How Successful Is Facial Approximation

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If the bones of the skull and the soft tissues of the face are interrelated, it stands to reason that the anatomy of the former will predict that of the latter, but is it predictable? There have been many successes reported in the literature, and forensic sculptural approximation remains a popular if last-ditch attempt to identify unknown remains (Prag and Neave 1997b).

Given all the problems associated with the reproduction of soft-tissue structures, it is perhaps not surprising that facial approximation has had many critics, as it became obvious that different artists would interpret the bones differently and thus produce different faces. von Eggeling's (1913) early experiments confirmed this when the same skull for which a face was known was given to two sculptors. Each produced a different face and neither resembled the original. Although there have been many criticisms in the intervening years as to the ultimate usefulness of the technique (Stephan 2001, Vanezis et al. 1989), many successes have been reported (Gatliff and Snow 1979, Gatliff and Taylor 2001).

Stephan and Henneberg (2001) attempted to apply a statistical method for the identification of individuals from approximations and found that only 1 in 16 was identified at a statistical level above chance.

It may be that the skill of the sculptor has a bearing on the success rate. Helmer et al. (1993) asked two experienced forensic sculptors to render a likeness on 12 pairs of identical casts of skulls of known individuals. In this tightly controlled study the resulting approximations were sufficiently accurate for independent observers to identify the photograph of the original to rate the resemblance overall at between 33% and 42%.

Given the relative unimportance of features such as mouth and cheeks, a bland interpretation of features is just as likely to be successful and perhaps in some cases more so than a highly artistic and lifelike approximation (Helmer et al. 1993). Such an approximation can prompt the viewer to imaginatively add personal details if the overall proportions are correct. It is these proportions that are gleaned from the careful examination of the skull and a sympathetic approach to the task of facial approximation. The success may therefore lie in what artist Karen Taylor calls "the gestalt of the face"; in other words, the whole is more than the sum of the component parts (Taylor 2001). The proportions of the features rather than the details themselves appear to trigger the recognition (George 1993). Of the details, the features in the

Figure 3.6

Computer enhancement of an approximation of an Asian face.

Facial Approximation

upper part of the face are considered first. Details of hair appear most important, followed by eyes and eyebrows (Davies et al. 1981).

This was borne out by a recent study by one of the present authors of a longitudinal series of frontal photographs of the same individuals from birth to 20 years of age. It established statistically that most individuals could be correctly identified from the age of about 5 years by an independent observer, even though the growth of the lower part of the face has not taken place. The ultimate proportions of the face are indeterminate until the prepubertal growth spurt, after which the probability of recognition increases with age until adulthood (Craig et al. 2004).

To photograph and scan the result into a computer will allow details to be added that humanize the face and make it more lifelike. Full-frontal and profile photographs will allow features such as hairstyles, moustaches, and beards to be displayed. Any jewelry, eyeglasses, or other personal adornments found with the body can be added to personalize the image. Image processing software such as Adobe Photoshop® is used to apply features from an image database. Adobe Illustrator® or Corel Draw® will enable drawings to be done directly on the image. Such a process is easily and quickly achieved and the features can be changed at short notice if further evidence comes to hand. A copy of the original scanned image is always kept and can be referred to at all times. Photoshop® has an inbuilt history which allows all changes to be recorded. The importance of collaboration between the sculptor and the computer artist cannot be overemphasized. It is important that changes are


Facial Approximation

Figure 3.7

Computer enhancement of Case 2 by Det. Sgt. Adrian Paterson of the Victoria (Australia) Police.

restricted to the added details in the areas of eyebrows, lashes, hairstyle, and eyes, and the temptation to reshape or tidy up features on the original clay approximation is resisted.

A three-dimensional scan can be achieved using 3D imaging equipment such as the Fiore Physiognomic Range Finder. The clay approximation then becomes a virtual model which can be delivered electronically and allows remote investigators the opportunity to examine it from all aspects through rotation on the computer screen or the construction of a duplicate through CAD/CAM technology. It is also possible to compare the approximation with a photograph of a possible match by superimposition following the technique developed by Yoshino et al. (2000). The 3D image is rotated about three dimensions and matched to the photograph at seven selected anatomical landmarks using Rugle® software. The landmarks used by Yoshino are the pupils, nasion, pronasale, stomion, and subaurale. Of these, the pupils, nasion and pronasale are the most likely to be correctly positioned on the clay approximation.


Since the aim of facial approximation in a forensic setting is to establish the identity of the deceased, the final likeness must be publicized in a manner that will ensure the greatest exposure to the general public, and therefore the greatest possibility that someone will recognize a missing friend or relative. Prominent photographs in black and white of the face together with a brief description of the discovery of the body will stimulate interest, particularly on a day when there is no other newsworthy event to divert attention (Haglund and Reay 1991). There may be more than one tentative identification, but each of these can be investigated further at that point. Additional information obtained from the friend or relative may provide additional evidence that leads to the ultimate identification.



