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VCU Archaeology

3D Facial Reconstruction in the Virtual Curation Laboratory

By: Elsie Martin

This semester was my first working as an intern in the Virtual Curation Lab as a senior here at VCU. During the first few weeks of the internship I learned the ins-and-outs of the lab. I learned how to scan, 3D print, and paint artifacts from various museums and cultural/archaeological organizations around Virginia as well as from around the world.

With a background in Sculpture here at VCU, I was particularly interested in researching Facial Reconstructions commonly used in archaeology and forensic anthropology. Facial reconstruction is used to create 3D replicas of an individual using skeletal remains and artistic interpretation to depict the face. Of the various methods that exist for facial reconstructions, I chose to research the “Traditional” method, which has been used for many anthropological reconstructions. This method uses modeling clay to build up the depth of tissue on the skull. In all cases, a 3D cast or print is made of the skull before clay is added. Tissue depths are obtained from previous datasets collected from cadavers or from CT scans of living individuals based on specific geographical region. These datasets are often small samples, therefore facial reconstructions do require artistic interpretation in many cases.


“Traditional” clay method. Photo by Caroline Wilkinson, Facial reconstruction–anatomical art or artistic anatomy?.” Journal of anatomy 216.2 (2010): 235-250.

Continuing my research, Dr. Means helped me 3D print a skull face to reconstruct from India. It was from the Trans-Himalayan region among the Himachal- Pradesh, either from Spiti or Kinnaur. It was later identified to be from the Spiti district, a mountain valley of the Himalayas. It is also dated to be from around 1200AD. Having this information was helpful in researching the facial reconstruction.

Among my research, I came across a study from 2012-2013 (Saxena, Tanushri et al. Facial Soft Tissue Thickness in North Indian Adult Population. Jaypee Journals; 10.5005.) which contained soft skin tissue indexes for North Indians, which I used to measure several points on the face. After analyzing the measurements, I decided to take the smaller values of the range for my skull face, since it was small.


I took the measurements on wooden pegs, which I then cut and glued to the 3D printed face points I had previously mapped out. More facial points can be used to determine tissue depth, but I chose to use more of an interpretation of these areas since the existing dataset was small. I then could begin building the clay up to the pegs (I used plasticine non-drying clay). After building the tissue up, I smoothed the surface and left the left side of the face bare with just skin depth pegs to show the process.


3Drendering of my facial reconstruction in progress

I am currently still working on this research and project and hope to have a poster in production next semester for my Museum Exhibit class. This poster will contain all of the research I have done as well as four 3D printed skull faces I will use to show the process. This was definitely one of the larger things I did in the lab this semester, and it helped to peak my interest of forensic anthropology and archaeology greatly.

I also am in the process of creating a Brass Painting Guide for the lab. The lab already contains many painting guides for bones, rust, and other techniques, so we decided brass should be added! After painting a 3D printed brass nesting cup lid from Isle of Wight County, Virginia, I wrote down the color mixtures and steps I used to create the reproduction. This will then be made into a printed guide for future interns and their painting.


3D reproduction and painting of Isle of Wight nesting cup lid


Colors of paint used for brass reproductions

After being a part of the lab this semester, I have learned so much and have also gained interest in archaeological lab work and museum exhibition. This interest has helped me think about my future goals, and for that I am very grateful! I can’t wait to visit the lab next semester to see what new projects are at hand.


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