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The best historical facial reconstructions 71

The best historical forensic facial reconstructions, from Richard III to Rab Burns…

Richard III

a facial reconstruction of Richard III with blonde hair

Copyright King Richard III Visitor Centre

A facial reconstruction expert spent four hours reworking the head of King Richard III, which was removed from display at the new Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester after DNA testing at the city’s university suggested he would have had blond hair and blue eyes.

Professor Caroline Wilkinson, of Liverpool John Moores University, completed the new depiction guided by test results produced by Dr Turi King, the University of Leciester genetics expert behind the DNA identification work of the remains of Richard III.

A Medieval Maiden from Edinburgh

a side and front photo of reconstructed female face with wavy brown hair

Copyright Edinburgh City Council

A series of forensic reconstructions brought the medieval men, women and children found at a burial ground in Edinburgh eerily to life. This medieval female was found with several other women and children in a communal grave. It is unclear if her death and those buried with her were related to the plague or some other infectious disease.

Forensic artists interpreted examinations on the remains of almost 400 men, women and children from the South Leith Parish Church graveyard, which was excavated during preparation work for Edinburgh Trams in 2009. None of the graves were created after 1640, with the earliest dated to the 14th century and three-quarters of the burials being complete rather than fragmented.

Beachy Head Lady

a facial recostruction of a young woman of African origin

Copyright Graham Huntley

Beachy Head Lady was assumed to be a third century European Roman until experts took a closer look. They found her to be a sub Saharan African living in the Eastbourne area. “Whether that means that she’s first generation we don’t know,” said Heritage Officer Jo Seaman. “She could possibly have been born in Africa and brought over here at a very young age, but it’s just as likely that she was born here.”

Archaeologists are still unsure about her social status. Her teeth and bones were both in good condition, but that doesn’t mean she was either of higher status or a favoured slave – it could be either.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Wilkinson / Aitken, University of Dundee

Wilkinson / Aitken, University of Dundee

A virtual sculpture of the face of Mary, Queen of Scots, made with craniofacial templates based on how she would have looked during her 16th century reign, gazed at visitors to the National Museum of Scotland’s 2014 show about the tumultuous life of the monarch.

No portrait records of Mary exist from the period, but Professor Caroline Wilkinson, from the University of Dundee’s Forensic and Medical Art Research Group says the “striking face” – viewable from several angles – is a reflection of the “enormous challenges” the queen faced while in power.

Early Neolithic Stonehenge Man

a photo of a man puttin the final touches to a reconstrcution of a man with a beard

Copyright James O Davies / English Heritage

This reconstructed head of an early Neolithic man is based on the skeleton of an adult male excavated in 1863 from a long barrow at Winterbourne Stoke, Wiltshire. On display at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre with his upright skeleton beside him, he was born roughly 500 years before the circular ditch and banks, the first monument at Stonehenge, were built.

Skeletons preserved in such good condition from the early Neolithic period are very rare. Radiocarbon dating shows that the man died between 3630 and 3360BC. His teeth showed that he was born away from chalk areas, perhaps somewhere in south west Britain or west Wales, and moved to the chalk geology later in life.

Gristhorpe Man

a facial reconstruction of Gristhorpe Man and elderly man with medium length grey hair

Copyright Dr Alan Ogden

The best-preserved 4,000-year-old skeleton in Britain, the Bronze Age Gristhorpe Man, was found in 1834 in a makeshift grave inside a coffin made out of a hollowed-out Yorkshire oak tree. The preserved skeleton, stained black by the tannic acid in the oak, was wrapped in an animal skin and accompanied by a range of grave goods including a bronze dagger blade with whalebone pommel, flints, and a bark vessel containing food residue.

In 2010 he spoke across the centuries after a CT scan on his skull – courtesy of Bradford Royal Infirmary – showed that he was in his early 60s, allowing experts to make this dramatic computerised recreation.

Medieval Knight

a recostructed head of a young thick set man with cropped hair

This tough looking character is in fact a Medieval Knight – a sword-swinging War of Independence warrior whose brutally executed skeleton was discovered buried in a forgotten chapel at Stirling Castle in the late 1990s.

Experts believe the very strong and fit nobleman with the physique of a professional rugby player, would have been trained since boyhood to handle heavy swords and other weapons. He met a violent end – his bludgeoned body was found in a mass grave of 10 skeletons thought to have been slaughtered in a siege during the Anglo-Scottish wars of the late 13th and early 14th centuries.

Mary Rose Archer

a facial reconstruction of an archer from the Mary Rose with leather jerkin and medium length hair

Photo Richard Moss

“You can look into the eyes of the crew,” promised staff as the remarkable New Mary Rose Museum opened at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Meeting this archer’s gaze as he stood next to his skeleton certainly offered a window into the past. Apparently the archer’s profession had ruined his shoulder joints so he “wouldn’t have been much use on the guns”.

