the absence of information — such as about the musculature and skin of Nabataeans — of the kind that exists for contemporary peoples.

There are no immediate plans to produce more facial reconstructions, but organisers said this could happen, either for Nabataeans or members of other groups.

On the tomb where Hinat was found an inscription reads: “This is the tomb that Hinat, daughter of Wahbu, made for herself and her children and descendants for ever.”

This inscription led those working on the project to name as Hinat the individual on whom the bust was based on, but it is unlikely that she was the Hinat referred to on the tomb.

The city of Hegra, where the tomb was located, was a centre on the incense trade route, which took in regions such as the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Arabian peninsula and India.

Under the Nabataeans, Hegra had, by the first century BC, eclipsed nearby Dadan, another point on the trade route, in significance, according to the Royal Commission of AlUla.

Hinat was installed at the Hegra Welcome Centre at the archaeological site on January 31 and she will be on display to the public from February 6.

In 2008, Hegra became the first World Heritage site in Saudi Arabia.

The Unesco citation at the time described the site as bearing “outstanding witness to important cultural exchanges in architecture, language use and the caravan trade”.

Updated: February 06, 2023, 9:10 AM