Skip to content

In the Face of History

Forensic sculptor brings historical finds to 'life"
Written by Lori Moffatt. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.

dino3Our recent story on archeological sites in Texas (January 2015) included some information about the Bosque Heritage Museum in Clifton and its depiction of the area’s Horn Shelter Man, whose 11,000-year-old remains were found alongside those of a child in a cave not far from the Bosque riverbed.

Journey through 100 million years through Texas' past, where dinosaurs (and mammoth) roamed.

The facial reconstruction of this man, with broad, high cheekbones and an aquiline nose, was made by Columbus-based forensic sculptor Amanda Danning, who has done similar work for the Smithsonian Institution, the Sam Houston Memorial Museum in Huntsville, and the Buffalo Solders National Museum in Houston. As I studied Danning’s interpretation of the man’s face, I became curious about the process, and also about the creative philosophy involved in such an undertaking. How much is art, and how much is science? Luckily for us, Danning was willing to explain how the process works, and to share some fascinating details about her profession and its challenges. —Lori Moffatt

TH: How did you get into this interesting field? And is it called “Forensic Sculpture?”

 VO 7903Danning: I consider myself a forensic sculptor, but it’s a new field, and a new term. I have a master’s degree in sculpture, and I was making a living doing historical sculpture for museums, mostly in Texas in in Florida. About a decade ago, I was designing and fabricating a museum exhibit at the Bosque Museum. There was also a consultant there from the Smithsonian, anthropologist Doug Owsley, and after he learned I was a sculptor, he encouraged me to do a facial reconstruction of the Horn Shelter Man. And so I did, and eventually I worked with him on several other projects, including a National Geographic special on the peoples of the Americas and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, doing reconstruction of some of the Jamestown settlers.

TH: Can you describe how you work?

Danning: My process usually starts with an anthropologist who has found a set of bones. They want to translate the information from something they know scientifically to what will resonate with the public.

TH: So your job is to help the scientists tell the story?

Danning: Yes. I see myself as an interpreter. First I look at the pathology—what the medical examiner produces. That will tell me if the person was male, female, African European … it gives me a starting point. The pathology will also tell me if there’s a cause of death, or anything else that the bones have to tell me. Sometimes with 10,000-year-old skeletal remains, it’s not all intact. But if the skull is in good shape, 90 to 95 percent is science, and the rest is artistic interpretation. And even that interpretation comes from an extrapolation of historical data.

TH: Can you provide some examples?

Danning: Yes. Take the Horn Shelter Man. We know that he lived in Texas, and that Texas had, and still has, a lot of sun, and we know pretty well that he didn’t have protection from the sun. We also know that he had a hard life and ate a low-calorie diet. His skin is going to be more weathered than what you’d find now. We know where the fold in his skin is going to be because we know where the muscle attachments are. When a muscle contracts, it pulls the skin, and a wrinkle will be a perpendicular line to that force. Skin folds just like fabric does, so if you understand what the muscles do, it’s very easy to predict where the wrinkle is going to be.

TH: You sound like a plastic surgeon!

Danning: Well, plastic surgeons have been a huge influence on us; being able to talk to surgeons has been very helpful. Gray’s Anatomy has been a Bible of sorts, too, but there are inaccuracies in there. The artist who wanted to be accurate back then had to take a body apart to see where the muscles attached. These days, technologies like CAT scans and MRIs have made my job easier. These modern techniques allow us to see how the body functions when people are alive.

TH: So after you have the pathology and you know where the muscles attached, what then?

Danning: In the forensic sculptor world, there are two main methodologies. One is called the Russian Method of facial reconstruction. This method relies on anatomically rebuilding every fat pad, bone, gland, and other feature over a skull, then laying “skin” over it. It’s extremely detailed. But once you have the bone covered up, even if you have a second skull model next to you, it’s hard to see how far you’ve come from the original.

TH: So it leads to errors?

Danning: It’s possible. The other method is known as the American Method. It uses what we call “soft tissue death markers.” This science is based on the average depth of flesh based on age, sex, health, and other factors. We literally cut erasers to different heights based on data tables, and affix them to the skull. Each one of the erasers is numbered according to where it will go on the skull. Once you place all the erasers on the skull, then you lay the “skin” over it. I prefer to combine both methods for the most accuracy, which is called the Manchester Method.

TH: Why do you combine the methods?

Danning: Here’s a good example. In the case of the mouth, there’s a muscle that doesn’t attach to bone. To know where a fold would be, you need to know where the muscle attached. To know that, you have to know where the other muscles are. This is something you can’t find with the American Method. That’s why I like to combine the methods.

