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Rebuilding Faces: Mikhail Gerasimov

Mikail Gerasimov
The little hippopotamus on the table, carved from wood with a penknife,
could only be the work of an artist.
It was in fact done by Mikhail Gerasimov, an anthropologist.
The portrait gallery on the shelf behind him does not contain
works of art but plastic reconstructions of people
from their skulls, according to precise scientific principles.
Mikhail Gerasimov has founded a new branch of science and a school of his own. It is the science - or, if you will, the art - of reconstructing a person's facial appearance on the basis of the skull. In the last few decades, Gerasimov has sculptured likenesses of Ivan the Terrible. Yaroslav the Wise, Andrei Bogolyubsky, Tamerlane, Avicenna and many other historical personalities.

Gerasimov is the founder and director of the Plastic Reconstruction Laboratory of the Institute of Ethnography of the USSR Academy of Sciences. The laboratory, with its rows of busts, resembles a museum or an art gallery. Wearing a large apron, his hands covered with plastic materials, Gerasimov strolls about among his Pithecanthropic and Neanderthal "friends" and can tell you many fascinating stories about them.

He began as an archaeologist. While still a young man, he discovered an ancient settlement near the village of Multa not far from the city of Irkutsk in Siberia, and a number of other prehistoric camps. The ornaments and other objects he found there awakened in him a strong desire to see what the people who had made them had actually looked like.

His book People of the Stone Age, published in 1964, came as a result of investigations along this line. The results lend support to the theory that Neanderthal man was still in existence when the early representatives of Homo sapiens appeared, and that Pithecanthropus was coeval with the early Neanderthals.

Fantasy or Scientific calculation?

Some 40 years ago, when Gerasimov suggested the possibility of reconstructing a faithful plastic portrait of a person on the basis of his skull, the idea was greeted with derision. But Gerasimov maintained that photographs or death-masks were no more trustworthy than plastic reconstruction. Moreover, on certain occasions reconstruction might be the only means of identifying a person's remains. After all, scientists already considered it possible to establish the race of a person - Negro, Mongol or European - on the evidence of his skull. Why not the identity of individuals - Hannibal, Tamerlane, or Napoleon?

Gerasimov thought as an anthropologist, but his conclusions were eagerly awaited by criminologists.

One day a human skull was brought to him with the request that he reconstruct the face. The skull was thought to be that of a woman who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

Gerasimov determines the main features of the face on the basis of the bone structure. The relation between bone and soft tissue is a complex one, but it can be established, and by empirical observations and X-ray photography Gerasimov has compiled detailed tables to show the thickness of soft tissues for many types of face.

The nose and ears are most difficult. The eyes, on the other hand, are comparatively easy because even their expression is largely determined by the soft tissue and bone that surround them. Even details such as a hooked nose or a hanging lower lip, a sign of old age, leave their marks on the skull, not to speak of scars or other injuries.

This case turned out to be a difficult one. The left half of the skull was normal, but the right half bore no sharp outline. This indicated that the nerves on the right side had become atrophied with constant loss of muscle mobility. The absence of many teeth also made reconstruction difficult, since the shape of the mouth is an important feature in the human face.

Step by step Gerasimov produced lifelike features from the death's head. Its thickened joints told him it had belonged to a person of between 33 and 36. Other peculiarities showed that this person had been a woman. An inspection of the alveoli (tooth sockets) revealed that the woman's teeth had been sound for most of her life. Hence the jaw line would be firm.

Eventually the picture was complete and the people to whom it was shown recognized in it the face of their lost relative. She had indeed been 35 years old when she disappeared. Just as in life, her face was slightly misshapen, and the eyelid of the right eye was much lower than that of the left - a fine detail caught by the anthropologist. The relatives were at one in agreeing that the reconstruction made by a scientist who had never seen her was a better likeness than the photograph they possessed.

While talking with us, Gerasimov seemed to toy for a few moments with a piece of tinfoil, then we noticed a small silver stag resting in the palm of his hand.

He smiled, "Yes, I am fond of all sorts of modelling. I carved a portrait of my daughter once, and by luck caught the likeness rather well." (One of his three daughters, Margarita, helps him in his laboratory as a paleoanthropologist.) Then, returning to the subject with which we began, he said:

"When I remade one of my plastic reconstructions in marble, it looked like a piece of sculpture. But let me hasten to add that I am not a sculptor. A pure artist would certainly make errors in plastic reconstruction, because he would be carried away by his imagination. But the reconstruction of a human face from a skull is a science based on the strict analysis of all available data."

Gerasimov has taught his precise methods of plastic reconstruction to students like Galina Lebedinskaya and Taisiya Surnina, who have been making plastic portraits on their own for some time.

