History In The Headlines

What Did the Vikings Look Like?

By History.com Staff
Researchers at the University of Dundee in Scotland have recreated the face of a Viking woman who died some 1,000 years ago and whose skeleton was unearthed in the English city of York in the 1970s. Their digital reconstruction may offer the most accurate representation yet of a living, breathing Viking.



Historians have always known that York was a Viking stronghold between its capture by the seafaring Scandinavians in 866 and the Norman conquest of 1066. Few traces of their settlement surfaced until the 1970s, however, when experts from the York Archaeological Trust began excavating a site that is now home to the Coppergate Shopping Centre. After removing several layers of moist, spongy earth, they uncovered remarkably well-preserved Viking homes and artifacts, including clothes, tools, pottery and jewelry. The most famous of the 40,000 items they found is the York Helmet, considered one of the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship. Many of these relics are now on display at the Jorvik Viking Centre, which helped fund the facial reconstruction project and has unveiled the results in a new exhibition.

The archaeologists also excavated four female skeletons, one of which served as the basis for the new digital reconstruction. Caroline Erolin, a lecturer at the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, described the process she used to transform 1,000-year-old bones into a lifelike reproduction: “We laser-scanned the skull to create a 3D digital model onto which we could produce the reconstruction. The reconstruction process is carried out utilizing specialist computer equipment which allows the user to ‘feel’ what they are modeling on screen. The anatomy of the face is modeled in ‘virtual clay’ from the deep muscles to the superficial.”

Erolin’s colleague Janice Aitken then made the reconstruction even more realistic by adding facial features and coloring. “I use the same sort of software as is used to create 3D animations in the film industry,” she explained. “I digitally created realistic eyes, hair and bonnet and added lighting to create a natural look.”

For Sarah Maltby, director of attractions for the York Archaeological Trust, the reconstruction project demonstrates how advanced archaeological research capabilities have become since the original Coppergate excavations took place more than three decades ago. “We now have a much more accurate and physical image of what Viking life was like, what they ate, what they wore and even what they looked like thanks to Dundee University–all of which is now on display at Jorvik,” she said.

For more information, check out the press release issued by the University of Dundee or visit the website of the Jorvik Viking Centre.

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Categories: Vikings