The Reconstruction of a Saxon Man’s Face

Seventh-century Saxon skull and the facial reconstruction carried out by Caroline Wilkinson, HA260108.9
Seventh-century Saxon skull and the facial reconstruction carried out by Caroline Wilkinson, HA260108.9

To the right is the face of a man who lived in Brighton 1,400 years ago. Caroline Wilkinson, a facial reconstruction specialist at the Unit of Art in Medicine at Manchester University, has been able to recreate the man’s features by examining the unique shape of his skull.

The man’s skeleton has been part of the Archaeology Collection since 1985. It was found during the emergency evacuation of an Anglo Saxon burial site located in Stafford Road, Brighton. Attention was drawn to the site after builders unearthed a number of grave goods during construction work on a private house. The East Sussex Archaeology Project and Brighton Museum were given three days to record and rescue as much information as they could before the building work continued. This man was discovered lying in his seventh-century grave, clutching an iron knife in his right hand and with a bronze belt buckle at his waist.

Inspired by the Unit of Art in Medicine’s work on facial reconstruction for television history programmes like Meet the Ancestors and Time Team, we decided to reveal the face of this seventh-century Saxon man in a display exploring images of the human body. The project was made possible through the generous sponsorship of American Express.

The Reconstruction

1. Thirty-four key anatomical points are marked on a cast of the skull. 2. The muscles of the face are moulded in clay onto the cast. 3. The completed reconstruction
1. Thirty-four key anatomical points are marked on a cast of the skull. 2. The muscles of the face are moulded in clay onto the cast. 3. The completed reconstruction

Caroline Wilkinson established the general form of the man’s face by working from the shape of his skull, while a careful examination of the bone gave her clues about the detail of his features.  For example, a hole in the bone around his mouth shows that he had an abscess above his left front tooth, and would have had a swollen lip. A small divided bone at the base of his nose shows that he had a dent at the tip of his nose. The bones on top of his skull have completely fused together, indicating that the man was in his forties when he died.

Using her knowledge of the formation of facial muscles, Caroline rebuilt the layers of his face in clay on a cast of the original skull. As a guide she marked thirty-four key anatomical points on his face and used a set of average tissue depths for a Caucasian man in his forties. The accuracy of this method of reconstruction had been tested by forensic work done with the police. The same process is occasionally used as a last resort for dealing with unidentified bodies and has a remarkably high success rate.

Caroline covered the Saxon man’s modelled muscles and fat with layers of clay skin. Finally she added his hair and moustache, the style of which were chosen according to portraits of men on Anglo-Saxon coins. A silicone mould of the completed clay head was made. From this a bronze resin cast was produced.

The cast is exhibited alongside the seventh-century skull in the Body Gallery in Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Although we can never be sure exactly what the man looked like, when we see his face in this reconstruction he seems to come to life again.

This text was originally published on the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ main website

2 Responses

  1. A very interesting project. Even if we know that the results are to a certain extent tentative, results like this have the welcome effect of bringing history alive and adding a touch of realism to otherwise dry facts.

Leave a Reply