Being Human #2: Reconstructing identity – a new look at the ancient dead

Today’s post is by Michelle from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We each have a passionate interest in the museum and its objects and bring our own insight into Manchester Museum and its collections.

For more about archaeology at Manchester, please visit the Curator’s blogAncient Worlds.

Being Human #2: Reconstructing identity – a new look at the ancient dead

Continuing the idea of what it is to be human … The representation and construction of identity is all around us – the age of the ‘selfie’ perhaps displaying this more overtly than ever. The image, particularly of the face – just as the fingerprint – has become a signifier of our identity, and a reflection of our humanity. Being human, more so today than ever before, includes being an individual. And although the technologies associated with the face as a means of identification may be new, the idea of visually representing identity dates back millennia.

 Likewise, the curiosity connected with discovering and representing the faces of our ancestors is not a new thing; whether this is looking at old photos and seeing whether we have inherited our grandparents’ ears, or analysing our DNA to trace our earliest human ancestors, those ancestors themselves have long since been recording their own family trees and creating visual likenesses as storages of identity. This post looks at some of these themes, which I had pleasure of discussing a little while ago in a series of tours I delivered about ‘displaying the dead and reconstructing identity’ to visiting oncologists from The Christie.


When Sir Mortimer Wheeler wrote that “the archaeologist is digging up, not things, but people” (Archaeology from the Earth, 1954), he was talking about the shared human connection through the study of material culture assemblages and archaeological context. Yet, looking at people quite literally, there has been significant interest within archaeology and museum culture in human remains, and particularly the transitional bodies; Egyptian mummies, bog bodies, shrunken heads and the like, where the body occupies a space somewhere between a living person and a corpse. And although this fascination perhaps reflects more the narratives of the cultures in which they are displayed, there is a human connection of such encounters revealing a deep-seated desire to look into the face of our ancestors (however far geographically or culturally removed).

This desire to know who we are and where we come from is perhaps intimately connected with the awareness of our own mortality, and the transitional body resonates with ideas of immortality. In the absence of written biographical information, biomedical research has often revealed information about the ancient dead; how these people lived and how they died. But who these people were is intimately connected with how they looked, and using the ‘Manchester Method’, pioneered by Richard Neave and John Prag, at the University of Manchester, and continued most notably by Caroline Wilkinson, facial reconstruction has become an important part of communicating ideas of ancient identity.

“It is the common wonder of all men, how among so many millions of faces, there should be none alike” – Sir Thomas Browne

Each skull is unique, and each face is a three dimensional report on its skull. The reconstruction of the face takes a muscle by muscle, feature by feature approach.


Displaying the process of reconstructing the face of ‘Worsley Man’ in the Ancient Worlds gallery, Manchester Museum.

The main difference between forensic and archaeological reconstruction is that in its forensic function, the image is used simply and quickly as a spark for recognition when post-mortem deterioration has made this problematic, leading to the identification of a previously unidentified body, however there are no friends or relatives who can come forward to identify an archaeological reconstruction of an individual who might be hundreds or even thousands of years dead. Forensic usage evidences that the process works, but with skulls found in an archaeological context, there is not the same necessary immediacy – aside from academic publication and presentation deadlines or television schedules!

Archaeological reconstruction is about achieving the greatest possible accuracy using both physical evidence and historical context. And in the last few years this technique has become a mainstay of popular archaeology – a regular component of many historical documentaries, quite literally, to bring people of the past back to life.

Archaeological reconstructions of Tutankhamun and a Neanderthal

The technique began with faces being modelled in clay, by hand – and there is still a strong consideration that it is the human sculptor’s knowledge of human anatomy, and the human connection, that makes the reconstructions plastically modelled in this way resonate with a human-ness that a computer generated image cannot capture – after all, people know people!

The digital image however, is more robust in the claim for objectivity, with new techniques of ultrasonic measurement and computerised tomography (CT) yielding increasingly precise data. Yet by computer or by hand, reconstruction uses average muscle thicknesses and skin depths – and if there is one thing humans are not, it’s average!

Far from being a new idea, modelling an identity upon the skull is a practice that dates back in the ancient Levant as early as the seventh millennium BC, with plastered skulls being discovered from the period known as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB).


Plastered skull from Jericho, Pre-pottery Neolithic B, c. 7200 BC (ME 1274142)

The initial discovery was by archaeologist John Garstang on the West Bank at Jericho in the 1930s, with subsequent discoveries by Kathleen Kenyon in the 1950s. Other sites where these remarkable skulls have been found include ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan, Çatalhöyük in Turkey and Tell Ramad in Syria.

And the idea of representing the human head ceramically is something that was prevalent in the Nasca culture, Peru, who would place such vessels on the bodies of those who have had their heads taken as trophies.


Head jar. Middle Nasca culture, AD 100-300. (No.: 0.9707/57). Living Cultures gallery, Manchester Museum

These skulls provide a fascinating insight into early human burial practices and the way that humans have conceived and represented their identities, ancestors and (im)mortality – ideas that will be explored in more detail in forthcoming posts.

There has always been something theatrical about museums, intrinsic in the idea of display, be that the cabinets of curiosity and the early museums of the 17th onwards, right the way through to some of the hyper-modern curation of the 21st century, with the unwrapping, or revealing at the centre of the performance (including the virtual unwrapping of CT scanning, or the virtual recreation of the face of the ancient dead).

Nikki Elvin of the British Museum, London with Gebelein Man B. From the Ancient Lives New Discoveries exhibition. Picture: Fiona Hanson for The Telegraph.

Of the reconstructions displayed in the Ancient Worlds gallery at Manchester Museum, the face of the man found the Tomb II at Vergina is the one who has found the most fame. This was an example of when the moment of the reveal came with a collective intake of breath, when the reconstruction indeed became a tool for the popular recognition of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.


Facial reconstruction based on the skull found in Tomb II at Vergina, believed to be that of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. Ancient Worlds gallery, Manchester Museum.

This identity has been disputed on and off over the years since this study by Neave and Prag, but without the physicality of this reconstruction, the study may well have remained on the page as a dry osteology report on a part-cremated skull fragment. It was the very act of humanising the injuries through textual corroboration and experimental archaeology and pathological parallel that resulted in the inspiration of the popular imagination.

In the age old tradition of museumification, archaeological facial reconstruction is certainly theatrical, with its capacity to entertain and inspire as well as to educate, creating and revealing identities, humanising through visualisation and making physical and tangible connections with the people from the past.

Visitors bring with them their own mythologies and fictions – the ancient dead is often already transformed within the collective popular imagination, meaning that the point of confrontation is often emotional rather than academic. And while it is true, that it is not the flesh and skin of the long dead human, for some visitors, it is the plastically modelled image, the likeness, the remembrance of an identity, that makes the individual far more ‘real’ than the clean, bony, decontextualised skull ever could.

Michelle Scott

Further Reading:
John Prag and Richard Neave, 1997. Making Faces: Using Forensic and Archaeological Evidence
Caroline Wilkinson, 2009. Forensic Facial Reconstruction

For more about archaeolgy at Manchester Museum, please visit the Curator’s blogAncient Worlds.

Read more about bodies by the Visitor Team:
Being Human #1: Taung Child – The Missing Link
Mother’s Day Special: How to make a Mummy
Encountering Corpses


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