Celebrate the Festival of Archaeology - Meet the Faces from the Past

26th July 2017
Share this:

The famous archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler once wrote:

‘Archaeology is digging up people, not things’

He warns us against becoming too obsessed with our flakes of flint and our sherds of pottery and to remember the people who actually used those knives and pots as part of their daily lives. How much more relevant, then, and more exciting, to actually be able to reconstruct what those people looked like and to meet them face to face? That is one of the things which facial reconstruction tries to do, turning the archaeologists’ dry bones into a ‘real’ person.

 3 stages

As steel girders make a building’s armature, the skull forms the armature of the face. Next, just as concrete is poured around the girders to a predetermined thickness, so the muscles are added to the skull following an established database of flesh thicknesses. This is a fully objective technique and the medical artist is guided by the rules of anatomy.

Features are built up muscle-by-muscle on a cast of the skull to produce the face of a man or woman of the appropriate age, but, for now, without hair or beard. At this stage, you already begin to see the bones breathe life & this technique is not limited to archeologists, this method of facial reconstruction is often used in forensic teams. The police use the reconstruction to help identify a body and this first hairless version is often sufficient to give a lead. Once someone has tentatively recognised the face, suitable hair can be added to test the identification: many crimes have been solved using such reconstructions. For the archaeologist, these cases are valuable because they demonstrate that the technique produces faces that can be recognised by the deceased person's friends and family.

Archaeological reconstruction, although not used to solve crime, is much more than just a display item for a museum display or a glossy magazine, for it goes much further as one brings together all the details that specialists can deduce from the remains. It becomes a three-dimensional report, perhaps more accurate and certainly more powerful than a conventionally printed account. Where a portrait incorporates elements of the person's character and lifestyle, that may be known from other sources but which leave no trace on the bone, the scientific reconstructions rely in the first instance entirely on the evidence of the skeletal material, and call on a great variety of disciplines to achieve this. 

It is this multi-disciplinary aspect that makes the work exciting and gives it its scientific value. These reconstructions have led to actual identifications in archaeology too, notably Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.

Truly, archaeologists are digging up people, not things: so we can sympathise with the Greek king who lost his eye to an arrow, the Etruscan lady who fell from her horse and losing most of her teeth and later smitten with painful arthritis, or the warrior from Golden Mycenae who could never forget the spondylosis in his neck.

Lost his eye

The technique is now well known, but much of the important – and spectacular – pioneering work was done in Manchester by Andante Travels' very own lecturers, Richard Neave and John Prag, working of course with many colleagues. But forty years on, we do ask ourselves whether it is really fair that now one of us suffers from arthritis, like Etruscan Seianti, and the other knows all too well what cervical spondylosis feels like. Isn’t this pushing empathy a little too far?

If you want to experience the feeling of being face to face with the ancient world, join Richard Nave and John Prag on our 'Faces from the Past' study day this December!

Back to News
Share this: