Review – Caroline Wilkinson – Depicting The Dead: Craniofacial Analysis

As humans, it is hardwired within us to look for and recognise faces in our environment. It has been a handy survival tool to be able to tell the sabre tooth tiger from the next door neighbour. It is mainly by sight that we recognise our family, our friends and those we come across regularly in our lives. So, if the features that make someone recognisable are missing, as is often the case in forensic investigations, how can we hope to identify them? This is where the work of craniofacial analysis steps up. Caroline Wilkinson, Professor of Craniofacial Identification at Dundee University, gave a fascinating talk to Skeptics on the Fringe on the science and art behind Craniofacial Analysis – studying and recreating the features of a person from the remains of their skull.

Caroline took us through the early history of craniofacial analysis and how techniques have been refined over the years to give greater accuracy in details of muscle attachment and thickness of the skin. Features that contain little bone can be tricky but years of research by one of Caroline’s colleagues means that noses can now be much portrayed much more accurately although ears can apparently still be a bit of an unknown. Technology has moved things on too with models being created in computers where once they would have been sculpted in clay. Although a serious subject, we were after all talking about it’s use in identifying the dead, often victims of violent assault, Caroline brought in enough light to balance the shade and the focus of the talk was on the artistry and science of reconstruction.

One lighter moment was when Caroline talked about the asymmetry of people’s faces and while symmetry is apparently considered attractive in someone’s face it is not usually the norm due to differences in skull development from side to side which affect the surface features. This was well demonstrated using photos of various people and celebrities where the left and right sides of their face had been duplicated to make a whole face. Let’s just say they were slightly freaky with David Beckham apparently having the most symmetrical features and appearing most normal in all incarnations. Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t fare quite so well.

It seems that while the underlying structure can be fairly accurately calculated it is in the surface detail that creativity comes to the fore as often little or no forensic information is available to help with things like hair colour/style, complexion (i.e.ruddy or pale) and other identifiers such as tattoos or birthmarks. This is a skill indeed, and the difficulty was demonstrated in some more pictures of one of Caroline’s colleagues, showing how a person can look completely different just by changing their hair style or texture, facial hair or even by putting on some glasses. Most of us will be probably aware of Caroline’s work as she was involved in the analysis of the body recently found on Corstorphine Hill in Edinburgh. This case was a good example of the benefits of this work as the victim was identified within a couple of days of the reconstruction being revealed.

She was also involved in the reconstruction of the skull of Richard III when his body was found. This historical and archaeological aspect is another area where craniofacial analysis has been used to great effect to bring characters from the pages of history to life. One of Caroline latest projects in this area is a reconstruction of the head of Mary Queen Of Scots which can currently be seen in the National Museum of Scotland. This was a fascinating subject given an excellent presentation and it was good to see an excellent audience turn out for it.