Since the day he reconstructed the face of that unknown woman, numerous tests and experiments have proved his reliability. Dead persons unknown to Gerasimov were first photographed, then the bare skulls were given to Gerasimov. The reconstructed heads were then compared with the photographs by experts. Every reconstruction bore some resemblance to the photograph.

Gerasimov's methods are now acknowledged to be effective by even the most sceptical.

The Skull of Schiller


Fig. 1
Frorep, a German anthropologist, believed the skull on the left on Fig. 1 to have been that of Schiller. But on investigation it turned out to be that of a woman. Furthermore, it was found not to tally with the poet's death-mask - shown in profile by dotted line. On the right is the actual skull of Schiller, discovered by Schwabe. This was how Schiller's features were reconstructed. The flesh was built up on the skull, the principal muscles being modelled in resin (left on Fig 1). "And I had to do this on half of the face only," says Gerasimov, "so that all the details of the reconstruction and their relation to the skull could be seen" (right on Fig. 1).

For nearly 150 years admirers of Schiller have made pilgrimages to the city of Weimar, where his remains lie buried. In the local museum a death mask of the poet and a plaster replica of his skull are kept. But until quite recently, no historian could say definitely whether this was a replica of the right skull or whether the buried remains were actually Schiller's. How the question was finally settled is an absorbing story.

The remains of Schiller from which the replica of the skull was taken had been found 21 years after the poet's death in the city's burial chamber by K. Schwabe, the burgomeister and a personal friend of the poet. Several members of the Schwabe family, Schiller's contemporary and fellow-countryman, Goethe, and other citizens who knew Schiller, including the poet's servant, had taken part in the search. But identification had been difficult, since there were no inscriptions over the coffins in the small burial chamber.

Some 53 years later, when the remains of Schiller and Goethe lay side by side in the Goethe-Schiller mausoleum, H. Welker, an anatomist, expressed doubts as to the authenticity of the remains found by Schiller's friends. Welker had made a name for himself by comparing two skulls said to be Raphael's with the artist's self-portrait and establishing which was the right one. He now stated that the replica of the skull kept in the museum did not match the death-mask, and so the remains in the mausoleum were not Schiller's.

A new search began. In 1911 the city's burial chamber was reopened, and a new skull found by Frorep, another anatomist, was placed in the museum. But this did not settle the question, for the skeleton found by Schwabe still lay in its red sarcophagus in the Goethe-Schiller mausoleum. It was to this relic that devotees of Schiller came to pay their respects. This odd state of affairs continued right up to 1961, when Mikhail Gerasimov was asked to identify the true skull and to reconstruct the face of the poet.

According to notes left by his contemporaries, Schiller, who died in 1805 at the age of 46, was a handsome man and the tallest in the city. In the red sarcophagus, Gerasimov found the skeleton of a very tall man. With its high forehead, prominent nasal bones, large eye sockets and fine, even teeth the skull looked impressive, even handsome.

Everything seemed to match the external appearance of the poet, as reported by his contemporaries. The skeleton found by Frorep, on the other hand, turned out to have been put together from the bones of different people; and furthermore, the skull was definitely that of a woman not older than 20. These facts put the Frorep skull right out of the running but Gerasimov still had to decide whether the remains found by Schwabe in 1826 were really Schiller's.


Compare Schiller's death-mask (left) and Gerasimov's plastic reconstruction (right).
The striking resemblance is further vindication of Gerasimov's methods.
When he set to work in a locked room with his assistant and student, H. Ulrich, Gerasimov had no portraits of Schiller (of which there are plenty), and he had not seen the death-mask. As an experienced sculptor he could, of course, have shaped the familiar appearance of the poet from memory.

"But I had quite a different task," he states. "What I had to do was to reconstruct the morphological details of the face according to the shape of the skull that had been given me. And I had to do this on half of the face only, so that all the details of the reconstruction and their relation to the skull could be seen. If the skull was not that of Schiller, then my portrait would bear no resemblance to him."

Comparison of the plastic reconstruction of Schiller's face with Schiller's death mask was an official event. It was made in the presence of museum workers and experts. They immediately recognized the poet from the plastic profile and, after a detailed examination, pronounced themselves satisfied that this and all the other facial features stemmed from the peculiarities of the skull. The portrait made by Gerasimov showed a living face, while the death mask naturally showed only the outlines of muscles which had lost all vitality and were furthermore distorted during the making of the mask.

How had H. Welker, come to make his error? Gerasimov gives this explanation - The person who made the mask had bound Schiller's hair tightly with a cloth so as not to damage it. When cutting off the pattern left by the cloth on the mask, he removed too much plaster, which resulted in a distortion in the appearance of the cranium. Hence the discrepancy between skull and mask. Today the reconstructed head of Schiller can be seen in the Schiller Museum in Weimar.

