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Faces of 4,000-year-old Indigenous Family Come to Life in New Exhibit

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Weaving together ancient remains with modern-day technology, a new exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History is bringing to life the faces of a 4,000-year-old indigenous family who died near the shores of British Columbia.

The exhibit features a 3D digital reconstruction of the faces of an ancient family from the shíshálh Nation, whose remains were found in 2010 near what is now Sechelt, B.C.

The burial find is one of the most significant in North America, the museum says – not just because the remains are so old and so well-preserved, but because they include the remains of a great man, likely a chief, who had been buried with displays of his wealth.

Archeologists from the Museum of History and the University of Toronto helped excavate the site over two years, unearthing the remains of five people: a man, around the age of 50; a female in her late teens or early 20s; male twins in their early 20s; and one infant whose gender couldn’t be determined.

The man was found with close to 350,000 tiny, stone beads. Because the beads were found laid in rows around his torso, they had likely been sewn into in a cape, says Matthew Betts, a curator of First Peoples archaeology at the museum.

The amount of work that would gone into those beads would have been tremendous, he said, since each bead would have been individually ground and drilled. The team estimates it would have taken about six minutes to make each bead for someone who was very skilled.

“Even at six minutes per bead, depending on how much they were working on it, we’re looking at somewhere 12 and 23 person-years of labour,” Betts told CTVNews.ca.

“So if you can imagine someone rallying that amount of labour on one individual, what a charismatic and powerful person that person would have had to be.”

The cape itself would have been very heavy, weighing about 55 kilograms. “So he would have been strong and powerful just to carry that weight,” Betts noted.

The mere fact that the man was buried with this valuable cape around him suggests he must have been powerful.

“Not only did he display that wealth in life, he disposed of that wealth in death. That’s an indication of how powerful he was that he could dispose of it and not pass it on to his descendants.

The woman was buried nearby, with 15,000 stone beads or her own, as well 1,500 shell beads, which are even more difficult to make because they are so fragile, Betts said. Her beads were found in rows around her head, suggesting they had been braided into her hair.

The museum collaborated with the shíshálh Nation to excavate the site, and then hired a forensic CGI studio to produce scientifically accurate reconstructions of each of the skulls.

They painstakingly created 3D renderings of their faces and then a video of the renderings moving.

“They actually blink and move their heads, almost like portraits in Harry Potter,” Betts said.

The idea was to bring the family to life, to help museum visitors to look into their faces and identify with them and to want to know more about them.

The results will be unveiled to the public July 1 in the museum’s newly built Canadian History Hall. The new hall traces Canada’s history from the dawn of human life in the country to present day, and includes a major focus on indigenous history.

An identical sister version of the 3D module is being constructed for the Tems Swiya Museum in Sechelt, so that nation members there can view the results as well.

“That’s a first in museum practice and it was something we felt strongly we wanted,” Betts said.

“It was the shíshálh story to tell and we didn’t want to just tell it in a Canadian national setting, but in a shíshálh national setting as well.”