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When would we need a facial reconstruction?

Caroline Wilkinson explains when she might be asked to undertake a facial reconstruction and how her team undertake the work
In the UK the police are pretty good at identifying human remains. But sometimes there may be no clues from the scene as to who the individual might be. And sometimes in those circumstances, the police will ask for a depiction of the person as they looked when they were alive to be produced, so that can be put out to the public in the hope that someone will recognise the individual, and then that will lead to identification. So from our point of view, the work that we do isn’t an identification process. It’s a tool for recognition. So it’s the investigative tool, really, to get names that the person can then be identified from.
We often get involved in current forensic cases, when there’s a bit of a dead end. Or sometimes cold cases when they’re reviewing cases and they want to bring in some new technology. We normally work either from the anthropology report, or we’ll do an assessment of our own from the skull, in relation to the age at death, the sex of the individual and the ancestry group. Then we might get extra information from the scene. So sometimes hair will be found with the body, sometimes a bit of clothing, maybe some jewellery, and that can be added to the mix as well. But most of the time, because of the nature of it, we deal with skeletal remains.
We don’t have any of that information, apart from the anthropological classification of biological profile. And in terms of facial features we don’t have anything. So we’ll - that’s kind of what the process is for - predicting those facial features from skeletal assessment. The length of time it takes really depends on the individual case, because it depends on the circumstances of the remains. So for example, if the remains are fragmented, we have to put them together. And we do that. That can take some time before we can start on the reconstruction process. But in general it’s two days work to produce a finished face. We often work within archaeological investigations.
There may be a number of reasons why we could be involved. The most obvious is just bringing a face from the past alive. People have a huge amount of interest in faces, and looking at faces from the past is also interesting for us because we can compare ourselves with them. Sometimes we work with famous historical figures. For example we’ve done reconstructions of Richard III, and Johann Sebastian Bach, and Saint Nicholas. Sometimes it will be an archaeological dig where there may be a number of individuals that are not known who they are, but know the circumstances of that particular period. And then we might do a number of reconstructions from that site.
Sometimes we get involved in showing the face of an individual when it’s related to disease or trauma, and that might give us some information about the lifestyle of the individual and the treatment that they might have had in that period of time. And sometimes we can look at genetic relationships. Whether or not people look similar to each other from the same burial site might give us an indication of whether they’re related or not, or whether they’re from a similar population at least. So a number of reasons. We’re most likely it is to be approached by museums, archaeologists, and sometimes the television media in relation to a programme that might be surrounding a particular archaeological case.
When we’re working in archaeology, we often do get extra information that we don’t get to in a forensic case. For example, the archaeologists may know something of the hairstyles of that period of time. Or they might have text information about the clothing. So actually we do get a little bit more context in an archaeological investigation than we do in a forensic one. And what we’re not trying to do in archaeology is create exactly the face of the individual. We’re trying to produce the most likely face of the individual. So we will have the most likely hairstyle of somebody of that age, of that status, from that period of time.
Whereas in a forensic case, we’re trying to produce the face of the individual. And therefore we have to be a bit more cautious. There’s a little bit more artistic licence within an archaeological investigation. We tend to have a longer time scale. So the police want things doing tomorrow, always. Whereas within archaeology we tend to have a longer timescale and we know when the deadline will be. If it’s tied up with an exhibition in a museum, then obviously there’s an opening event so we know exactly when that will be. The process takes the same amount of time, but we tend to spend longer on it within an archaeological investigation, because we have a bit more time.
And it might involve a bit more CGI, or sometimes we might have to do a 3D printout and get a wig, and prosthetic eyes, and all of those things. So that can take longer because we have the opportunity to take longer with archaeology.

Facial reconstruction is currently used in two principal contexts: forensic science and archaeology. In this video, Professor Caroline Wilkinson explains the circumstances where she has been asked to conduct a facial reconstruction.

Caroline is Director of Face Lab, where she conducts research in many fields including facial identification, craniofacial reconstruction and facial animation. Caroline collaborates with museums, the police and the media to create and advise on craniofacial depictions.

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