For thousands of years, people have tried to revive the skulls of their dead. With the help of modern technology and ancient DNA, it is now both an art and a science, National Geographic reported.
This is the moment that keeps Oscar Nilsson listening - a moment when archeology and art collide.
After long months spent reconstructing the facial structure of a long-dead man in his Stockholm studio, Nilsson begins to apply a layer of "skin" to his latest silicone bust. He uses increasingly fine needles to create wrinkles and pores, applies paints that capture the essence of the human epidermis, and inserts infinitesimal hairs into his creation. Then she opens his eyelids.
"It immediately becomes a face," says Nilsson, a certified archaeologist and sculptor who specializes in 3D facial reconstructions of ancient people.
Nilsson is not alone: Facial reconstructions are an increasingly popular way to approach the past. But creating a reconstruction is not just a matter of clay and confident hands. It's a process that takes art to the edge of science and science to the edge of art, and the results can take your breath away. This is how archaeologists breathe new life into the faces of human history.
Why we revive faces from the past
The practice of reconstructing faces is older than you think: as one team of bioarchaeological researchers wrote, "the idea of reviving a skull has been part of human history for thousands of years." In the Neolithic Levant from about 10,800 years ago and in the Late Neolithic Anatolia from about 8,500 years ago, they explain, "skulls were excavated after a socially acceptable time had passed, then they were covered with plaster, clay and pigments that were shaped and painted to resemble the dead man".
The fathers of modern facial reconstruction in the 19th century used similar strategies, but added the knowledge and experience of skilled physicians and anatomists. Driven by the desire to glorify and romanticize revered but deceased public figures, they first examined the dead man's bones before bringing his appearance closer to sculpture.
One such sculpture is none other than the legendary composer Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1894, in an attempt to determine whether exhumed human remains found in a German churchyard were indeed Bach's, German anatomist Wilhelm Hiss attempted to reconstruct the composer's face. The anatomist does this by applying clay directly to the skull, using data on the average depth of facial tissue gathered from examining the faces of 27 human cadavers. The resulting face resembled existing portraits of Bach, which convinced historians that the skeleton probably belonged to the late composer - and later served as the basis for future artworks and for Bach's reburial in Leipzig.
This has sparked a growing scientific interest in the anatomy of the human face and the subtle differences in facial depth and tissue formation that make each face unique. The facial tissue thickness data created by these early anatomists is still used by facial reconstructionists such as Nilsson.
First steps in facial reconstruction
Before 3D facial reconstruction begins, researchers must gather as much information as possible about their subject's life. Who was he? Where did he live and die? What is known about their diet, lifestyle and health? Today, advances in archaeological analysis make it possible to determine anything about people—from their favorite foods to the type of climate they lived in—by examining a sample's isotopes.
And this is often just the beginning: An increasing number of facial reconstructions now also include data from DNA analysis, which can determine not only a person's ancestry, but also their likely skin, hair and eye color. Ancient DNA analyzes "changed the game for me," Nilsson says, because they take the guesswork out of many aspects of reconstruction that were previously left up to the artist.
An individual's sex, ethnicity, weight, and age at death provide information about facial depth and other features, and the skull also has subtle markings that show where tissue was once connected to bone. "Sometimes it's very easy to see exactly where the muscle was placed because it leaves tension marks or ridges on the skull," Nilsson says. All of this information helps the reconstructor decide what goes where, resulting in an eerie anatomical model.
From archeology to art
For the next step, a deep understanding of facial anatomy is key: Sculptural reconstructors like Nilsson carefully mold individual pieces of cartilage and muscle from clay, overlaying each one directly onto a 3D-printed copy of the subject's skull.
Although 3D facial reconstruction can be done using a computer, Nilsson prefers a hands-on approach. "I've been interested in faces for as long as I can remember," he says.
As the mosaic of educated guesses slowly takes on human form, the re-enactor moves from re-creation to interpretation - using what is known about the person to shape their eyes, mouth and skin. For example, he might add wrinkles or sunspots to the face of a person who died of old age, or include evidence of diseases found during DNA testing.
"I often feel that my work is a two-step process," Nilsson says. First, his job is to act as an impartial observer, following the rules of forensic archeology and sticking to the hard data. "And then I hand them over to the artist," he says.
Ultimately, the clay-covered skull is used as the basis for making a silicone bust of the man. Delicate, subtle paint and painstakingly applied hair bring the reconstruction to life.
The ethics of such reconstructions continue to cause debate in the scientific community. After all, there's no way to know if these images are accurate, and the person being reproduced has no say in the matter. There is also the difficulty of preventing the public from drawing too broad conclusions about the whole of human history from a single individual.
But there is another way of looking at the sometimes unusual faces that emerge as a result of this process. Every facial reconstruction is an opportunity to reflect - even to pay tribute - to a person whose time is far in the past. The reconstructions add a layer of humanity to what might otherwise just seem like a pile of bones. In other words, this complex dance between art, anatomy and archeology can bring the past back almost to life - one eyelash, one wrinkle and one pore at the same time./BGNES