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Skeletal Remains Identification by Facial Reconstruction, by Phillips (Forensic Science Communications, January 2001)

Skeletal Remains Identification by Facial Reconstruction, by Phillips (Forensic Science Communications, January 2001)

January 2001 - Volume 3 - Number 1

Case Report

Skeletal Remains Identification by Facial Reconstruction

Paper presented at the 9th Biennial Meeting of the International Association
for Craniofacial Identification, FBI, Washington, DC, July 24, 2000

Vincent M. Phillips
Chairman, Department of Diagnostic Sciences and Forensic Dentistry
Oral and Dental Teaching Hospital of the University of Stellenbosch
Tygerberg, South Africa

Abstract | Introduction | Case 1 | Case 2
Case 3
| Discussion | References


The identification of human remains is of paramount importance for legal and humane reasons. The reconstruction of the facial features of an individual onto the skull is a blending of the scientific and the artistic skills of the sculptor. This method is often used as a last resort to identify the skeletal remains of an unidentified person, and it suffers from an ongoing skepticism caused by the advent of the personal computer and modern software technology. There are numerous techniques to sculpture a face onto the skull, all of which rely on the reproduction of a potentially recognizable face using the published soft tissue thicknesses in different racial groups (Phillips and Smuts 1996; Rhine and Campbell 1980; Rhine, Moore, and Weston 1982; Suzuki 1948).

Three incidents in which facial sculpturing was used to identify victims of unnatural deaths are reported. The first was the identification of the remains found on the summit of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa. The second was the identification of the remains of four young males discovered in 1995. The final identification was that of a young girl whose body was found in a shallow grave in Crawford, Cape Town.

The sculpturing method of facial reconstruction has merit and yields remarkable results, including the gratitude of the relatives of the identified victim and the satisfaction of the forensic anthropologist.


Facial reconstruction is a method used in forensic anthropology to aid in the identification of skeletal remains. The reproduction of the facial features of an individual is based upon the average soft tissue thicknesses over various anatomical sites of the skull and jaws (Krogman and Iscan 1986) and is duplicated by means of modeling clay. There are significant differences in the thicknesses of the soft tissues of males and females of different races (Gatliff and Snow 1979; Lebedinskaya et al.1993; Phillips and Smuts 1996; Rhine and Campbell 1980; Rhine et al.1982; Steward 1954; Suzuki 1948). Various techniques have been employed to measure the thickness of the facial tissues of adults, children, and young adults (Altemus 1963; George 1987; Heglar 1980; Lebedinskaya et al. 1993; Phillips and Smuts 1996). The methods used to “flesh out” a face may vary, but each method incorporates a harmonious balance between science and art that eventually results in a reproduction of a face that may lead to an identification.

In the Western Cape Province of South Africa, forensic pathologists examine numerous cases involving skeletal remains each year (Schwar et al. 1987). Most of these cases are the result of unnatural deaths and require forensic investigation. The usual procedure is to analyze the bones to determine the age, race, and sex of the individual (De Villiers 1968) and to correlate this information with the missing persons list. In most cases, attempts to identify the bodies of unknown individuals are limited to these examinations due to the high death rate in South Africa. The local police are inundated with investigations of unnatural deaths, and most of the unclaimed skeletal remains are buried in numbered graves. When the case warrants further investigation, the author has undertaken facial reconstruction of a skull. The method used in these cases is that advocated by Neave (1979).

The purpose of this paper is to report three cases of positive identification through facial reconstruction of the skeletal remains of six unnatural deaths that occurred in the Cape Province in South Africa.

Case 1

In 1994 a Dutch tourist who wandered off the usual pathway found the skeleton of a young Caucasian female on the summit of Table Mountain (Phillips et al. 1996). The remains were lying in an area of thick reeds that was approximately 200 meters from the pathway. Several personal items located in the vicinity of the skeleton were recovered, including a wristwatch, checkbook, shark-tooth pendant, and a leather handbag containing a plastic water bottle, a cup, and two empty packets of sleeping pills containing diphenhydramine. The number of tablets missing from the blister-packs would have amounted to a total toxic dose of 20 to 24 milligrams per kilogram of body mass (fatal dose = 25 mg/kg). The winter rainfall in Cape Town and the decomposition of the reeds led to the total obliteration of the printing in the checkbook, and there were no other identifiable items. The skeletal remains were collected and transported to the cable car station.

While awaiting the arrival of the cable car, a newspaper reporter overheard the conversation between the forensic pathologist and a police officer regarding the skeleton. She had covered the story of the disappearance of a young woman on Table Mountain six years previously. The young woman who disappeared had been suffering from chronic depression and was being treated by a psychiatrist. An extensive search was launched after her disappearance by the police, the army, and the airforce but was unsuccessful in locating the body. The location of the body in the tall reeds away from the usual pathway was one of the factors that contributed to its lack of discovery. The other factor was that most people who disappear on the mountain fall off the slopes, and the bodies are easily spotted from a helicopter.

