Student's Independent Study Project Involves Picturing Face from Its Bare Bones

by Davidson College
Prof. Helen Cho and student
(l-r) Davidson Police Officer David Houk, Caitlin Hickey '14, and Associate Professor Helen Cho pictured with Hickey's reconstruction skull.

When unidentified human remains are discovered at some crime scene of the future, authorities may be turning to Caitlin Hickey '14 to assist in their investigation.

Under the guidance of Associate Professor of Anthropology Helen Cho and Officer David Houk of the Town of Davidson Police Department, Hickey is currently enrolled in an independent study of forensic art and anthropology. As her final project for the course, she will be reconstructing the face of a human skull.

Cho provided Hickey with the plastic cast of a real human skull from the anthropology department's bone lab. Hickey will measure the skull's features to determine its age, sex and ancestry. Then she'll reconstruct the face.

Hickey explained that facial reconstruction involves both science and art. "The metric processes involves measuring the skull and comparing the numbers to other examples, or plugging them into a computer program that determines sex and ancestry," Hickey said. "Non-metric processes, which are observational, include analyzing the closure of sutures (small cracks) on the skull to determine age."

Cho is guiding Hickey in determining the basic, anthropological facts about the skull, and Officer Houk is tutoring her in recreating the skull's face. Houk is an FBI-trained forensic artist, and assists in police investigations by creating artistic facial reconstructions based on skulls or partially decomposed human faces.

"A forensic artist can recreate a human face from a skull similar to the way a home builder can look at an old foundation and tell you what kind of house stood there," Houk explained.

Houk is teaching Hickey the artistic skills required of successful forensic artists. "She's not an art student, but my job is to turn her into one!" he joked. "I tell her to draw every day, and when we meet she shows me the faces she's drawn. Her task is difficult, but she's taking it very seriously."

The reconstruction process involves placing small rubber markers all over the skull to indicate tissue depth. Then Hickey will create a drawing of the face based on the rubber markers and anthropological factors. Finally, Hickey will create a three-dimensional likeness of the face by molding clay over the tissue markers to simulate facial muscles and skin.

When Hickey has completed the two-dimensional and three-dimensional reconstructions, she will compare her finished product with an actual likeness of the skull's original owner that Cho has obtained.

Hickey acknowledges that facial reconstruction is a subjective enterprise. She said, "Though you gather a lot of scientific data, facial reconstruction depends in large part on artistic interpretation and the artist's skills. Because of that, some anthropologists oppose it."

Her project, including the completed facial reconstructions, will be presented at the Social Sciences Poster Fair in April.

Cho said, "Rarely do you have someone with backgrounds in both anatomy and creative art. She is also very energetic and enthusiastic, so my job is pretty easy. It's also gratifying to know that the course directly relates to her career aspirations."

After graduation from Davidson, Hickey plans to continue her studies of forensic art and anthropology at the University of Tennessee, home to the famous "Body Farm" where law enforcement and anthropology students study decomposing cadavers.

When she completes her studies there, Hickey will join an elite corps of law enforcement professionals and anthropologists. "I only know of two other forensic artists in North Carolina," said Houk.