Grafton High School has an ancient mummified head. This is what she once looked like

Grafton High School has an ancient mummified head. This is what she once looked like
  • PublishedMay 4, 2024

For more than a century, a mummified head inside a northern NSW school has been shrouded in mystery.

But part of that mystery has now been solved.

Since the Grafton High School head featured on ABC RN’s Stuff the British Stole last year, forensic experts pieced together details of who this person was.

The information was then used to create a facial reconstruction sculpture, showing what this ancient human would have looked like in great detail.

“[Having] a disembodied remnant of a person, and seeing it come to life through this amazing process … it’s been so exciting,” Grafton High School history teacher Simon Robertson says.

A head in the library

The mummified head has been residing in the school’s air-conditioned library, with only one clue to its backstory.

Accompanying the head is a typed note from 1960, saying it was a “genuine example of Egyptian mummification” donated to the school in 1915 by Grafton doctor T.J. Henry.

The note explains that Dr Henry purchased it as a medical student in Edinburgh during the late 1800s — a time when Egyptian artefacts were very much in vogue in the UK.

However, none of this can be substantiated.

Another theory is that it was given to the school by Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, a local who became one of the world’s foremost Egyptologists in the early 20th century.

Nothing else was known about the remains — the sex, age or if it was even actually Egyptian.

Over the years, the head has been used as an educational tool for ancient history students, but some at Grafton High School saw its presence as problematic.

Mr Robertson says the head “brought out very differing responses in people” from “we need to keep it and look after it” to “‘it shouldn’t be here … this is a person”.

So the school attempted to repatriate the remains to Egypt, and offered them as a donation to a Sydney museum, but say they were rebuffed in both attempts.

The school hit a wall until Stuff the British Stole started investigating — and they got new leads from a CT scan, helping the school answer decades-old questions.

A new chapter

In June 2023, Janet Davey, a forensic Egyptologist from the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) and Department of Forensic Medicine (DFM) at Monash University, facilitated a CT scan of the head. 

Analysis of the scan data by Dr Davey, other experts at VIFM and DFM, and the University of Chieti in Italy confirmed two key elements: That the skull belonged to a female and she had died aged between 50 and 60.

A head in a glass case being CT scanned, with a screen showing a scan of the head.
Janet Davey organised a CT scan through her contacts at Siemens Medical Systems Australia.(ABC: Nick Parmeter)

Meanwhile, flecks of gold leaf attached to the head indicated she lived during Egypt’s Greco-Roman period.

“The Greco-Roman period encompasses Alexander the Great, in 332 BCE, past Cleopatra VII, into the Roman occupation and the early Christian period around 395 CE,” Dr Davey says.

An image of a human skull with a small hole in it
The skull has a hole in the left temple, the cause of which is unknown.(Supplied: Siemens Medical Systems Australia)

She adds that the quality of the mummification, including the full removal of the brain in a process called excerebration, combined with the gold leaf, shows that she came from a wealthy family.

“She would have been middle to upper class, I would think.”

Bringing the past back to life

After the CT scan, Grafton High School decided it would fund a reconstruction of the head to see what this person really looked like.

The CT scan data was sent to Matthew Di Rago, a senior forensic toxicologist at VIFM, who created an intricate 3D printing of the skull.

It was a challenging process, as the materials used in the mummification were at times very difficult to discern from the bone.

The result of the 3D printing — an exact replica of the skull made of resin — was then used by VIFM forensic sculptor Jennifer Mann to complete a “forensic facial reconstruction” sculpture.

A skull with realistic brown eyes and numbered markers
The 3D printing of the skull with tissue depth markers on it.(Supplied: Jennifer Mann)

Ms Mann, a figurative and portrait sculptor, went to the US to train in forensic facial reconstruction.

“[It] involves doing a portrait in reverse — so in effect, starting with a skull, and putting all of the musculature on, and then having to recreate the face based on very strict formulas,” she says.

“The facts are all in the skull … [and] I’m very careful to be very faithful to the formulas that I’ve been taught.”

Ms Mann, who’s worked on several reconstructions of ancient remains, says the process “is actually a blend of science and art, you can’t do it without one or the other”.

A white clay sculpture of a head with brown eyes
Jennifer Mann says there is a point in the process when “a face emerges” and the sculpture suddenly feels human.(Supplied: Jennifer Mann)

One piece of the puzzle was the hair. Ms Mann worked with Dr Davey to figure out a hairstyle of Egypt’s Greco-Roman period, taking inspiration from the Fayum mummy portraits.

Ms Mann chose to use a bronze sculpted look for the head, “as we don’t know for sure what a person’s skin tone was … [or] the eye colour”.

She says the finished product means it’s far easier to connect with the past.

“It bridges the gap in time, because you’re looking at a person, not old mummified remains.”

A bronze sculpture of a older woman's head, looking sideways
The original mummified head was from Egypt’s Greco-Roman period.(Supplied: Jennifer Mann)

Grafton High School history teacher Mr Robertson remembers the first time he showed other teachers an image of the final sculpture.

“Collectively there was an audible gasp. It was like, ‘holy hell, this is amazing’,” he says.

He’s pleased the century-old story of the Grafton mummified head has received “a new lease on life” over the past year, and now, at least one conclusion.

“The whole issue of who [this person] was in the past, I think has been definitely settled … that part of the mystery has definitely been solved,” he says.

‘People like you and me’

From Hollywood to Halloween, Egyptian mummies have developed a very negative reputation.

“[It’s] ‘Oh my God, these are terrible, terrible things’,” Dr Davey says.

“Which is rubbish, because they were people like you and me.”

She says “it’s important to give humanity to these mummified human remains” and that the Grafton High School facial reconstruction helps do this.

It’s a point echoed by Mr Robertson.

The history teacher says having a face helps people realise that “this is a person who had hopes, dreams, worries and fears”.

So what now for the remains?

The school is planning to have a display case where both the head and the sculpture can sit side-by-side, with a focus on background information, context and, above all, respect.

Students will be able to “formulate their own opinion and have a broader understanding of history”, Mr Robertson says.

“It will get them thinking critically about who owns the past and what we should do with the history that we inherit.”

And Mr Robertson says this woman from ancient times will finally “get the kudos and status that she deserves”.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *