We don’t know what she looked like, because most of her upper body has vanished….
Most of you probably don’t know of my ‘secret’ ambition – to ‘time travel’ by recreating life-like images of people from long ago. I’m keen to know what those corroded brooches, diadems, ear-rings, and what-not that you see in museums, would actually look like on real people when they were new. The world today is flooded with photographs from almost every place its possible to get to. In fact, wherever you do get to, it seems like someone has already been there with a zillion dollar budget and produced a lavish coffee-table book on the place. Perhaps photography’s final frontier is the past?
My ambition goes back to the late 1980s when I mused that it would be fun to produce a ‘Vogue’ style magazine (remember ‘Dogue’?), but based in some ‘ancient’ time, perhaps ancient Rome, Egypt, Crete or similar. I was a photographer then (in the late 1980s, not in ancient Rome) and wondered how I could start. When I went to live in Hobart, I rented studio space in a (haunted) warehouse on the Salamanca waterfront and started trying to learn how to make copies of ancient brooches with off-cuts of copper sheet and wire. I had some very minor success, but it wasn’t going anywhere fast. I’m just not a jeweller or good at carving.
By the time I shifted to Brisbane, the Photoshop revolution had well and truly happened and also, on-line shops had appeared selling just the type of artefact replicas that I was struggling to make. I bought a few of those, and some bits of hand-woven material and tried some portraits. But nothing looked too convincing, and in any case, I wanted a system where I could recreate the jewellery I wanted, not just what happened to be provided by some shops.
Then that I learned of the possibilities of computer 3D graphics. Starting with an expensive graphics programme called ‘Rhinoceros’, over several years, I laboriously recreated, digitally, several ancient jewellery pieces from pictures in books. Back in those days, a good job income coincided with being able to easily buy books on line. One that I bought was a summary of the archaeological excavations from the ‘Iron Age’ cemetery of Magdalenska gora in Slovenia (Hencken, 1978). The book tries to sort out what remains from digging that happened between 1905 and 1913, following which the artefacts were scattered around the world.
What had caught my eye was a drawing of six concentrically-sized bronze neck rings that were found on what little remained of a skeleton. I thought they would be a useful (if overly-ambitious) goal to model on a computer. The skeleton came from ‘Grave 40, Tumulus 7’, probably dating from about BC 600-550. It was regarded as that of a woman, because, although no skull survives, the range of jewellery and five spindle whorls associated with it, strongly suggest this (Disclaimer: I gather that these days you can’t always assume this. Suffice to say that it just might have been a bloke who dressed like chick and spun). Based on some small associated jewellery, a baby may also have been buried alongside– although no bones survive.
Creating the neck rings in Rhinoceros was a sort of bitter-sweet success. Having sweated blood to produce the three-dimensional forms of the rings – plain grey digital objects, the next problem was to turn them into something that actually looked ‘real’ – like bronze for example. All I would get, was something that looked flat. Even that wasn’t the end though, I would then have to Photoshop those images onto a photo of a real person, and somehow paint in the shadows. In the end, my results all looked like, well …. something Photoshoped on and the shadows painted in.
‘Rhinoceros’ is actually good for what it is designed for – it’s a very precise engineering and architectural tool. But as such, it’s pretty unforgiving, and not the best to create things that are more free-flowing and hand-made. So I then moved to another (again expensive) programme, ‘Zbrush’. Quite the opposite of Rhinoceros, its major plus is the ability to ‘sculpt’ in what is effectively ‘digital clay’. I struggled with Zbrush for a few years (once again, I can’t carve), before the entirely free software ‘Blender’ finally came onto my radar. Finally, I knew with absolute certainty – that this was the software that could do the job.
Technology has now reached the point where we can ‘travel’ in fairly realistic digital environments. This seems to be the result of millions of dollars spent developing these virtual worlds, so that you can run around in them and shoot people. I get that, it’s exciting. But more intelligent applications of the ability are now starting to appear (see an earlier post). The possibility to say “Hey, let’s go explore … Constantinople in A.D. 526”, click through a couple of menus – and find yourself in a digital ‘there’, is pretty much upon us. And if you so desired to take a selfie of your digital avatar beside someone you met, and post it to Facebook, that ‘s probably possible too.
Back down on my level, with Blender, I can see that I could create digital jewellery relatively easily (taking weeks to do what an expert could do in ten minutes), and also (at least in theory) create a digital person to put them on, light them all at once – and get realistic shadows. My problem with all these 3D graphics programmes is that they have a learning curve as steep as the north side of K2. In the old days, if you had a problem with a programme, the usual response was “HYRTFM?” Then it became, ‘”Have you signed up for the support group and posted your question?” Now it’s a mixture of that, and YouTube videos – and Blender probably takes the prize for the amount of on-line tutorials and other sources of help.
