The Lepenski Vir settlement in Eastern Serbia, on the banks of the Danube River, was first discovered in the 1960s. It is a site of huge historical significance as it showcases the early stages of the development of European prehistoric culture. Around 500 skeletal remains were unearthed at the site, including the skeleton that has come to be known as the ‘shaman’ thanks to the unusual cross-legged lotus position that it was found sitting in. The shaman is thought to have lived around 8,000 BC. From the skeleton, the team of experts was able to determine his height, weight, and even the fact that he lived on a largely seafood-based diet.
To begin the reconstruction, the team needed to create an exact physical replica of the prehistoric skull in order to preserve the original’s integrity. Under the guidance of archaeologist and 3D scanning specialist Jugoslav Pendić from the BioSense Institute in Novi Sad, Serbia, the team began recreating the shaman’s prehistoric facial features by capturing hundreds of 2D images using a Peel 2CAD-S scanner. These were then stitched together using RealityCapture to form a 3D virtual model, which was then 3D printed to produce a physical model.
The replica skull was then passed to Oscar Nilsson, a forensic artist and archaeologist from Sweden, who is an expert in reconstructing models of ancient faces for museums around the world. Nilsson was able to begin creating a forensic facial reconstruction, adding muscle and skin layers with clay, with the thickness determined by the gender, age, ethnicity, and estimated weight of the subject.
To bring the actual shaman model to life, the clay reconstruction—still without skin textures and hair—was again scanned using the Peel scanner and reconstructed with RealityCapture to create a digital model. With a basic texture for skin and eyes applied (a prerequisite for the next step), it was time to put the mesh through the Mesh to MetaHuman process.
Using automated landmark tracking in Unreal Engine 5, Mesh to MetaHuman fit the MetaHuman topology template to the shaman scan. This new mesh was then submitted to the cloud, where it was matched to a MetaHuman with similar facial geometry and proportions to the shaman, and automatically bound to the MetaHuman facial rig. The technology used MetaHuman Creator’s extensive database of scans of real human expressions to produce ‘statistically estimated expressions’ for this ancient face, while preserving the deltas to retain the original likeness. To find out more about how the process works, check out this tutorial.
Once the process was complete, the character could be opened in MetaHuman Creator. Immediately, the team could press the play button and see the shaman come to life, using the several preset animations the application offers.
Next, in a collaborative session with archaeologists, forensics, and a MetaHuman character artist, the team could narrow down the appearance of shaman’s facial hair and skin properties inside MetaHuman Creator. Analysis of available DNA suggested that he would have had ‘intermediary-dark’ skin, dark hair, and brown eyes. “We can estimate the color of the skin, the hair, and eyes with more than 90 percent accuracy,” says Stefanović.
Wrinkles and gray hairs were added based on his estimated age; teeth were adjusted based on the skull; the style of his hair and beard were based on plausible tools (such as shells) available in the period 8,000 BC.
With the Shaman’s digital appearance complete, Nilsson could then apply the same styling to the physical model to complete the traditional 3D reconstruction.
“All that back and forth in MetaHuman Creator was really brilliant, because normally I would do this work myself by hand, and that is very expensive and takes a lot of time,” says Nilsson. “But to be able to do this digitally is really a game changer.”
The virtual and physical models were developed in tandem and finally unveiled at the Dubai Expo 2020 by national platform Serbia Creates, who supported the project realization. At the showcase, visitors were able to capture their own expressions via iPhones and see them mirrored on screen in real-time animation by the digital shaman.
“When nobody's interacting with him, we let him yawn and stretch his face by borrowing some of the animation from his fellow MetaHumans,” says Adam Kovač, Solutions Specialist at 3Lateral. “It was pure joy to see him smile.”