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Death Masks

Forensic sculptors aid investigators by transforming skulls into faces.

January 01, 2006  |  by Kelly Kyrik

An Art and a Science

Like McMullin, more and more law enforcement personnel are now embracing the use of forensic sculpture, although the process still has an air of mystery about it. For example, some people believe that creating a face from a human skull is more about psychic ability than about formulaic equations. But forensic artists are quick to point out that their craft is a blend of both art and science, and that neither can exist without the other.

The science comes from the anthropological details of the skull and the bones themselves. Testing can determine the race, sex, and approximate age of the body. These factors are then used to determine the thickness of the muscles, skin, and tendons on the face and markers are placed over the skull, which allow the sculptor to flesh out the details.

These formulas can be very exact. For example, the shape of the nasal cavity yields many clues, including the length, width, and general shape of the nose. The teeth and gum ridges also attest to lip shape and form. In the end, the only body parts that are left to the artist’s discretion are the tip of the nose, the ears, and the hairstyle.

Ghosts in the Machine

“There is definitely a formula to the facial reconstructions,” says Neville. “Yet the artist always puts individuality or intuitiveness into his or her work.”

This is where the art of forensic sculpture becomes apparent, because in order to spark recognition and identification, there has to be a human-like quality to the bust. There has to be a hint of the person’s spirit and personality.

“Sure, you can get it to that point where it looks like a human head, but often it doesn’t look real,” says Wolfson. “That’s where the artistic nature comes in; just knowing how things should fall, what looks good and what doesn’t, so that it doesn’t look like a mannequin.”

Most forensic sculptors note that their work is not a quantitative science: Drawings and sculptures don’t produce something as measurable as a fingerprint. And they also know that there’s more to recreating a human face than numbers and rulers and markers.

“It’s fine art and it’s medical and it’s anatomical; a merging of science, law, and the fine arts,” says Barbara Martin, a certified forensic artist with the Oakland County (Mich.) Sheriff’s Office. She, like most in the field, works hard to encapsulate the personality of the person behind the face.


A sculpture student learns the painstaking skills and techniques necessary for restoring the face of an unidentified crime victim in a forensic art class.

“That’s what Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo tried to do,” Martin says. “It’s the spirit and the essence of that person, their soul, the eyes looking back out at you, and that’s what I’m trying to capture.”

Frank Bender, a well-respected forensic sculptor and fine artist whose cases have been profiled on Court TV, “America’s Most Wanted,” and “60 Minutes,” takes that philosophy even further, relying less on scientific markers and more on artistic intuition when trying to flesh out facial characteristics. Calling himself a “recomposer of the decomposed,” Bender tries to interpret the mindset and lifestyle of the people he sculpts, so he studies all aspects of the case when doing a reconstruction.

“I always ask a bunch of questions, like what was found with the body,” Bender says. “And I spend a lot of time analyzing the crime scene and whatever other clues might be available.”

In the case of 18-year-old Rosella Atkins, whose skeletal remains were found behind a high school in North Philadelphia many years ago, Bender discovered one of the keys to her personality in a simple pleated blouse.

“That stuck out in my mind, “ he says, “because the fact that she was young and wearing a nice, pleated blouse, not a trendy t-shirt, told me that she was looking for a better life. So I sculpted the head with her looking up as though she were looking for hope.”


Friends and family say Frank Bender's sculpture of Rosella Atkins not only recreated her face, it also captured some of her personality.

Bender’s intuition was evidently dead on. When Rosella was eventually identified, Bender says that several of her relatives commented on how she always tended to look upward, just as Bender had sculpted her.

Helping Law Enforcement

Even though the use of forensic sculpture has become more mainstream, it’s still often underused in police investigations. The reason is money. Budgets are tight, and departments simply can’t afford to hire extra personnel. Because of this, some officers choose to go into the field themselves.

“I found the need to have good sketches in my own cases,” says Sgt. Don Stahl of the Charles County (Md.) Sheriff’s Department in La Plata. “And since I had an art background, the idea occurred to me that maybe I could do it myself.” He has since worked on two facial reconstruction cases—one 3D computer rendering and one sculpture—and has discovered that there is more to the process than he had originally thought.

“There were interviews and other aspects of the process that needed to be fine-tuned,” Stahl says. “Plus the sculpture took about 10 days from the time I received the remains because I had to clean it and then reassemble it. In some cases, the mandible will separate from the upper part of the skull or the teeth will fall out post mortem. So it takes a lot of work to get the skull ready for a reconstruction.”


Forensic sculptors often work with just pieces of a skull that must be reassembled before the process of restoring the victim's face can begin.

In addition to law enforcement personnel and freelance civilian forensic artists, there are also two organizations that can greatly aid law officers in their quest to identify bodies, find missing persons, and track and apprehend fugitives.

The Doe Network strives to “give the nameless back their names and return the missing to their families” and works primarily on cold cases from North America, Australia, and Europe. The pictures on the network’s Website allow both law enforcement and civilians to search for missing persons and it has an extensive network of volunteers who actively search newspapers and the Doe databases to try to match names and faces to actual people.

Project EDAN (Everyone Deserves A Name) was launched in 2001 as an offshoot of the Doe Network. More than a dozen forensic artists donate their time, energy, and exceptional skill to this organization, which helps police departments across the world bring closure to cold cases and shed new light on fresh cases.

Agencies interested in procuring the services of either agency can peruse the missing persons database at the Doe Network at www.doenetwork.org or request help from a forensic artist by contacting Project EDAN at www.projectedan.us.

CONTINUED: Death Masks «   Page 2 of 3   »

Tags: Forensics, Missing Persons, Doe Network, Identifying Remains

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