Guide to Facial Reconstruction
This is a guide to facial reconstruction that addresses many questionable techniques. This can provide you with some more in depth information on this process that raises many issues in the media today. Take a look at our other resources on forensic sciences as you continue your research and studies on the topic.
How Forensic Facial Reconstruction Identifies Skeletons
In today’s media, with numerous crime shows featuring the latest, cutting-edged technology, forensic facial recognition has reached the mainstream populace. However, in reality, forensic facial reconstruction is, for many reasons outlined below, typically used only as a last (rather than first) resort. Forensic facial reconstruction, also known as forensic facial approximation, is a technique in the field of forensic anthropology. This technique originated in two of the four major subfields of anthropology: biological anthropology (to approximate the appearance of early hominids) and archaeology (to visualize the remains of historic figures). In this technique of facial reconstruction, the skeletal remains – including the facial bones of the skull – are used to identify such characteristics as age, race, and gender in order to reconstruct the facial tissue and corresponding features. The goal of this process is to either discover the identity of the deceased or to reconstruct the features of a known decedent; examples include murder victims, historical figures, and prehistoric humans and hominids.
The facial reconstruction of King Tut, shown here on the cover of National Geographic.
Questionable Technique: Insufficient Tissue Thickness Data, Methodological Inconsistency, and Subjectivity
Forensic facial reconstruction is viewed by many as a questionable technique. This is due to its undeniable shortcomings. First, the data used to determine facial tissue thickness is as of yet very limited in terms of ranges of ages, sexes, and body types and builds – a disparity that can significantly affect reconstruction accuracy (Rathbun, 1998).
Second, facial reconstruction has also faced both criticism and skepticism due both to its subjective nature and its methodological inconsistency – the result of a combination of anatomy, osteology, forensic science, anthropology, and artistic sculpture. In fact, when numerous forensic reconstruction artists create approximations of a single set of skeletal remains, the reconstructions differ and the data are incomplete (Helmer et al.). This inconsistency is due to the artistic subjectivity of the facial reconstruction artists; however, it is worth noting that the shape and position of the main facial features can be fairly accurate, as such features are guided by the shape of the skull (Helmer et al.).
Third, as a result of this data insufficiency and subjectivity, a lack of reliability and standardization of a scientific method exists. As a result, facial reconstruction artists do not qualify as an expert witness under the Daubert standard federal rule of evidence and thus facial reconstruction artists can not testify as expert witnesses. Thus, they are only utilized in conjunction with verified methods in order to ascertain victim identification .
However, in spite of its challenges, the success and subsequent use of facial reconstruction has resulted in an advancement of both research and methodology (Forensic facial reconstruction, (Wikipedia). For facial approximation presents both investigators and family members with a creative identification tool when other such tools and techniques lack success. Additionally, facial approximations often provide the stimuli that eventually lead to the positive identification of remains.
Three-dimensional facial reconstructions as a scientific technique date back to the 1800s (Rhine, 1998). German anatomists Welcker in 1883, His in 1895, and, in 1898, Kollmann and Buchly, were the first to reproduce three-dimensional facial approximations from cranial remains through the use of tissue thickness measurements on identifiable points on the face and skull (Rhine, 1998). In a 1962 book, Wilton M. Krogman introduced his method for facial approximation (Iscan, 1993). Then, in 1964, Mikhail Gerasimov likely conducted the first attempt at the facial reconstruction of paleo-anthropological ancient peoples (Iscan, 1993). Later on, Gerasimov’s students used his facial approximation techniques in criminal investigations. (Forensic facial reconstruction, Wikipedia.) Additional anatomists who helped popularize three-dimensional facial reconstruction include: Cherry (1977), Angel (1977), Gatliff (1984), Snow (1979), and Iscan (1986) (Reichs and Craig, 1998).
Two types of facial reconstruction identification exist: circumstantial and positive (Burns, 1999). Circumstantial identification takes place when a deceased individual’s skeletal remains fit a biological profile (Forensic facial reconstruction, Wikipedia). Note that this identification does not identify the remains, but merely the biological profile. Positive identification – actual identification of an individual’s remains – is the goal of forensic science. This precise identification takes place due to a specific and unique set of biological characteristics that apply to a given individual, such as medical records, dental records, DNA analysis, ante mortem wounds, and pathologies (Reichs and Craig, 1998).
The methods used to “flesh out” a face in the process of reconstruction may vary, but each one incorporates a creative balance between art and science that leads to a facial reproduction that could result in an identification (Phillips, 2000). There are three types of reconstructions: two-dimensional, three-dimensional, and superimposition. Two-dimensional (2D) facial reconstructions are collaborations between artists and forensic anthropologists based on the deceased’s skull and ante mortem photographs, with occasional (if less accurate) skull radiographs also used. Karen T. Taylor of Austin, Texas pioneered a commonly used method of 2D facial reconstruction during the 1980s. Taylor’s method involves the placement and photography of tissue depth markers on an unidentified skull at various anthropological landmarks. These photographic prints are then used to create facial drawings on transparent vellum. Today, F.A.C.E. and C.A.R.E.S. computer software programs produce, edit, and manipulate two-dimensional facial approximations. Although these computer programs offer speed and efficiency, their images are more generic than those provided by hand-drawn artwork (Reichs and Craig, 1998).
Taylor’s 2D facial reconstruction process, including successful identification.
Three-dimensional (3D) facial reconstructions consist of two types: clay or plaster sculptures from casts of cranial remains and high-resolution, 3D computer images. Like 2D facial reconstructions, 3D facial reconstructions typically involve a partnership between an artist and a forensic anthropologist. While sculptures are made from casts of cranial remains, 3D computerized facial reconstructions manipulate scanned photographs of the cranial remains, stock photographs of facial features, as well as any other reconstructions available. In victim identification, because they appear more realistic, computer approximations are usually more effective.
A 3D sculpture facial reconstruction comparison (left to right): the skull – labeled “DR 758/95” – from the skeletal remains of a young woman that were found in a shallow grave in Crawford, Cape Town; the plaster sculpture based on the skull; and a photograph sent by the victim’s family. (SOURCE: Phillips, 2000)
Superimposition is a third technique of forensic facial reconstruction. Unlike 2D and 3D facial reconstructions – in which the identity of the skeletal remains are completely unknown – forensic superimposition requires knowledge on the part of investigators about the identity of a given set of skeletal remains. In this method, a photograph of a given individual’s identity that is suspected of belonging to the unidentified skeletal remains is superimposed over the unidentified skull’s X-ray. If the skull and the photograph match up anatomically, then the skull and the photograph are of the exact same individual (Lundy, 1986).
The facial reconstruction of a face on a skull can be traced back to biblical times (Phillips, 2000). Although critiques abound as to the accuracy of data, the consistency of methodology, and subjectivity arguably lessen the effectiveness of forensic facial reconstruction, it is worth noting that the facial features that are achieved through reconstruction are not expected to be an exact replica, but rather, to identify and represent a given person, be they a victim of homicide or an historical figure. Today, putting a 3D face to an historical figure or ancient peoples is a powerful teaching tool and unique gift to humanity; and, as far as homicide cases are concerned, true success lies in facial reconstruction that may lead to facial recognition – and the identification of a homicide victim. (Phillips, 2000).
- Burns, Karen Ramey. Forensic Anthropology Training Manual. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999.
- Daubert standard, Wikipedia, available at
- Forensic facial reconstruction, Wikipedia.
- Helmer, Richard et al. “Assessment of the Reliability of Facial Reconstruction.” Forensic Analysis of the Skull: Craniofacial Analysis, Reconstruction, and Identification. Ed. Mehmet Iscan and Richard Helmer. New York: Wiley-Liss, Inc. 1993. 229-243.
- Iscan, Mehmet Yasar. “Craniofacial Image Analysis and Reconstruction.” Forensic Analysis of the Skull: Craniofacial Analysis, Reconstruction, and Identification. Ed. Mehmet Iscan and Richard Helmer. New York: Wiley-Liss, Inc. 1993. 1-7.
- Lebedinskaya, G.V., T.S. Balueva, and E.V. Veselovskaya. “Principles of Facial Reconstruction.” Forensic Analysis of the Skull: Craniofacial Analysis, Reconstruction, and Identification. Ed. Mehmet Iscan and Richard Helmer. New York: Wiley-Liss, Inc. 1993. 183-198.
- Lundy, John K. “Physical Anthropology In Forensic Medicine.” Anthropology Today, Vol. 2, No. 5. October 1986. 14-17.
- Oeh, Karen. “Putting a Face on Prehistory: The Facial Reconstruction of Two Native American Crania.”
- Phillips, Vincent M., “Skeletal Remains Identification by Facial Reconstruction.” Paper presented at the 9th Biennial Meeting of the International Association for Craniofacial Identification, FBI, Washington, DC, July 24, 2000
- Rathbun, Ted. “Personal Identification: Facial Reproductions.” Human Identification. Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology. Ed. Ted A. Rathbun and Jane E. Buikstra. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas Publisher, LTD, 1998. 347-355.
- Reichs, Kathleen and Emily Craig. “Facial Approximation: Procedures and Pitfalls.” Forensic Osteology: Advances in the Identification of Human Remains 2nd Edition. Ed. Kathleen J. Reichs. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas Publisher, LTD, 1998. 491-511.
- Rhine, Stanley. “Facial Reproductions In Court.” Human Identification. Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology. Ed. Ted A. Rathbun and Jane E. Buikstra. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas Publisher, LTD, 1998. 357-361.
- Stewart, T.D. “Development in Evaluating Evidence from the Skeleton.” Journal of Dental Research, 1964. 42-152.