I’ve had days and days and days of not getting anywhere at all. I’d steel myself for a full day of productivity, sit down at my screen at eight o’clock, and simply never get past step one. An infuriating reality I discovered, was that, despite the number of on-line tutorials, the programme version they are created for does matter. Over the past few years, I don’t think I found a single tutorial that at some point, stopped making sense. The teacher would indicate a button to click on – and it wouldn’t be there. Hours of Googling latter, and the answer was always – the tutorial is based on version ‘x.whatever’ of the software, whereupon for version ‘x.somethingelse’ (which you have), that feature was removed from the menu, hidden down in another menu, or discarded altogether. The best solution, I found, was to give up, try something else, and a few weeks down the track, a way around would appear…
On top of that, I had those files which I had created in Rhinoceros and now wanted in Blender. On the face of it, the process was simple – there is a file format that can be exported from Rhinoceros and imported into Blender. In practise though, the result was complete crap – what’s called the file ‘topology’ – the resulting mesh, was a mess. But I’m proud that I did work out a method (all by myself!) to do it, using Zbrush as medium.
This year (2019) I headed off to travel Europe, and had a vague idea that I might try and visit the Magdalenska site (I like getting a feel for landscape that you simply can’t get from a book). Trouble was, though I didn’t yet know it – I’d somehow got it into my head that Magdalenska gora was in Austria.
So here I was in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. I was enjoying it a lot – the city is touristy – but in a nice way and thankfully it wasn’t crowded (not being situated on any kind of a beach helps). On my last day in the country I’d gone to the National Museum – and found myself looking at displays of artefacts from Magdalenska gora. Huh? Why was a Slovenian museum focusing on something from Austria?
On the way out I thumbed through a few books in the museum shop and found one on Magdalenska gora with a map – and finally the penny dropped. Dammit, the place was here, not Austria! I asked the woman at the front desk how far it was from here, and she told me in accented English, what I thought was about “50 km”.
By now it was lunchtime, so I wandered off to buy some slices of pizza and sit outside under an umbrella, munch on then, and fret. Nothing in Slovenia can be that far from anywhere, I thought – but could I get there and back in an afternoon? (I had a bus to Italy that night which I couldn’t miss). I Googled some old maps and modern Google Maps which showed me a general location of Magdalenska gora – not far from Ljubljana. But how close was that to the actual archaeological site, and how, exactly, could one get there? So off I tootled to Ljubljana Tourist Information. The woman there knew of the site and she pulled out a map of the Ljubljana bus system. It turned out that Magdalenska gora was less than 15 km away, and I could access it on the metropolitan bus system. A bus from right outside my hostel would get me to within about 3 km of the place. Beyond there though, I was on my own.
Getting off the bus in the village of Šmarje-Sap, I asked (in German) the first person I came across for directions. She pointed me along a small road which passed under the motorway and then continued towards forested hills. Just past the motorway I reached the edge of the village, and asked directions from another woman gardening outside her house. She pointed further up towards the hills, though I couldn’t work out of she meant me to take the next left or right fork. In the event, I went right and ended up in the village of Paradišče, right at the base of the forest. Was there a track up from here? I wandered around the village for about twenty minutes, never saw a soul, until I finally encountered another woman – who knew exactly what I was looking for and who spoke perfect English. I had to go back, she said, take the left fork, and head up into the forest from there. I had to look out for a little trail in the forest that would begin opposite a car park.
A few hundred meters into the forest, I found something that might have been an unofficial ‘car park’ to the left, and to the right, an unmarked muddy trail heading into the forest. There were no signposts, but down the track I found the first of several information signs about the old archaeological site, so I had found it at last. There was nothing obvious to see (any holes from over a century ago would have been well overgrown) but finally I could imagine where that woman had lived and her view over the valley.
From the sign posts I learnt that the hill-top had been fortified, although the information was in Slovenian, so the details were beyond me. I guess this is where the woman lived, or at least retreated to in times of danger, and the cemetery was likely on its periphery. There is now a church on top of the hill, but down below it in the forest, I made out faint ridges, which may be the remains of the fortifications. From there I wandered back down to Šmarje-Sap, soon caught a return bus back to Ljubljana and had plenty of time before my overnight-bus to Italy. Success!
So here you have a rough attempt at these neck rings (see the featured image and below). I haven’t yet got them sitting right around the neck (and the scale probably needs a little adjusting), and the originals have a finely incised pattern of lines on them. After a few years of trying to sort out the technique to do that, I think I finally get it – only to encounter the next problem of controlling the cross-sectional shape of those lines. The whole process was driving me to drink, and that was expensive. So sod-it.
We don’t know what she looked like, or even the basic style of her clothing. Was her hair up, down, or covered? We don’t know. For now, I’ve dealt with this by simply posing the rings on a blank model. One day, I hope, we might be able to make an informed guesses about some of these details.
In her full get-up of ‘bling’, this woman must have been quite a sight: six neck rings, eight brooches, four bracelets, four of what may have been ear-rings or hair-rings, glass and amber beads, and, get-this, 28 bronze anklets. Give me time!
Hencken, H. 1978. The Iron Age Cemetery of Magdalenska gora in Slovenia. Mecklenburg Collection, Part II: American School of Prehistoric Research Bulletins, 32.