The Art of Recreating Faces

Faces in art history are often quite literally set in stone. The passage of thousands of years withers away colour and any finer facial features, leaving us with only the bones of our ancestors. 

Facial reconstruction is a technique which allows us to recreate the faces of people throughout history using their skulls. Features such as hair, eye colour, lips, nose and so on which cannot be recreated solely from the skull require additional data. For historical figures, such data can be found in the form of physical descriptions from contemporary historical sources. Alternatively, biological remains apart from skulls can also act as markers for certain facial features although they are hard to come by in practice. Scientists and artists can reconstruct the faces of people who have long since died using knowledge of history, artistry, anatomy, osteology, anthropology and a whole lot of other fields which also end in ‘y’s. 

Despite this gathering of various scientific disciplines, forensic facial reconstruction is a science which is doomed to never be fully accurate. There will always be an element of uncertainty when recreating the faces of historical figures. After all, there is only so much information one can get from skeletal remains, and oftentimes one finds wildly contradictory historical records.
There are millions of possible configurations of the human face which may not necessarily be reflected onto the skull of a subject. This transforms any exercise of reconstruction where there are not ample historical records into an artistic endeavour rather than a scientific one. 

There are examples of reconstructions of early age humans which have been done solely on the basis of their skeletal remains. The objective in this case is not to recreate the face of the individual but rather approximate their appearance and extrapolate it to a group in that period of human evolution.

Forensic facial reconstruction is also used to somewhat dubious effect in criminal justice. While they are generally not considered to be legally admissible, they have been used as a last resort to help in identification of victims. 

 The process of forensic facial reconstruction of a mummy. Created by Cícero Moraes and open to the public domain.

As an example of the intricacies involved in this process, one has to look no further than dinosaurs. There has been a relatively recent phenomenon of much more artful and probably more realistic artistic depictions of dinosaurs in media. The realisation that there is much more to life than just skin and bones has greatly affected reconstruction. The addition of feathers, colours other than grey and brown and other features which are not discernible from fossils has forever changed the perception of dinosaurs. The same limitations also affect facial reconstruction of humans. For all we know, someone could have had a large facial deformity which was not evident from their skull.

A modern reconstruction of a velociraptor. Credit: Fred Wierum 

A particularly striking example of facial reconstruction is Alexander the Great of Macedon. While we do not have his skeletal remains, what we do have are a great many physical descriptions and the skulls of his immediate family including his father. A number of historical sources seem to imply that he was heterochromatic, that is, his eyes were of two different colours, one dark and one blue. There has been debate over the veracity of these claims but it has yielded some truly artistic reconstructions of Alexander.

Alexander’s father Philip II of Macedon however was not quite as lucky. He was a grizzled warrior of many campaigns, and it showed. 

The terrifying visage of King Philip II of Macedon. Reconstructed from skeletal remains found at Aigai in northern Greece. Open to the public domain.

The case of Philip is an interesting one because of a debate about the identity of his skeletal remains. The archaeological site where he was found contained several tombs all occupied by members of the ancient Macedonian royal family. As you may have observed, Philip II was missing his right eye. He was hit with an arrow to the eye during one of his campaigns, which was then surgically removed.  Now normally this would be a pretty unimpeachable defence that this is indeed the guy we’re looking for, unless we know of any other one-eyed Macedonian kings. But, apparently it is entirely possible to be hit in the face with an arrow and suffer only minimal damage to your skull. Good to know. 

It was eventually proven that the skull indeed was of Philip II after numerous osteological studies. 

This further emphasises the point that while facial reconstructions strive to be as accurate as possible, it really is never certain even if we have undisturbed skeletal remains and plenty of historical evidence. 

A notable exception can be found in the facial reconstructions of ancient Egyptian mummies. The mummification process does an exemplary job of preserving enough biological evidence for thousands of years so that reconstructions are realistic and accurate. 

Tutankhamun was an Egyptian pharaoh who lived approximately three thousand years ago. His body was relatively well preserved and has proved to be a treasure trove of information. Three separate teams ( one French, one Egyptian and one American) worked on his facial reconstruction separately and arrived at remarkably similar conclusions. The resulting reconstruction featured on the cover page of National Geographic’s June 2005 issue.

Facial reconstruction of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Credit to Supreme Council of Antiquities.

At this point one may well begin to wonder what exactly is the point of facial reconstructions. It seems to be an orphan, far too liberal with its imaginations for science and much too constrained by reality for art. The answer, I suspect, will differ for every person. 

The contributions of forensic reconstruction have been great for both science and the arts. It has proven itself to be reliable enough as a scientific method to justify continued research into expanding its capabilities. It has also inspired the reimagination of history through more colourful lenses, with human faces at its forefront rather than shrink wrapped dinosaurs. 

Ajinkya Nene

FY ( B.Sc Economics)

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