Archaeological facial reconstruction in Ireland: meeting an ancestor from Owenbristy, Co. Galway

By Katherine Beatty, a recent doctoral graduate from the Department of Archaeology, University College Cork

Facial reconstruction—also known as facial representation, approximation, or reconstitution—integrates rigorous scientific methodologies with an artistic dimension to reconstruct the human countenance from skeletal material. We can use this endeavour and these faces to connect to our shared human past. Through this, we see that those that came before us are actually not that different from us after all.

The methodologies that contemporary facial reconstruction uses have been developing since the late 19th century in the realms of both forensic and archaeological science. The global collaboration of practitioners resulted in the emergence of the Russian School, the American School, and the Manchester or Combination Method. These three strains of practice form the background to the reconstructed faces we see in the forensic and archaeological record. Each method or school has its own procedural manner of reconstruction that emphasises different phases of the overall reconstruction process. For instance, the Russian School highlights the anatomical structure of the face, the American School employs soft tissue depth, and the Manchester Method combines a schematic anatomical structure with soft tissue depths.

There are criticisms that accompany the discipline of facial reconstruction with regard to accuracy in both forensic and archaeological productions. These are addressed in the forensic realm by studies that compare successfully identified deceased individuals with their forensic reconstructions. This offers a self-critical advantage to improve the practice of facial reconstruction.

There have been large amounts of human skeletal material recovered and analysed in Ireland as a result of the significant number of development-led archaeological excavations that have taken place in recent years. Research excavations have also contributed important material. These collections provide bioarchaeological information, which in turn informs us as to the quality of life in Ireland’s prehistoric and historic past. Even with the amount of archaeological human remains available for research, facial reconstruction is a rarely used technique in Ireland and remains an undervalued tool for proliferating information regarding human skeletal collections.

Archaeological facial reconstructions of Irish skeletal material include:

• a Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age female from Ballynahatty, Co. Down

• an Iron Age male bog body from Clonycavan, Co. Meath

• a Viking Age female from Dublin City

• a late medieval decapitated male from Armagh, Co. Armagh

• Edmund Ignatius Rice (1762–1844), founder of the Christian and Presentation Brothers

This list continues to grow as resources and technological strategies advance. While no established centres for facial reconstruction exist in Ireland, research centres at the University of Dundee Centre for Anatomy & Human Identification and the Face Lab Research Group at Liverpool John Moores University actively contribute to the facial reconstruction record, while adding increasingly reliable soft tissue predictions to the discipline’s methodologies. Most recently, the Face Lab Research Group created a facial reconstruction of a 15th–17th-century male skeleton discovered in College Green, Dublin, during works related to the Luas Cross City project.

Part of my doctoral research entailed adding to the facial reconstruction record of Ireland. During my study, with the help of the National Museum of Ireland and University College Cork, four individuals were reconstructed. These were derived from samples ranging in date from prehistory to the post-medieval era. Along with this practical reconstruction, I also examined the evolving meaning and representation of the face as it relates to the bioarchaeological remains of Ireland.

Reconstruction of the early medieval cemetery-settlement at Owenbristy, Co. Galway. Drawn by Dan Tietzsch-Tyler.

Reconstruction of the early medieval cemetery-settlement at Owenbristy, Co. Galway. Drawn by Dan Tietzsch-Tyler.

As an example of this work, I would like to discuss and present skeleton 23 from an early medieval cemetery-settlement excavated at Owenbristy, Co. Galway, on the N18 Oranmore–Gort road scheme. This site, which was occupied from the fifth to 10th centuries AD, was excavated under the direction of John Lehane of Eachtra Archaeological Projects (see Seanda 2009 Issue 4). The individual designated as skeleton 23 was found interred within a slab-lined grave in the Owenbristy cemetery. Deposited in a west–east orientation, with the head at the west, and in a supine extended position, the mortuary context of this individual aligns with the majority of early medieval burial practices.

Extract from plan of the Owenbristy cemetery. Image: Eachtra Archaeological Projects

Extract from a plan of the Owenbristy cemetery. Image: Eachtra Archaeological Projects.

