This week before we had the chance to take a closer look at the portraits under the microscopes (and discovered a speck of gold on the Portrait of the Man!), we had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Caroline Wilkinson, Director of the School of Art & Design and Director of Face Lab at Liverpool John Moores University. We were particularly excited to talk to her after having read her work on the forensic reconstruction of faces from the skeletal remains of mummies and comparing her reconstructions to the associated mummy portraits.
Dr. Wilkinson explained in detail how her anatomy-based skeletal modeling system in combination with anatomy standards for skeletal standards enables the forensic facial reconstruction of—in the context of our study—mummy remains. She reminded us that the shape of the skull contributes most to what the external appearance of an individual might have been. Beginning with a three dimensional image (or previously, a physical model) of the skull, she adds tissue depth markers at critical points on the skull; these markers are based on existing tissue depth averages for specific contemporary populations. For ancient Egyptians, she uses information from contemporary African populations. Next, muscles of the face and of the neck, which are similar for all human populations, are built up with the guidance of the tissue depth markers. Then, the more recognizable facial features, such as the eyes, the nose, and the lips, are predicted based on the examination of the skull, but also on existing clinical standards for contemporary groups. Some features like ears are difficult to recreate because they are made mostly of cartilage. Finally, skin layers are applied but details such as skin color, eye color, wrinkles, and moles cannot be learned from the skull. Based on Dr. Wilkinson’s studies, 70% of all features of a face can be reconstructed to within 2mm of accuracy based on examination of the skull.
In the case of our portraits, they were detached form their original mummies over a hundred years ago, and thus comparisons between a face reconstructed from skulls and the painted portrait cannot be carried out; we are all too aware of how much more information we might have been able to add to our examination of the portraits if we had the original mummies that they were once associated with. We asked Dr. Wilkinson what we can possibly learn from a forensic perspective about these two individuals from their portraits, and if we can use these portraits in comparison with others to find some family members related to our portraits based just on physical appearance. She cautioned us to be careful about drawing too many conclusions from only one piece of evidence, and told us to search for particular hereditary features that might suggest family relationships, for example cleft chins (which the young man has), shape of the nose (which looks unusual on the young man’s face), and the attached ear lobes. However, we should take caution that some features can be prevalent across certain populations rather than families.
We returned to looking at both the “Young Man” team and the “Man” team under the microscope. Specifically, we looked for the sequence by which the layers of paint were applied. The sequence might explain the painting process and the role of painters and apprentices. During the examination, very excitedly, we discovered a speck of gilding on the outer corner of the proper left eye on the Man’s portrait. (Unfortunately this doesn’t seem intentional—it looks like this small fragment of gold leaf blew onto the surface from elsewhere). The “Young Man” group discovered a set of indentations around the edges of the portrait, which might be due to framing when exhibited or transportation purposes. In addition, the potential inscription above the young man’s proper left shoulder noted previously was carefully examined but no conclusion has been drawn. There is so much information hidden in the portraits that they can always surprise us with new discoveries from difference aspects and methods. So if we keep trying, maybe eventually we can put the puzzle together.