Identity through Art and Science

Facial reconstruction

What is it:

According to Caroline Wilkinson it is “the science of art building the face onto the skull for the purpose of individual identification.” Forensic reconstruction is a very complicated process, and the knowledge of what needs to be known is quite extensive. The education they need to know to be successful in being the most accurate is forensic science, anthropology, anatomy, and osteology. Also, patience and an artist hand won’t hurt either. And even though facial reconstruction is not an extension of physical anthropology, physical anthropologists have contributed or even incorporated methods and technique for the field. And over the years with better scientific methods developed has shifted from being an art with some science, to being more calculative, relying on science to get better estimates, relying less and less on artistic intuition. And contemporary forensic reconstruction have proved successful in getting an identity from unknown remains.


Popular British anthropologist Dr. Wilkinson. Her work on Robert the Bruce in background.

Facial reconstruction is used primarily in two fields of anthropology; forensic and archaeology. In forensics, it is usually used as a last resort to get a possible identification from the remains of a homicide, mass disaster, or genocide. In archaeology, it can be used when there are historic or ancient remains at their dig site. And from the skeletal, or mummified remains can make a face of the past. Facial reconstruction has become popular in museums and to the public because it can bring a more intimate attachment to the people of the past. Also with the current known knowledge of our evolutionary history the artist/scientist have been able to use similar technique and methods to reconstruct early humans and ancient hominins.

Methods and reconstruction:

Methods have changed over the years relying more on data and technology rather than artistic skill.

The first method used began in the nineteenth century by using cadavers to test the tissue depths by measuring how far the needle will go into the tissue. This was later viewed as unreliable because of the lack of fluid in the face changes the depth of tissue during decomposition, among other factors from measuring or decomposition.

The most recent and scientifically more reliable method for measuring the tissue depths is the Manchester method. By using modern technology such as CT scan or an MRI. They can get accurate data of tissue depths by using living individuals.

There are three types of facial reconstruction:

(a) 2D reconstruction. (b) 3D reconstruction, and (c) computerized reconstruction.

Three-dimensional reconstruction:


Uses clay or wax to rebuild face over the skull itself or a cast. A new way of building the cast is to use a 3D printer, which will do less harm to the actual skull. Then there are tissue-depth markers or rubber pegs placed on various places of the cast. Then layers are placed that are shaped much like tissues on the cast and are evened out around the rubber pegs. The last steps are hair and other accessories like jewelry or glasses. Still, there are reconstruction work that is guesswork. Like color of hair, skin tone, and shape of ears. Unless there are still some hair or tissue samples not badly decomposed to help the processes. This is last resort to get an identification. Mostly because it is time and labor intensive. Used to trigger a response of someone who see it and may have information.

Tw0-dimenstional facial reconstruction:


Can also be referred to as a police sketch. Similar to the 3D model they will put tissue-depth markers and then take a photograph or x-ray of the skull or cast. Then draw or trace specific features over the photograph or x-ray. This method is becoming obsolete with the advancement of computer programs for facial reconstruction first developed in the 90s.

Computerized reconstruction:


Computer software designed with programs for facial reconstruction brought in a new era for the field. Still implements the methods for tissue-depth used for 3D reconstruction. But unlike the 3D model it is quicker and fast producing. His doesn’t make it more accurate or exact than the 3D model, just an enhanced version to make quick changes and to make different versions quicker. Like Hair styles or accessories. But like the 3D model,  any evidence recovered like hair or tissue will make a better profile.

Real life Examples:

Bun Chee Nyhuis’s facial reconstruction printed in the newspaper.

A skull and 40 or so bones were found at a Boy Scout camp in Missouri. Along with some hair, and jeans. Based on the evidence recovered and help from a Forensic anthropologist (Dr. Michael Charney) they were able to say the remains belonged to a five foot, one hundred and twenty pound Asian women in her mid-twenties who had given birth to at least two children. Even with all this evidence they were still not able to identify the remains. So, as their last option they decided to reconstruct the face in hopes some will recognize her. After the reconstruction was given to various media outlets friends of her were able to identify her as Bun Chee Nyhuis. And through further investigation where able to charge and put her husband away for murder.

Elisabeth Daynes working on the face of a Paranthropus boisei.

Paleoartist Elisabeth Daynes is a French sculptor with a twenty plus year career now in human evolution. She has done hyper-realistic reconstructions of hominins from Lucy to archaic humans. She has gained global recognition for her work and her reconstructions are in natural history museums around the world. Her work focuses heavily on the skull as it is has unique features for every hominin. She also collaborates heavily on scientists like paleoanthropologists, forensic anthropologists, biologists and geneticist. As well as reads scientific literature for most she can do to reconstruct our ancestors.

if your interested in watching the process, view these videos

good example of how they work closely with other anthropologists and historians to get  better reconstructions of historical remains.

Watch “Richard III Revealed” on Netflix, and watch the recovery and facial reconstruction of a King by Dr. Wilkinson.

The case of Bun Chee Nyhuis made by Forensic Files. Can find on YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.

Books and websites:

The Bone Detectives by Donna M. Jackson- a short, but very informative book about forensic and physical anthropology.

Flesh and Bone by Myriam Nafte- a great and inexpensive book that real anthropologist use!













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