Forensics unmask dead poet

August 23, 1996

Forensic techniques used by the police to establish the identity of unknown bodies have revealed what 16th-century Scottish humanist, classicist, historian and poet George Buchanan looked like.

Tutor to King James VI, principal of St Andrews University, and a founder of Edinburgh University, Buchanan was said to be the greatest Latin scholar of his age. Most of the portraits of the time pay tribute to his brain power by depicting a man with an enormous forehead, a literal "highbrow".

But Buchanan's skull, acquired by a 17th-century Edinburgh University principal, is relatively small, with an average-sized forehead.

Matthew Kaufman, professor of anatomy at Edinburgh, decided to find out whether any of the portraits were accurate.

He enlisted the help of Iain MacLeod of Edinburgh dental hospital's oral medicine department, and Brian Hill of the department of medical illustration in Newcastle's dental hospital.

He ignored computer technology in favour of a more time-consuming reconstruction using plaster casts on the grounds that the result would be three dimensional rather than virtual reality.

The upper jaw still had a reasonable number of teeth, allowing Dr MacLeod to add the others, and create a matching lower jaw. Mr Hill then reconstructed the face from the resulting cast, a complex process which demands a sound knowledge of the way soft tissue overlays the bony contours of the skull. He was told only that the subject was an elderly, balding male with a full beard.

Professor Kaufman said: "I had no expectations. I was staggered when he sent up a photograph of the cast and it turned out to be almost identical to a portrait of Buchanan now hanging in the Royal Society in London."

This portrait, attributed to Flemish artist Adrian Keij, avoids the convention of linking exceptional intellect to a large forehead.

"It's still a commonly held belief," Professor Kaufman said. "But it's the quality of what you've got that's important, rather than the bulk."

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments