Many a Social Studies teacher has promised to “bring history to life,” but the art of 3D facial reconstruction actually pulls it off by showing the people of today what famous figures looked like when they were still among the living. The technique, more properly referred to as a component of forensic anthropology, has helped modern historians, professional and amateur alike, finally come face-to-face with some of the most important individuals in human history.
Forensic facial reconstruction isn’t easy, especially when it’s being performed on people that have been gone for centuries. Originally used to help identify extremely decayed human remains for the purposes of criminal investigation, facial reconstruction has advanced far enough that it can be used for more academic pursuits. Although some historical figures had plaster “death masks” made that provide an easy starting point for modern scientists, facial reconstruction usually involves using the human skull as a base, and extrapolating outward from there to map out probable soft tissue placement until a discernable face appears. The technique relies on natural marks on the skull that indicate approximate soft tissue depth, telling reconstructors how much tissue to layer on. In the days before computers, facial reconstructions were done painstakingly by hand, but new technology has made the process much more efficient and accurate. It’s not a perfect process, but it’s as close as any modern person is going to get to looking King Tut in the face.