But at 5 feet and 10 inches he was taller than many of the crew and well-built with particularly strong legs. Despite only being in his early 20s the middle of his spine was twisted – a feature often seen on skeletons found with archery equipment. One of his right finger bones showed grooves on the inside, forming a ridge, which could have been made by repeatedly pulling a longbow string.

Sixth Century Murder Victim

a facial reconstruction of a young woman with blue eyes and strong jawline

Copyright Hayley Fisher

This striking recreation of a young woman (age 26 – 35) is just one of several murder victims recovered from a mass burial found beneath an Edinburgh car park in 1975. The skeletons, dating to the 6th century, included two murdered warriors and at least two generations of the same family.

She is thought to have died between 430 and 550 AD and isotopic analysis reveals she grew up locally and spent her final years in and around Cramond, a royal stronghold believed to be the oldest occupied village in Scotland. Forensics also reveal poor teeth and an iron deficiency.

Robert Burns

a facial reconstruction of robert burns with long sideburns, dark eyebrows and a ribbon in his hair

With kind permission of Rab Wilson

This life-sized model of Robert Burns’ head was reconstructed by forensic scientists, including Professor Caroline Wilkinson of Dundee University, in 2013 using a 3-D scan of a cast of the cranial part of Burns’ skull.

The jaw was missing so the experts used orthodontic techniques, surviving portraits and the Myers silhouette made during The Bard’s lifetime to create a balanced view from as many sources as possible. The resulting recreation revealed how large the bard’s head and eyes were – bigger than average.


Cheddar Man

photograph of facial reconstruction model of dark-skinned man with long hair and blue eyes

Cheddar Man © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London. Credit: Channel 4 / Plimsol Productions

The oldest Briton to have their Genome sequenced, Cheddar Man lived 10,000 years ago; his skeleton was unearthed in a cave at Cheddar Gorge in 1903. Analysing the sequence gave valuable information about Cheddar Man’s appearance, and suggested that he would have had very dark skin, dark curly hair and blue eyes.

Using high-tech 3D scanning and printing technology, as well as DNA obtained from the Cheddar Man’s skull, the team working with the Natural History Museum’s ancient DNA lab were able to create the features of this ancient Briton, born 300 generations before us.


Brighton residents from the Ice Age to the Saxon era

composite image showing five facial reconstruction models

L-R: Whitehawk Woman; Patcham Woman; Ditchling Road Man; Stafford Road Man; Slonk Hill Man. © Royal Pavilion & Museums

These five models are reconstructions of early residents of Brighton & Hove, living from the Ice Age to the Saxon era. The forensically-accurate 3D reconstructions are based on the DNA of skeletons found in the local area, which are also on display alongside the models. The reconstructions demonstrate that people from a variety of different places have settled in Sussex over the past several thousand years.

The in-depth scientific analysis has revealed key features about the skeletons, including skin, eye and hair colour, while analysis of the bones alludes to the health and lifestyle of the individual, such as the oldest, Whitehawk Woman, who is believed to have died in childbirth, and Ditchling Road Man, who suffered malnutrition from a poor diet.


71 comments on “The best historical facial reconstructions

  1. Elisa Bird on

    Fascinating to see how these people would have looked in life. I would like to know more of the story behind these people. Is it true that some of the sailors ans soldiers on the Mary Rose were found by isotope analysis to have been Spanish? Just wandered in here from the Future Learn Facial Reconstruction course, which is excellent by the way.

    • Dom on

      Some of the gunners were Spanish, however this reconstruction was of the long bowmen who drowned on board and it was determined he was from either southern England.

  2. ellie on

    All are wonderful ! Would like to ask one thing. As a maker of small historical figures, around 18 lns -2ft. tall I study lots of portraits. One thing I have noticed is that I can often identify other makers work because elements of their own facial. appearance creeps in. No disrespect to Caroline Wilkinson who I admire a lot I wondered has she found the same problem ? When I first saw her work onTime Team I could instantly recognise it ? The face we are most familiar with is our own, do other face makers find this is it something all face makers have watch out for. ?

  3. Pauline Lawley on

    I loved this article. It is amazing how the faces do not seem that different from ours, and it is easier to believe in them when we can recognise as similar to us.

  4. Saraid Fernance on

    What an Amazing talent and gift to do all and bring all together.
    My friend thing the lady called Beachy Head Lady. She look a Aboriginal Australian Native.
    Saraid Fernance

  5. Paula Buchanan on

    Just love looking at these people from the past. Just wondered how they would know if someone had a don’t in the nose as in 6th century murder victim.

  6. Carol on

    How much artistic license is there? The men have scars and wrinkles. Is this factual? 6th Century Murder Victim is beautiful with flawless skin. How are these features determined?