The information from the reporter led the investigating officer to the parents of a missing 26-year-old woman. When the parents were shown the handbag, wristwatch, and shark-tooth pendant, they were relatively certain that these belonged to their daughter. Unfortunately, the dental records of the missing woman had been mislaid since the initial investigation six years previously, and this precluded positive identification.

The skull and mandible (Figure 1) were referred to the author for facial reconstruction as a final attempt at identification. The author and the artist had not seen any photographs of the deceased, and this afforded them the opportunity to construct a face on the skull and then compare it with known photographs (Figures 2 and 3).

The parents of the deceased were invited to view the facial reconstruction, and the comments of the mother are as follows: “Although the sculpture does not look exactly like our daughter, the family resemblance is remarkable, so much so that it looks exactly like our niece. We are satisfied now that our daughter is dead.”

Graphic showing the skull of a female found at the summit of Table Mountain

Figure 1. The skull found on the summit of Table Mountain among the reeds. The brown teeth are a result of staining from the organic compost.

Graphic showing the face sculptured on a plaster cast of the skull from Table Mountain

Figure 2. The sculptured face in modeling clay on a plaster model of the skull.

Photograph of the woman who disappeared on Table Mountain

Figure 3. A photograph supplied by the parents at the time of the disappearance of their daughter.

Case 2

During the 1990s, an era of severe political unrest in South Africa, numerous assassinations took place throughout the country. Political rivals were eliminated, and the bodies were buried in remote locations only to be discovered by chance, in some cases, when excavations were undertaken for building purposes.

The skeletal remains of four humans were discovered in 1995 buried in the sand dunes adjacent to the mouth of the Imzimvubu River in the Transkei region of the Eastern Cape, near Port St. Johns. The skeletal remains were submitted to the Forensic Laboratory at Salt River in Cape Town for analysis that included examination by a physical anthropologist.

Two of the skulls were aged at 20 to 30 years, one at 18 to 20 years, and the fourth at 14 to 16 years. After metric analysis of the skulls (De Villiers 1968), all were considered to be predominantly of Negroid origin. One of the older skulls had a bullet hole in the mastoid area that indicated these young people could have been victims of political violence.

Using the average soft tissue thicknesses for the Negroid as published by Rhine and Campbell (1980), the faces of the four victims were reconstructed in clay over plaster models of the skulls. The mandible of the youngest victim was not submitted with the skull and was constructed before the facial reconstruction process.

Photographs of the facial reconstructions were shown to the relatives of the victims. The parents of the four missing youths then submitted photographs of their children for comparison (Figures 4 through 15). The parents of the victims were satisfied that their children had been identified.

Case 3

In April 1995, skeletal remains were unearthed in Crawford, Cape Town. The skeleton lay in a shallow grave and was entangled in female clothing. The skull was analyzed metrically to determine the age, race, and sex of the victim. The anatomical features of the skull were determined to be of mixed racial origin, containing Khoisanoid, Negroid, and Caucasoid features (Figure 16). Gustafson’s method of age determination of the teeth (Gustafson 1966) was performed, and the age was estimated to be approximately 24 years.

The reconstruction of the face was carried out on a plaster model of the skull in the manner advocated by Neave (1979) and using the soft tissue thicknesses for persons of mixed racial origin as published by Phillips and Smuts (1996).

Following completion of the reconstruction of the face, it was photographed (Figure 17), and the photograph was placed in the newspaper for possible recognition. This was unsuccessful, and a further attempt using media exposure showed the photograph on a television program Crime Stop. This led to a telephone call from a woman living in Upington, Northern Cape, whose daughter had disappeared after attending a birthday party in Cape Town. A photograph of her daughter (Figure 18) was subsequently submitted, and the mother was confident that her daughter had been identified.


The sculpting of a face on a skull can be traced to biblical times. Forensic scientists and physical anthropologists revived this technique as a means of identifying human remains (Gatliff and Snow 1979). Several forensic scientists have criticized this method of identifying skeletal remains, citing the lack of scientific reproduction of the final product and the low statistical success rates. However, the facial features that are achieved through reconstruction are not expected to be an exact replica of the person to be identified. The success of any facial reconstruction is the reproduction of facial features on a skull that may lead someone to suggest that the face reminds him or her of a particular person who is missing.

Graphic showing the skull of a woman found in a shallow grave in Cape Town

Figure 16. The skull (DR 758/95) of a young woman whose skeletal remains were found in a shallow grave in Crawford, Cape Town.

Graphic showing the reconstructed features of the woman found in Cape Town

Figure 17. The reconstructed facial features on a plaster model of the skull (DR 758/95).

Photograph of the woman whose remains were found in Cape Town

Figure 18. A comparative photograph sent by her mother.


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