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Forensic facial reconstruction of Homo erectus

Forensic Facial Reconstruction: The Journey to Connect with our Ancestors


Facial reconstructions allow us to look eye to eye with our ancient ancestors and relate to them in a way that skeletal remains do not inspire. It can be dehumanizing to look at a bare skull, and many societies consider looking at bodily remains taboo. It can be easy to forget that a skeleton was once a living, breathing person when bones can provoke such a visceral response.

Giving a face to the skeletal remains of a human who lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago makes it easier to connect with the past, and it is appealing and engaging to present facial reconstructions to the general public to spark an interest in the societies and people of the past.

Advancements in technology mean it has never been easier to reconstruct faces from ancient remains, but the field has been around for a surprisingly long time and the history of facial reconstruction is as fascinating as the art itself.

3D forensic DEMO_reel Visualforensic/P_Froesch from Philippe FROESCH on Vimeo.

The Origins of Facial Reconstruction

Throughout the 18 th and 19 th centuries there was rapid development in the field of anatomy. The demand for bodies was so high that in Britain the Anatomy Act was passed in 1832 in an attempt to put an end to the resurrectionists and body snatchers who were profiting on the high demand for bodies to study.

It is thanks to the work of the anatomists that many of the principle techniques for facial reconstruction were possible. The German anatomist and archaeologist Friedrich Welcker played a particularly important role, as he studied cadavers to create a list of facial tissue depths.

 A fellow German anatomist, Wilhelm His, created the first facial reconstruction in 1895. He recreated the face of J.S Bach using Welcker’s data. The likeness of the reconstruction to contemporary portraits and busts of Bach was remarked on at the time and Welcker went on to produce several facial reconstructions of his own using what became known as the “Welcker Facial Reconstruction Technique”.

The idea of facial reconstruction was immediately interesting to people in the fields of anthropology and archaeology. In 1898 Kollman and Buchly published a set of data for the thickness of facial tissue with more points of reference to allow for greater accuracy. This data was used to reconstruct faces for decades after its publication and it is still used by some forensic anthropologists today.

The facial reconstruction of Queen Judith of Thuringia - a project organized by archaeologist Jiri Sindelar. Source: Cicero Moraes / CC BY-SA 4.0.

The facial reconstruction of Queen Judith of Thuringia - a project organized by archaeologist Jiri Sindelar. Source: Cicero Moraes / CC BY-SA 4.0.

A Developing Field

The pioneering techniques laid down in the Victorian era were significant in sparking the science of facial reconstruction, but it was initially practiced more as a novelty than a science. Reconstructions of Bach and Kant were interesting and entertaining, but the earliest practitioners were not reconstructing the faces of people who were not already well documented. Bach, Haydn, Kant, and Schiller were of interest to the general public, but it seemed as though a peasant from the 1300s was not.

It was not until the 1940s that the technique was further refined and started to become reliable in assisting modern forensic investigations. It is also at this point that some important elements that had previously been overlooked were brought into consideration – a 3D reconstruction became far more realistic when facial symmetry was considered and accounted for and data sets with information relating to race, age, and sex made the science far more precise.

Stages of 3D facial reconstruction. (Cicero Moraes / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Stages of 3D facial reconstruction. (Cicero Moraes / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Modern Era

Facial Reconstruction was now well established as a discipline, but in the 1970s it was still thought of as a novelty by many anthropologists who would share the technique with their students as nothing more than a light-hearted footnote.

However, by the 1980s the field was becoming firmly rooted and respected within the academic sphere, and the researchers who were now adopting the technique began to add to the techniques used. These involved processes such as superimposing pictures of a missing person onto an unidentified skull to see if they matched and many of the techniques which emerged at this time did not help to progress the field for archaeologists.

One technique which did become invaluable to archaeologists and forensic anthropologists was clay modeling, in which a reconstruction is built around a skull using data such as tissue depth and facial musculature mapped out with pegs which were physically attached to the skull. While this was first done in the 1940s, it was not until the 1980s and 90s that people began adding more detail such as fine lines and eyelashes to give the reconstruction a more lifelike appearance. Despite these details the clay models often look downright creepy. The combination of dull brown clay and unsettlingly realistic eyes can be very off putting rather than helping the viewer picture the person as they would have been.

An anthropological reconstruction with clay of the face of Tzar Kaloyan, made by Prof. Yordan Yordanov on the basis of the skull. (Spiritia / CC BY-SA 3.0)

An anthropological reconstruction with clay of the face of Tzar Kaloyan, made by Prof. Yordan Yordanov on the basis of the skull. (Spiritia / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Today, it is possible to scan a skull and work on a digital facial reconstruction. It is far quicker and easier to add digital pegs to a 3D skull than the time and effort taken on a physical model. Unlike their uncanny looking clay counterparts, digital reconstructions can be very realistic. It is also possible to update them as more information becomes available. There are some realistic wax facial reconstructions but the painstakingly detailed skin and hair on these models cannot be replaced in seconds if DNA evidence shows they were actually wrong.

With the advent of technology such as 3D printing and virtual reality, facial reconstructions are likely to evolve further. Archaeologists are already utilizing 3D printing to help reconstruct fragile skeletons, so it is only a matter of time before you will be able to print off 3D models or view VR reconstructions and come face to face with the people of past from the comfort of your own home.

Forensic Facial Reconstruction of ALberto di Trento by Arc-Team and Cicero Moraes. (Cicero Moraes / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Forensic Facial Reconstruction of ALberto di Trento by Arc-Team and Cicero Moraes. (Cicero Moraes / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Top image: Forensic facial reconstruction of Homo erectus (CC by SA 4.0)

By Sarah P Young


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Sarah P

Sarah P Young is undertaking her masters in archaeology, specializing in early human behavior and in particular evidence of interaction between humans and Neanderthals. She hopes to continue her studies further and complete a doctorate.

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