The skull with the Mona Lisa smile
Facial reconstruction is a technique that most fans of Bones and other crime procedural programmes may be familiar with. Using skeletal remains and a knowledge of anatomy, a forensic artist puts a flesh-and-blood face on a desiccated cranium to aid in identification of a murder victim. Within the world of ancient bodies, reconstructions have been done to bring to life the faces of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen, the Palaeoindian known as Kennewick Man, and “Moora,” an Iron Age girl found in a German peat bog. Tutankhamen’s high cheekbones, Kennewick Man’s strong jaw line, and Moora’s close-set eyes are among the features that individualise these ancient people and make them somehow seem more modern, more like us.
Yet facial reconstruction is a controversial technique in forensic science owing primarily to its subjectivity. The contemporary practice was championed by anthropologist Wilton Krogman in the 1960s, and forensic artists have been steadily working since then. Methods of creating a face from a skull include both 2D drawings based on photographs or x-rays of the skull and sculptures or computerized 3D models based on general information about average musculature and tissue thickness. The problems with forensic facial reconstruction include the lack of information about how tissue thickness varies by body type, particularly in terms of age, sex, and weight, as well as a lack of standardization in methodologies used to create the faces. Forensic artists cannot accurately reconstruct eye colour, hairstyle, skin colour, or nose shape from a skull – traits whose variation is precisely what allows us to distinguish someone we know in a crowd. In the U.S. federal courts, forensic artists cannot testify as expert witnesses because each facial reconstruction is different and the data they are based on are incomplete. The technique therefore does not meet the Daubert Standard, a legal precedent about the admissibility of scientific evidence. Innovations in computer-assisted modelling are advancing this field, but it remains largely a subjective interpretation of living facial features from skeletal remains.
In a recent attention-seeking gambit, Silvano Vinceti – Italy’s self-proclaimed art history super-sleuth – decided to dig up the remains of Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the woman who likely posed for or inspired Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Gherardini’s death certificate, discovered in 2007, suggests she was buried in a crypt under the floor at St. Ursula’s convent in Florence. In April of this year, Vinceti announced his intention to find the long-forgotten tombs under the convent, excavate them, isolate any bones that match the age and sex of Gherardini, confirm this through DNA analysis, piece together the skull fragments, complete a facial reconstruction, and determine once and for all that Lisa Gherardini was indeed the Mona Lisa. Seemingly a tall order and a convoluted process, but on May 11, the archaeological team started digging. A day or two later, the team announced they had found a staircase leading to the crypt as well as two tombs and a brick vault. And on May 20, they announced the finding of a female-sized skull. The recently published photographs of the bones that may be Gherardini’s show that the skull was quite damaged and the other skeletal elements are quite fragmentary.
Assuming the archaeologists have found Gherardini’s skull (that is, assuming it can be DNA typed to her relatives), facial reconstruction from these remains cannot be anywhere near precise. Tutankhamen, Kennewick Man,,, and Moora were all subject to multiple facial reconstructions performed by independent forensic artists. In spite of what the researchers who commissioned the reconstructions say, the alternate faces of each of these three long-dead people bear only a passing similarity to one another, even though they were based on the same relatively complete skull. Superimposition of a partially-transparent Mona Lisa image over an x-ray of Gherardini’s broken skull may very well show that some anatomical features of the face are aligned, but it is not possible to conclusively identify Gherardini as the Mona Lisa from facial reconstruction.
The rapid, staccato pace at which Silvano Vinceti and his team are releasing information to the media shows his ability to harness public interest in his theory about the woman behind the famous Mona Lisa painting. Vinceti himself, though, is quite a controversial figure. In June 2010, he claimed to have found the remains of Caravaggio, a claim that was quickly disputed. He claimed in January to have found the symbols S, L, and 72 in Mona Lisa’s eyes, but art historians called his evidence unsubstantial. In February, Vinceti claimed a male model may have posed for the Mona Lisa, a theory that a Da Vinci expert called “groundless.” On the other hand, some news media portray Vinceti as “a modern-day Indiana Jones investigator” and “art’s self-styled super-sleuth.” These reports tend to characterize him as a researcher on a tenacious quest for the truth. The Wall Street Journal, however, has noted that Vinceti is neither a trained historian nor a scientist – he is a TV host and producer – and that his “colleagues” in Italian art history note his “wicked use of the mass media” to distract the public from serious historical inquiry.
But the public is more than capable of distinguishing between real research and outright sensationalism, as can be seen in many of the comments on the Telegraph’s original report of the Mona Lisa excavation plan. Although the excavation is being carried out in a professional manner, Vinceti’s quest to dig up the “real” Mona Lisa is not grounded in scientific research methodology. The news media’s breathless coverage of it threatens to signal to the public that archaeologists are frivolous with their time, energy, and research money.
Although the excavation is being carried out in a professional manner, Vinceti’s quest to dig up the “real” Mona Lisa is not grounded in scientific research methodology
With the shortage of academic jobs for newly-minted PhDs and fear of funding disappearing with the recent announcement that Fulbright-Hays and other U.S. government-sponsored research programs are cancelled for the year, it is especially important to harness public support for archaeology by putting faces to skeletons, which helps us connect with the public on a more emotional level. But what we cannot do is throw around ideas willy-nilly and claim that we can solve Dan Brown-style mysteries with our capital-S science.
Silvano Vinceti may have stumbled upon the grave of Lisa Gherardini, who may have been painted as the Mona Lisa. But attempting to wrangle a few bits of bone into an archaeo-forensic assessment of a particular person – an assessment that has already been determined by Vinceti – is almost certainly a ploy to drum up interest in Vinceti’s generally harebrained theories rather than a serious inquiry into the past.
In spite of the May 20 discovery of bones, the search for Gherardini’s skeleton continues, with Italian news sources calling this week a critical time for the excavation. Archaeologists will continue to excavate the subterranean vaults at least through to the end of the week, as they are not entirely sure which one holds the remains of Lisa Gherardini. When archaeologists do find her final resting place, it will be interesting to see what kind of portrait forensic artists will paint.
Kristina Killgrove is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina. She blogs on archaeology, biological anthropology, and the classical world at Powered by Osteons (http://www.killgrove.blogspot.com).
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