Face-to-face encounter at Expo 2020 with a Serbian healer from 10,000 years ago

Technology animates the features of a prehistoric shaman at the Serbia pavilion

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Serbian scientists have made history come alive in an Expo pavilion that gives visitors a chance to interact with a model of a shaman who lived around 10,000 years ago.

A digital reconstruction has animated the facial expressions of the prehistoric man whose skeletal remains were found in eastern Serbia on the banks of the river Danube.

This is an opportunity to make history more alive
Prof Sofija Stefanović, lead scientist

Visitors are lining up to interact with the model in the country’s pavilion, where software picks up their facial expressions and has the ancient healer mirror them on a large screen.

Organisers hope the face-tracing technology will help digitally rebuild famous historical figures and allow for broader usage across a range of industries, not just in education and museums but also gaming and entertainment.

Prof Sofija Stefanovic, who led the team of scientists behind the exhibit, talked to The National about how bone analysis from the ancient skeletal remains helped them to understand the prehistoric man’s diet, movements and help determine his appearance.

The scientists combined forensic knowledge with osteology – the study of bones – to animate the responses.

Providing structure to the face of an ancient man and allowing Expo visitors to “breathe life into him”, will engage visitors, Ms Stefanovic said.

She said there were limitless possibilities for the technology's applications.

The exhibit kick starts a tour of the pavilion and has children and adults queuing up.

“I wanted to see how far he could move his neck and if his eyes would blink,” said Rezan Sharaf, 12, from Egypt.

“I felt since he was asleep for thousands of years, it’s good to wake him up with lots of actions,” he said.

Unique burial position

The project, Digital Ancient People, built the face of the man whose remains were discovered at the Lepenski Vir site in eastern Serbia in the late 1960s. His skull has been preserved in a laboratory in Belgrade.

Anthropological analysis shows he was about 55 when he died, was 178cm tall, weighed about 70kg and his diet consisted mostly of fish.

Researchers believe the man was a shaman due to the position the skeleton was found in.

Prof Stefanovic said the skeleton was found on its back with the legs in a lotus position – an indicator of his important role in the community.

“This unique burial position is often interpreted as a position in which individuals whose role was more spiritual for the society are buried,” said the associate professor at University of Belgrade’s department for archaeology and philosophy.

“His burial position is very similar to the position of the body during meditation and for this reason some scientists think that this position may indicate that he was a shaman.”

Film and historical projects

The creators animated and revived the man’s face using clay, digital reconstruction and a 3D printed replica.

“In museums this approach may transform the presentation of ancient people to the public and allow visitors to experience their emotions and live interactions,” Prof Stefanovic said.

“For governments this is an opportunity to create digital models of important historical figures and to make history more alive.”

Realistic digital models of ancient people could also be used in the film and gaming industry, she said.

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Updated: December 26, 2021, 12:02 PM