Skilful sort of skulduggery

Making Faces
September 5, 1997

Somewhere in Hazlitt is an observation that of all the branches of political economy, the human face is the best criterion of value. No one nowadays seriously supports the Aristotelian practice of deterministic physiognomics, but neither do many of us adhere to the popular promise not to judge a book by its cover. Faces are as they were for both the Neo-Platonists and Wittgenstein: for assessment, as the icons of souls. And that is the ultimate justification for the Gothic projects described in this book.

Making Faces presents a casebook and an identity parade at the same time. In tone it dips regularly into the "two days later we received a telephone call" style of the Reader's Digest real-life drama narrative, and undoubtedly the authors generally enjoy making our flesh creep (as anyone will testify who has heard John Prag present one of these cases in the lecture hall). Certain aspects of the historical reconstruction here may be no less fantastic than a Cecil B. de Mille set. But there is more than the satisfaction of macabre curiosity in this enterprise. Some of its results have direct bearing upon how history and art history are written.

The method is basically this. Prag, the classical archaeologist (and curator of the Manchester Museum), negotiates for excavated skulls to be brought to a department within the faculty of medicine at Manchester University, where Richard Neave works as "artist in medicine and life sciences". Neave's special skill and interest is taking a skull - however piecemeal or charred it may be - and restoring, with the application of science and imagination, its facial muscles and flesh. Neave works on the borrowed skull as he would for any police commission for forensic evidence to help with details of skin colouring, coiffure and so on. The final model is cosmetically refined and displayed; it may ultimately be shown like one of Madame Tussaud's mannequins.

Brief background accounts of Neave's police work preface the main archaeological projects, and are designed to show the efficacy of the method. They secure another, surely unintended, effect upon the reader. Gazing at the passport photograph of a young Finnish hitch-hiker whose skeletal remains were discovered in the grounds of Blenheim Palace in 1983, and the doomed expression on her reconstructed face, we want justice. Her killer (and presumed rapist) is still at liberty; her memory treasured by family in Finland. Of what concern, by contrast, is an Iron Age corpse preserved in a bog, anonymous for ever? With some disinterest, then, we are dragged into the first efforts on antique subjects - including an Egyptian lady who looks suspiciously akin to Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra - and the major pioneering case for Prag and Neave, which was the reconstruction of the head of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

In absolute terms it would be much more exciting to have a reconstruction of the head of the son. But for scholars of Macedonian history, the Prag-Neave operation could be regarded as a telling intervention. No one disputed that the tombs excavated by Manolis Andronikos at Vergina in the 1970s were tombs of important, probably regal, Macedonians: but was Andronikos right to claim one of them as Philip's tomb? Then the Manchester forensic work began. Neave's reconstruction of a face blinded in one eye, probably by an arrow aimed from above, was done without knowledge that Philip had suffered just such a wound in the course of a siege. Given the richness of circumstantial accoutrements, it must now be regarded as perverse to argue that the Vergina tomb is anyone's but Philip's: for in the court of disputing pedants, the skull may be produced as a crucial Exhibit A.

The next case immediately demonstrates the technical limits of the face-modelling procedure. Not to be outdone by Philip, the Turks produced for Prag the skull of King Midas of Phrygia. What could the unit do here: produce, with no foreknowledge, a head with marvellous long hairy ears? Alas, not so. The subject did indeed have a strangely elongated cranium, and a set of petulant features: but hair on the ears is not going to leave cranial traces. That does not stop the authors from rationalising the story of Midas, however, and endowing him with a pair of "hairy pinnae" - a known condition of ears that sprout extravagant hairs.

Back in Greece, at Mycenae, the bones of Schliemann's "Agamemnon" et al, were too fragmented in storage to offer good potential. Oddly, Schliemann himself never made much of the fact that the bodily remains in his Grave Circle A were those of six-footers: giants for their time. Prag and Neave, however, found better scope in material from Grave Circle B (outside the citadel walls), and here give us an account of work in progress. Beyond the resultant range of heavy-set visages produced by the usual method, intimations of DNA research are added, promising eventually some means for deciding kinship links across the several graves within the enclosure. When archaeology, especially classical archaeology, is entrusted in this fashion to investigators in white coats, the temptation is to surrender all usual powers of scepticism.

Following the Prag-Neave axis into their next sally, this time extracting Seianti, an Etruscan dame, from her sarcophagus in the British Museum, we are taken on a full romance by the white-coated brigade. A pathologist brought into the analysis really throws himself into the story-weaving: "Keen horsewoman she may have been. . . Seianti suffered an appalling accident. . . perhaps her horse reared up in fright or anger. . . she was trapped underneath the animal, and her right inner leg and pelvis were crushed and torn" etc. The fantasy recalls Mortimer Wheeler's vintage reports from the front line at Maiden Castle, but coming from a medical doctor rather than a professor we seem more likely to swallow it. What is not admitted anywhere in this book is a truth which only the most honest or inebriated bone experts will confess: that osteological analysis is still a very hit-or-miss procedure - a fact revealed not long ago when the bodies of exhumed American marines from Vietnam were sent for independent examination, and almost half of them pronounced female.

The latest effort by Prag and Neave does not make it into the book. This was the production of two Egyptian faces from mummified skulls excavated by Flinders Petrie at Hawara. Latter visitors to the British Museum's "Ancient Faces" exhibition will have caught them on display, and demonstrating the way in which this face-mapping procedure assists art history. Were the Fayum mummy "portraits" idealised stereotypes, or vivid individual studies? Those who hold the second view will be comforted by Neave's handiwork. He stresses that it is not his job to make a portrait - whatever a portrait may be. But he has shown here that the method which may yet solve the mystery of a murdered Finnish nurse can also throw a rare positivist beam into academic corners of obscurity. We have not heard the last of this.

Nigel Spivey is fellow in classics, Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

Making Faces: Using Forensic and Archaeological Evidence

Author - John Prag and Richard Neave
ISBN - 0 7141 1743 9
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £18.99
Pages - 256

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