TH: Regarding your actual process: D you work with clay? And then the reconstructions are cast in bronze?

Danning: I do work with traditional sculpting tools. The lost-wax method to actual bronze is my preferred finish, but because most of my clients are museums with small budgets, I often cast them as a resin and then add a precious metal coating, which is filled with bronze dust, so it is durable and patinas just like a bronze—but at about 15% of the cost. Some of my clients prefer a more realistic look, so I paint the final piece with a combination of acrylic and gouache paint.

TH: I’ve read that bones can sometimes reveal what the people did for a living, or what their hobbies were.

Danning: An anthropologist can tell a lot from bones. For example, there is a force on the human knee that is only re-created by repeated riding of horses. So when, for example, an anthropologist is studying the bones of a Buffalo Soldier, he or she can tell if the person was in the cavalry. There are three angles of force driven to the knee, but only the round belly of the horse repeats that over an over. You can get the same lateral and vertical forces through jogging and other things, but that same repeated force, three angles at a time, is done only through horseback riding.

Also, if you’re a fisherman and you tie knots and fix nets, you might use your teeth to help tie knots, and you wear down the teeth you like to use most. We see a similar thing with smoking a pipe, which was common 100 years ago. We can tell the difference between someone who smoked a pipe and someone who used his teeth as tools.

TH: A few years ago at the Sam Houston Museum in Huntsville, you were working on some reconstructions from the battlefield at the Battle of San Jacinto, correct?

Danning: Yes, these were skulls from Mexican soldiers. Many of the men had prior wounds from other battles. Dr. Owsley was once again a consultant on this; as was Dr. Red Duke, who used his experience in Afghanistan to help identify specific injuries. For example, one skull showed damage that suggests the person had endured a rifle butt to the face. But this fellow survived that injury, and Santa Anna thought he was good enough to come to Texas to fight at San Jacinto, where he died. We don’t know how he died at San Jacinto, but we do know he had fought before.

TH: Where were the skulls all this time?

Danning: That’s a very interesting story. The skulls were found in 1837 by John James Audubon.

TH: The John James Audubon? The bird guy?

Danning: Yes. He was traveling around North America at the time, painting birds and creating his landmark book Audubon’s Birds of America. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, he had a friend, a natural scientist named Samuel Morton, who helped him collect birds. Samuel’s focus was studying skulls, cranial anatomy, and at the time, scientists didn’t think the mandible had much to tell them. So when Audubon was in Texas, he heard about the battlefield and that there were still remains there. So he went out to the battlefield and collected at least five skulls and brought them back to Morton. Morton eventually created a collection that would form part of the University of Pennsylvania’s cranial collection. In 2010, a gentleman from the Friends of the San Jacinto Battleground organization learned about the skulls in Pennsylvania, and he contacted Dr. Owsley. We’ve completed 3 ½ skulls so far—one I left half finished so you could see what the bone tells us. Some skulls didn’t have enough evidence to support they had come from the Battle of San Jacinto; perhaps they got mixed up in the collection, or even in the knapsack.

TH: I’m fascinated with the link between art and science; what are your thoughts on that?

Danning: For those of us who are professional artists, art and science are irrevocably linked, and have been at least since the 1400s, when Italian architect Brunelleschi figured out how to interpret what we see and what we know through the math of perspective. Brunelleschi made the first known drawing that depicted buildings in the distance and in the foreground. He figured out how to use math to create proportional drawing, using geometric optical perspective.

TH: What are you working on now?

Danning: For some time, I’ve been working with the Museum of the Coastal Bend in Victoria as they investigate the failed French settlement of La Salle. You can see two reconstructions I’ve done at the museum, and right now I’m working with a company out of Colorado to see if we can do a reconstruction from a photo. The backstory is interesting: La Salle was murdered by his men in 1687, and some of his crew headed to French Canada to seek help, while others stayed behind. At least one of his men was buried in a mound by the Indians. In 1940, there was a dig at the mounds, and scientists were able to attribute one skull to a French skeleton. But sometime between 1940 and today, the skull went missing. We have photos of it, and we’d like to discover what it could tell us about the French excursion. For example, as recently as five years ago, we thought that the French accidently missed the mouth of the Mississippi. But now we’re not so sure. We’re thinking La Salle definitely intended to claim Spanish lands.

TH: What stories bones can tell!

Danning: Yes. It makes my job interesting.

Back to top