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Artists Reconstruct Centuries-Old Faces of Early Edinburgh Residents

Skulls uncovered beneath St. Giles’ Cathedral gave faces to a 12th-century man and a 16th-century woman

The high-status 16th-century woman (right) appears to have suffered from leprosy, a disfiguring disease that likely left its mark on her skin, tissues and bone. (Lucrezia Rodella and Karen Fleming © Edinburgh City Council)
smithsonianmag.com

When scientists gaze upon fossilized human remains, the interactions are usually pretty one-sided: After decades or centuries underground, bones aren’t left with much of an expression. Still, thanks to facial reconstruction, researchers are now reevaluating the remains of two of Edinburgh’s earliest inhabitants—and, for the first time in centuries, both of them are staring right back.

The two fossils belong to a man and a woman whose skeletons were found beneath St. Giles’ Cathedral, which served as a burial ground as far back as the early 12th century, when the city was getting its start under Scotland’s King David I, reports Brian Ferguson for the Scotsman. Though neither of the individuals is new to science, their faces—revealed by a collaboration between Edinburgh City Council and the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at Dundee University, the latter of which has partnered with many other institutions for similar work—have only come to light recently.

“Being able to physically examine the remains has been fascinating and has provided a great insight into the lives of our … ancestors,” says Karen Fleming, a forensic art and facial identification scholar who worked on the woman’s facial reconstruction, to Ferguson. (Previously, Fleming created a 3-D wax reconstruction of a toothless Iron Age druid woman.)

Since archaeologists first broke ground at St. Giles’ Cathedral in the 1980s, more than 110 individuals spanning five graveyards dating between the 12th and 16 centuries have been uncovered. As the building itself expanded over the decades, so did its capacity for bodies. Adults and children alike found their final resting place at the cathedral, which accommodated the upper classes in its interior and commoners outside, according to Ferguson.

Among the oldest remains are those of a 12th-century man in his late 30s or early 40 who stood about five and a half feet tall, forensic artist Lucrezia Rodella tells Ferguson. The man’s skull was mostly intact, with only a few teeth missing, making it fairly straightforward to build his face back up from scratch. Rodella gave him hazel eyes, wiry brown hair and a prominent, slightly crooked nose. There was, however, one snag: the man’s missing lower jaw, which the artist cleverly covered up with a beard.

The second individual, a high-status woman, bookends the other end of the cathedral’s graveyard timeline with a death date in the 16th century. She was about the same age as her male predecessor at the time of her death, but appears to have suffered from leprosy, a disfiguring disease that likely left its mark on her skin, tissues and bone. To reflect this, Fleming added a skin lesion below the woman’s right eye, which may have been blinded by the infection.

According to the National Library of Scotland, leprosy plagued the region around Edinburgh for several centuries during the Middle Ages and onward, prompting the founding of “leper hospitals and houses” meant to segregate the infected from the rest of the population. Though the exact circumstances of this woman’s death remain unclear, she was one of at least five individuals in the cathedral who succumbed to the bacterial infection, archaeologists wrote in a 2006 publication.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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