On the 26 April 1988 skeletonized human remains (Figure 3.8a) were found in a shallow grave in secluded bushland west of Melbourne in Australia. The pathology and odontology report showed that the deceased was a 174-cm-tall Caucasian male aged between 50 and 55 years at death. There were no teeth, and the dental ridges were well resorbed, indicating that the teeth had been extracted many years earlier. No clothing was found at the scene, but several strands of hair of gray and brown color were recovered.

In 1990, after all avenues to establish the identification of the deceased had been exhausted, the coroner requested that a facial approximation be attempted to try and resolve the case. Key points in the facial approximation:

■ It was unfortunate that no dentures were found with the body, but this did not concern us unduly. We have a good health system in Australia and it is unusual to see people without dentures, but it is common for animals to take them especially when the body is dumped in bushland.

■ It was agreed in consultation with the odontologist to re-establish the height of the jaws of the deceased to that which it was presumed the dentures occupied (Figure 3.8b). Registration rims constructed in dental modeling wax were fitted to the maxillary and mandibular arches following the standard measurements set out by Basker et al. (1979) of 20-22mm for the upper and 15-17mm for the lower rims. Consideration was then given to lip support. The amount of resorption of the gums indicated to us that the man would have had thin lips and fine creases around the mouth due to age and the lack of properly placed teeth.

■ A plaster cast was made of the skull with the registration rims in place. This was used to build the clay facial approximation, leaving the original skull free to use as a reference guide. Muscle markings and other bony landmarks were noted.

■ Soft-tissue depth markers were placed in the correct anatomical position and soft tissue buildup completed.

■ A digital photograph of the finished clay model (Figure 3.8c) was imported into the computer to enhance the image as described above. In this case we had

17 strands of hair—2 silver and 15 brown (reddish)—that were wavy; hence we gave him a brush-backed "rock'n roll" style (Figures 3.8c, d).

■ Media release is as important as any other part of the investigation and needs to be conducted in such a way as to gain the best possible coverage. First publicized on 30 November 1990, the newspaper story coincided with a hotly contested Federal Election campaign and no replies were received. The following Easter 1991, the story was run again on a television channel. This resulted in the daughter coming forward, and the identity was finally confirmed with DNA (Figure 3.8e).

Facial Approximation
Figure 3.8(a—e) Case 1
Facial Approximation


In January 2002 a badly charred body was retrieved from a stolen car in a bay-side suburban area of Melbourne, Australia. It had been involved in a high-speed collision with a tree, where the car had ignited on impact. No documentation to assist with identification was found with the body. The pathology and odontology report showed that the deceased was a brown-haired male in his mid-twenties with a height of 182 cm and weight of 62 kg. Large sections of the skull and soft tissue were destroyed by fire (Figure 3.9a).

The teeth were burnt, especially on the left side of the face. Dental x-rays were taken and published in the newsletter of the Australian Dental Association in Australia and New Zealand in an effort to identify any dental work, but without success. The coroner requested that a facial approximation be attempted after the deceased had remained unidentified for seven months. Key points in the facial approximation:

■ Dermestes (hide) beetles were used to clean the extremely brittle skull. Missing and damaged sections of the skull were recreated with dental modeling wax (Figure 3.9b).

■ Interpretation of individual muscle markings and the bony structural shapes were noted, and the approximation rebuilt on a plaster cast. Finally, computer enhancement of the clay approximation provided a humanized image as well as alternate likenesses. This was especially important in this case since it was impossible to determine hairstyle (Figure 3.9c).

■ Media release needs to concentrate on the image produced and not on the artist that created it. The enhanced approximation was released to the media, and, noting the initial failure previously, we asked the reporter to wait until there was a slow news day before publicizing it in the national press. This was done, and the following day the police received a telephone call from the boy's mother in Cairns in northern Queensland. The identity was subsequently confirmed by DNA.


Facial approximation is a controversial, time-consuming, and limited technique, but may offer the one avenue open to investigators when the only clues to identification of the victim are contained within his bones. A badly damaged skull can only be scanned with a computer with difficulty and the authors believe that more accuracy can be achieved through manual restoration, leaving the computer to enhance the finished reconstruction. Whether a clay approximation is attempted on the skull, or it is merely restored and then scanned, the skills of the anthropologically trained forensic sculptor are necessary if one attempts to use the clues contained within the bones in order to attempt an identification of an unknown body.


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  • Ruggero
    What is facial approximation?
    1 year ago
  • reginard lightfoot
    Is facial reconstruction time consuming?
    11 months ago
  • Largo
    Is forensic facial reconstruction successful?
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