Search For an Unknown Face

It was the Tajik writer Aini who first suggested to Gerasimov that he should make a plastic reconstruction of the face of Tajikistan's national poet, Rudaki, who died eleven centuries ago, and about whose appearance and life very little was known. Villages near Samarkand, Bukhara, and even in Afghanistan all claimed Rudaki as their native son. Rudaki was the father of Persian literature. He wrote in Farsi - the direct ancestor of the language the Tajik people speak today.

As the 1100th anniversary of Rudaki's birth was approaching, Gerasimov was again asked to find the poet's grave and to reconstruct his portrait. By now Gerasimov had a clue as to the name of the village where the poet was buried, the Tajik village of Panjrud.

Rudaki by Mikhail Gerasimov
Tajik poet, Rudaki, died 1100 years ago.
No one had any idea what he looked like
until Gerasimov built-up a reconstruction from his skull.
Usually identification of the remains of a person is made on the basis of contemporary accounts, chronicles, articles of clothing and - most important - evidence of pathological changes in the organism.

It was said that the poet had been blind, but nobody knew whether he had been blind from childhood or had gone blind in old age. Some historians wrote that the poet's eyes had been put out as a punishment for participating in the religious-political struggles of the time. Gerasimov decided to look for further clues in the works of the poet. If Rudaki had lost his sight in maturity, then at a certain point the world of colours would appear to him only in the form of memory.

Gerasimov found in word-for-word translations of the poet's works colourful descriptions of nature, wine and women. But at a certain period the bright and colourful world vanished. Earlier Rudaki had compared the beauty of a woman with that of a red rose, but now he compared her with the fragrance of a flower or with a gentle breeze.

Or take, for instance, the lines, "Dearest, your face is like an apple, but I do not remember the apple which has the fragrance of the musk rose." Rudaki no longer described the spring as he had done in an earlier poem, when he wrote: "The flame of blooming tulips has replaced the flame of the hearth." In his poem, The Parable of the Three Shirts of Joseph the Wonderful, he wrote: "My face is bloodstained like the first shirt; my soul is torn like the second shirt; and how I long to find the third shirt, which brought sight to Jacob!"

Unexpectedly, Gerasimov discovered something quite special about Rudaki. In the poet's biographical Ode to Old Age he found the following passage: "My teeth - pearls and coral - have become brittle and fallen out. This is not illness. This is not the fate of Saturn. This has happened to other men, I know..." The thought was not fully expressed but Gerasimov knew from his long experience as an anthropologist that in the case of some very old people who suddenly lose all their teeth, new teeth may begin to grow, as in children. From hints in the poem, this was apparently what had happened to Rudaki.

Even if he had not acquired new teeth, the lines in the poem suggested that his lower jaw would not have collapsed as do the jaws of people who lose their teeth gradually. Such a rare piece of anatomical detail gave Gerasimov confidence that the skeleton, if found, could be correctly identified. But where to find it? How was one to tell from the hundreds of unknown graves dug more than a thousand years ago the one that contained the remains of Rudaki?

After much historical and literary research and inquiries among people who might have pertinent information, Gerasimov drew up a plan for his assignment and set out for the village of Panjrud.

The elders of the village were not very willing to help Gerasimov until they were assured that the remains of Rudaki would be put back in their original position, for according to Moslem customs the remains of a person must not be disturbed. But they were impressed by the evidence Gerasimov had gathered from historical documents and the fact that he was attempting to find the remains of the national poet.

Near the wall of the village cemetery were the ruins of a mazar, a Moslem tomb. Gerasimov decided to dig.

Soon he was holding a skull in his hands. Traces of damage were clearly visible in the eye sockets, and there were also signs that the bone had begun to degenerate, indicating that the person had lived for a long time after being deprived of his sight. Further evidence showed that this man had been blinded at about the age of 50.

In the lower jaw, which obviously belonged to an old man, were well-defined alveoli such as would be found in a young person, and inside the bone small swellings could be detected, a sign of the appearance of the young teeth, which had been hinted at in the poem. The old teeth had been lost practically all at once. Deformities in the spine (blindness has a marked effect on posture) also showed that Gerasimov had found the right grave.

The first portrait of Rudaki was sculptured. The remains of the poet were returned to their original burial place. Today a new and beautiful mazar has been built over Rudaki's grave, and the Tajik people have a magnificent bust of their oldest poet.
From the Soviet Journal Ā«SputnikĀ», January, 1968

Article's Tags: russia prehistoric art history science sculpting scientist sculptor anthropologist interview

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