  7. Juderae on

    OMG – this is unbelievable. It’s hard to imagine that back then, they look just like any of us today except the period clothing. Amazing how they can be brought back to life by reconstruction

  8. Juanita Jones on

    The Sixth Century Murder Victim actually looks like an actress that was in Emmerdale not long ago! Its amazing how Forensic Facial Reconstruction can make a Skull look like a person of “today” when in actual fact they could be thousands of years old. Blows me away!!

  9. JustinSantos on

    I googled Robert Burns and his portrait looks similar. Is this supposed to be more accurate than the painting? Cause his portraits look the same as the other ones…he looks like a different person here, but at the same time they look related.

  10. pat carlisle on

    some of the reconstructions are amazing in their likenesses! Others, not so much as they seem to lack reality i.e. the eyebrows and eyelashes look really bad 🙂
    But please keep up the good work.

  11. pat carlisle on

    #5 is the most realistic reconstruction I have ever seen! it is absolutely amazing!! who ever did it is a genius and an artist.

  12. Nuits de Young on

    These are great, but Richard III needs a perm. His portraits indicate that his hair (more golden-brown than blond in adulthood) was wavy.
    The mediæval knight needs his hair sorting, too: he would have had more than that, though I can see they want to show the scars in the reconstruction.
    Burns is downright unattractive.

      • Dr M M Gilchrist on

        They all derive from an original template done in his lifetime. The earliest survivor, the Society of Antiquaries one, shows his hair is wavy, slightly curling, and light brown. Manuscript drawings from his lifetime (Salisbury and Rous Rolls) also show his hair wasn’t straight.

  13. Tricia on

    Absolutely fascinating! I would love to see a reconstruction of King Edward IV and King Henry VIII. Portraits vary so much from those times and I think artists quite often portrayed them as the sitter might wish, or enemies might desire.

  14. C M Pluckrose on

    I am curious about eye co!ours. How would a facial reconstruction of me know my eye co!our? I was born with hetrochromua, to the general populace, I have distinctive eyes, one brown and the other green! I guess anyone making such a reconstruction wouldn’t get that.

    These here are amazing though. It takes talent and, I think, an open mind to be able to make tbese.

  15. Colleen O'Brien on

    I am intrigued at the variety of finish in these reconstructions and wonder for example where features such as moles come from are these artistic licence or is there some underlying feature in the bone structure to indicate their existence, whereas other reconstructions have an almost waxy lifeless appearance is this due to the lack of imagination of the person making the reconstruction or because they are following the bones and not providing anything else to the reconstruction.

  16. donna on

    can, for instance, gristhorpe man be really considered to be 60 years old?

    could it be that hard conditions and less civilization aged people more than they do these days?


  17. Peter Lennox on

    I started my archaeological career at the Cramond Roman bathhouse excavation in 1976, under director Nick Holmes, and I was personally charged with the responsibility of disinterred the 6th century skeletons . At the time, they were thought to be the remains of medieval plague victims.
    Thanks for putting a face to one of them. She’s especially beautiful to me!

  18. Shriya Mehta on

    I wonder how intrinsic facial details like shaved beard, pinkish tinge on cheeks, lip shape, eyebrow shape are adjusted by the archeologists!!!

  19. Maurice Hartle on

    Thnx for the opportunity to view these faces from the past. I really enjoyed seeing them here in my home in the 21st century.

  20. victoria famakinwa on

    Awesome. Wondered at how their remains were able to speak to us through time as well as how much more secrets they withhold which can never be unravalled.

  21. Diana Gervais on

    These are amazing. I the episode of History Cold Case that investigated the case of the Medieval Knight and it was so interesting that they were able to be able to reconstruct his face and attach a name to him.

    • Dr M M Gilchrist on

      I think he’d look better with an in-period hairstyle. At present he looks as if he’s come from the football terraces.

  22. Dianne on

    Absolute amazing and some almost seem life like A couple of the reconstructions looked so life like, I wondered what they would have liked to tell the person who just gave them their face and identity back.

  23. Dr M M Gilchrist on

    I’m glad you didn’t include the one I call ‘Faux-bespierre’. The much-hyped ‘Robespierre’ reconstruction done in 2013 is from a cast of a death-mask or life-mask which has long been passed off as him but isn’t. The profile doesn’t match the physionotrace taken from life (drawn mechanically from shadow of profile) – can’t be the same person, and indeed, looks a lot older and more heavily pock-marked. All his profiles from life show a distinctive ‘pixie’ nose – sharp and slighty retroussé. It’s not a matter of ‘flattery’: there was a lot of excitement at the time about ‘scientific’ portraiture, and physionotraces don’t flatter even Revolutionary martyrs such as Le Peletier (who had a frankly awful profile). The mask has an entirely different profile, and is clearly someone else.

  24. pat carlisle on

    Some of the reconstructions are much better done than others. It seems the ones done by Caroline Wilkinson are not nearly as well done as the others. Hers just look thrown together while the others show what these people may have truly looked like with amazing attention to detail and care in reconstruction.


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