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Facial reconstruction: What skulls can tell us

- Kemantha Govender

British anthropologist Professor Caroline Wilkinson had South African audiences at the edges of their seats with her fascinating work in facial reconstruction.

Wilkinson, a professor from Liverpool John Moores University, visited South Africa as a guest of the School of Anatomical Sciences at Wits University, with support from a National Research Foundation grant, to present various events, including a workshop for members of the South African Police Service.

While known for her expertise in forensic identification, Wilkinson is equally renowned for her contributions to archaeological investigations. Arguably her most famous case was her creation of a reconstruction of King Richard III's head.

All-rounder

With a background in art and science and her research of art-science fusion, Wilkinson was appointed Director of the School of Art & Design at Liverpool John Moores University in October 2014. Her knowledge is diverse and extends to forensic art, human anatomy, medical art, face recognition, forensic science, anthropology, 3D visualisation, digital art and craniofacial identification.

She combines the latest medical and digital-imaging techniques to recreate faces from the past. Aside from King Richard III, her other famous facial reconstructions include Mary Queen of Scots (Queen of Scotland), Rameses II (ancient Egyptian), St Nicholas (historic 4th-century Christian saint) and Robert Burns (Scottish poet and lyricist).

What the skull reveals 

During her talk at the Origins Centre at Wits, titled: Depicting the Dead: Facial depiction for forensic identification and archaeological investigations, she told a packed audience that the interesting thing for her in the anthropological world is the amount of information a skull can reveal about a person.

“We can tell from an adult skull whether someone is male or female with 90% accuracy. We can make an estimation of the age of the individual when they died.

“As anthropologists we can put people into four different ancestry groups with about 70 - 80%  accuracy. We may get a health status of an individual based on their skull and the bones,” explained Wilkinson.

She said that trauma and disease to the face may tell us about how a person lived and in rare cases it is possible to get insights into the person’s culture. For example, if the skull is changed by the use of a head band, that could lead to clues into the religious or cultural practice of a person.

Technology 

Wilkinson said facial reconstructions are nowadays being done on a computer, although manual reconstructions with clay or plasticine still occur in some cases.

“With the advances in three dimensional (3D) technology, it is possible for us to take CT data or the latest scan of the skull in 3D to model the anatomical structure of the face directly onto the 3D model in a digital format,” she explained.

Police Collaboration

Wilkinson is also called to work on cases with the police. She said on rare occasions (because records of people in the UK are well documented) police will find human remains that is a challenge to identify. When they have no clues about the identity of the individual police would then ask Wilkinson and her team to produce a facial depiction to show what the individual may have looked like when they were alive, in the hope that someone will recognise the body and this could lead to identifying them.

She stressed that this is not a form of identification but an investigate tool to allow for recognition of a person. Once that happens, the person will be identified through DNA or dental records.

There was quite a bit of interest from South African media in Wilkinson’s work. On the Talk Radio 702 she told presenter John Robbie that her work is both art and science.

She has both art students with an interest in science as well as science students with art skills. She also has students from fields such as dentistry, anatomy, anthropology and sculpture.

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