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"Whenever the Field Museum gets a new exhibit," says anthropology curator Robert Martin, "we insist on using pieces from our own collection."
Which makes sense. In the 120 years it's been around, the Field has collected a lot of stuff.
It doesn't happen to have any ancient cave paintings to show off in its upcoming exhibit "Scenes From the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux," which opens Wednesday and runs until 9/8. But it does have a skeleton from roughly the same time period, also from France, also discovered near some prehistoric artwork, so, by God, it is going to use it!
Magdalenian Woman is a relative youngster compared to the Lascaux paintings, a mere 14,000 years old. But she also lived in a hunter/gatherer society probably not much different from the one that produced the paintings. (Permanent settlements didn't start appearing in Europe until 10,000 years ago.) Her skeleton was discovered in Cap Blanc in southwestern France in front of a rock shelter upon which was carved a frieze of seven horses.
"She was the only human skeleton buried in front of the frieze," says Martin. "There has to be some connection. She may have been an artist or a clan leader."
Anatomically, the Magdalenians looked a lot like modern humans. "They just dressed differently," Martin explains. (Which brings to mind images of the Flintstones.) In order to emphasize Magdalenian Woman's humanness, the curators decided not only to display the skeleton, but to use modern technology to reconstruct what she might have looked like, with the help of French artist Elisabeth Daynès, who also worked on the "Evolving Planet" exhibit and gave a face to Lucy, the Australopithecus aferensis.
The project was complicated by the fact that when Magdalenian Woman was first discovered, back in the 1930s, somebody accidentally rammed through her skull with a pickax. Somebody else repaired the damage with plaster.
"They did such a great job," Martin says, "that you can't separate the bone from the plaster." Unfortunately, they also gave Magdalenian Woman the large jaw of a Neanderthal.
But with the aid of a portable CT scan lent by Genesis Medical Imaging, Martin and his fellow curators were able to distinguish the bone from plaster. They took pictures of the bone and, using mirror images and morphing software, were able to fit the pieces together to create a more or less complete skull. They made a three-dimensional model and sent it to Daynès in Paris.
The final product pleased Martin and his colleagues immensely.
"It's the best thing Elisabeth has ever done," Martin says proudly. "When I finally got to see it, I turned to my wife and said, 'Not only is she human, she's French!'"