It all began with an accident.
In 1957, workmen waterproofing the vault of a derelict medieval crypt in Whithorn, Scotland, stumbled onto three stone coffins. Over the next decade, excavations at the site unearthed dozens of graves containing ornate artifacts and human remains, including the bodies of clergy members and wealthy donors to the medieval priory. Now, a series of 3-D digital reconstructions is bringing the faces of three of these individuals to life.
Experts created the renderings as part of Cold Case Whithorn, a research venture centered on the Whithorn archaeological site. According to the Whithorn Trust, which oversees the site, Whithorn was home to the oldest known Christian community in Scotland and has been occupied continuously for some 1,600 years. The trust unveiled the reconstructions last week, at the Wigtown Book Festival, and will soon place them on display at the Whithorn visitor center.
“It’s always a challenge to imagine what life was really like in medieval times,” Julia Muir Watt, the trust’s development manager, tells BBC News. “These reconstructions are a brilliant way to engage with who these people from our past really were, of their everyday lives, their hopes and their beliefs.”
Researchers digitized the faces of three medieval people: a bishop, a young woman, and a cleric with a cleft lip and palate. Per a statement, the individuals resided in the county of Wigtownshire between the 12th and 14th centuries. They were buried at the Whithorn Priory, located in the Dumfries and Galloway region of Scotland.
Based on radiocarbon dating, artifacts, historical records and stable isotope analysis, archaeologists and forensic scientists identified the bishop as one Bishop Walter, who presided over Whithorn from 1209 to 1235. As National Museums Scotland (NMS) notes, his grave was one of “the most prominent burials in terms of location and furnishings.” Walter’s skeleton exhibited signs of obesity and a rich diet of fish, while his teeth revealed that he grew up in Galloway. He was buried fully dressed, with valuables such as a gold ring inlaid with rubies and emeralds.
The woman has not been identified, but Christoper Rynn, the craniofacial anthropologist and forensic artist who created the animations, tells the Telegraph’s Sarah Knapton that the woman’s skull is the most symmetrical he has ever encountered, suggesting she was extremely beautiful. The unidentified woman died in her 20s and was buried on a bed of seashells near the priory’s high altar—a clear indication of her high status.
The cleric, who also remains unidentified, posed a “unique challenge” for forensic experts due to his cleft palate and asymmetrical face, according to NMS. He was buried alongside elite members of society but lacked elaborate funerary goods.
Adrian Evans, an archaeological scientist at the University of Bradford in England, created 3-D scans of the skulls, which belong to NMS and the Dumfries and Galloway Council. Rynn then used these 3-D images to digitally reconstruct the trio’s faces as realistically as possible.
“This entails the use of facial soft tissue depths, musculature sculpted individually to fit each skull, and scientific methods of the estimation of each facial feature, such as eyes, nose, mouth and ears, from skull morphology,” says Rynn in the statement.
To learn more about the diets and health of the people buried at Whithorn, Shirley Curtis-Summers, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford, led stable isotope analysis of the burials.
“This project is of huge significance, because while we can never tell the full story of the lives of these medieval people, being able to reconstruct their diet, mobility and now their faces allows us to delve into their past and come face to face with them,” says Curtis-Summers in the statement.
Advanced technology has, in recent years, allowed archaeologists to embark on ambitious facial reconstruction projects. Last year, researchers approximated the faces of two medieval Czech dukes. Experts have also reconstructed the visages of a Scottish Bronze Age woman, a 13th-century peasant and a 14-year-old from the Jamestown colony who may have been cannibalized by fellow settlers.
Still, the practice has its critics: As Stephanie Pappas wrote for Live Science in 2013, “[F]acial reconstructions, even well-done ones, can be misleading. For example, bones tell scientists nothing about the size of someone’s ears, how many forehead wrinkles they had, or whether they often smiled or habitually wore a frown.”