The Manchester Method was used to create this reconstruction. When first approaching skeletal material for reconstruction, the skeletal features need to be analysed to determine the age, sex, and race of the individual thus creating an ‘osteobiography’. Analysis of the Owenbristy skeletal collection by osteoarchaeologist Dr Jonny Geber employed analytic standards of aging and sexing archaeological human remains. These methodological standards showed this person to have been an adult male, 35–45 years old, with Caucasoid features. This information is essential for the use of the soft tissue depth markers necessary for the reconstruction process. Based on the premise that all individuals have the same anatomical constitution below the skin, practitioners use the skeletal markers to map musculature onto the skull either in clay or with computer software. This coincides with the use of soft tissue depth markers placed on consistent points of the skull, followed by the identification and creation of soft tissue facial features.

The fundamental principle of facial reconstruction is that the skeletal material of the skull provides information as to how the soft tissue features of the face (eyes, nose, mouth, ears) appear. Each of these features have their own soft tissue prediction metrics and correlating skeletal features that dictate their appearance. An in-depth review of these and the following methodologies, their citations, as well as full facial reconstruction reports, can be found in my doctoral thesis.

Six panel image by Katherine Beatty showing the process used in reconstructing the Owenbristy male burial

Plaster cast of the skull of skeleton 23, with pegged soft tissue depths (a); the completed rendering of the individual’s anatomical structures (b and c); the beginning of the skinning process (d); and the final reconstruction of the male burial from Owenbristy (e and f). Image: Katherine Beatty.

Predicting the appearance of the eyes and eyebrows is informed by a combination of the skeletal features of the brow ridge, the orbits (which contain the eyeballs), and the nasal ridge. The eye slant of skeleton 23 is horizontal meaning the eye will appear neither slanted upwards nor downwards. Using the same prediction method, the eyebrows appear as S-shaped or rounded. The eyefold, which in humans can either appear medially, centrally, or laterally folded, appears as central in this individual.

As much of the nose is composed of soft tissue that very rarely survives in archaeological contexts, standard equations derived by various facial reconstruction specialists and observations of the individual’s remaining skeletal material were used to estimate the appearance of the nose and nasal profile of skeleton 23. The tip of the nose is approximated by mimicking the shape of the nasal aperture. The nasal spine, which is not commonly intact for archaeological remains, dictates the direction of the nose. For instance, if the nasal spine points downward, the nose appears downturned and if the nasal spine points upwards, the individual appears to have an upturned nose. The nasal spine of skeleton 23 is straight which means the direction of the nose is straight. The length of the nose was estimated using standard equations.

The mouth was an interesting soft tissue feature to predict as the teeth were extremely worn down from activity during his life. Normally with the prediction of the mouth, teeth are measured to inform the likely thickness of the lips. Owing to the archaeological nature of these remains, however, correct data could not be observed from the skeletal material, which represents a limitation of the reconstruction. The mandible (jaw bone) of this individual is robust and upright, with flares at the jaw’s angle (caused by the more defined muscle attachments typical in males), and a prominent chin.

Revealing a face from the past is an exciting experience. Reconstructing a face upon the surface of the skull captures an audience’s imagination and provides a moment of reflection about the archaeological past. As the reconstruction from Owenbristy has shown us, this site and the artefacts recovered there were very much products of human lives. We can experience Owenbristy through another layer of the past because of the connection with this face peering out towards us. Facial reconstruction is an unvalued tool in the arsenal of archaeological methodologies, not only for public engagement, but also for the proliferation of the ever-increasing knowledge of the bioarchaeological record.

Further reading

Geber, J  2011  ‘Human remains from Owenbristy’, in F Delaney & J Tierney, In the Lowlands of South Galway: archaeological excavations on the N18 Oranmore to Gort National Road Scheme, 88–97. NRA Scheme Monographs 7. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

Prag, J & Neave, R  1997  Making Faces. British Museum Press, London.

Rynn, C, Wilkinson, C & Peters, H L  2009/2010  ‘Prediction of nasal morphology from the skull’, Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology, Vol. 6, No. 1, 20–34.

Rynn, C, Balueva, T & Veselovskaya, E  2012  ‘Relationships between the skull and face’, in C Wilkinson & C Rynn (eds), Craniofacial Identification, 193–202. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Sanders, K  2009  Bodies in the Bog and the Archaeological Imagination. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Taylor, K T  2001  Forensic Art and Illustration. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

Wilkinson, C  2004  Forensic Facial Reconstruction. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Wilkinson, C M  (forthcoming)  ‘The facial analysis of Clonycavan man’, in Bog Bodies Research Project. National Museum of Ireland Monograph Series.

(Posted 7 June 2017)