These facial reconstructions reveal 40,000 years of English ancestry

As the U.K. wrestles with issues of identity and nationalism around Brexit, a new exhibit is putting fresh faces on the region's ancient residents.

Last year, the dark-skinned, blue-eyed facial reconstruction of Cheddar Man, a 10,000-year-old British resident, made international headlines and sparked discussions about “native” identity in a nation grappling with Brexit and issues of migration.

Now, a new exhibit is revealing the faces of seven more ancient “locals” from the coast of southern England, and science is confirming that the history of the region is much more complicated than we once thought.

The faces of the seven Britons, reconstructed from archaeological remains spanning 40,000 years, are being put on display Saturday at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery as part of a larger exhibit on the region’s history.

Five of the seven individuals are true “locals,” forensically reconstructed from skulls excavated around Brighton in the southeastern county of Sussex. The most modern “local,” a 40-something man excavated during building construction in the 1980s, dates to the Anglo-Saxon period, a time when England was first unified under one king, explains Richard Le Saux, the museum’s senior keeper of collections.

The most ancient natives are a Neanderthal woman and an early modern man. Their facial reconstructions are based on remains from elsewhere in Europe, but artifacts found in the Brighton area show that both were local residents some 40,000 years ago.

Back to Life

The bygone Britons were brought back to life over the course of 14 months by Oscar Nilsson, an archaeologist and sculptor who has reimagined the faces of other individuals in history, including a 1,200-year-old Peruvian noblewoman and a 9,000-year-old teenager from Greece. Nilsson’s forensic technique starts with an exact 3D replica of the original skull, scanned, printed, and then modeled by hand to reflect bone structure and tissue thickness based on the individual’s origin, sex, and estimated age at death.

Recent genome studies of ancient European populations enable Nilsson to outfit his reconstructions with reasonably accurate estimates of skin, hair, and eye color. The Neolithic population that the 5,600-year-old Whitehawk woman belonged to, for instance, generally had lighter skin and darker eyes than earlier occupants of Britain such as Cheddar Man, but were darker than the exhibit’s Ditchling Road man, who arrived on the island in the first wave of light-skinned, light-eyed Beaker people from continental Europe around 4,400 years ago.

As the U.K. approaches what is likely the final months of Brexit negotiations, the faces of ancient Brighton residents will likely spark conversations about the regions previous occupants and cultural connections to continental Europe, says Le Saux.

“One of the stories that we're going with is how often we've been linked to Europe, and how much of our history is informed by series of mass migrations in each period,” he explains, adding that Britain has been physically part of mainland Europe several times over history, the last time just 8,000 years ago.

Individual Lives

What makes the ancient Britons portrayed in the exhibit so interesting, Nilsson says, is how science reveals the lives they’ve lived. “I’ve worked with so many skulls, but these were the most characteristic ones I’ve seen. The faces that developed became so individual.”

Whitehawk Woman stands out for the apparently unusual circumstances of her life and death: Scientific studies show that she was born more than 5,000 years ago on the Welsh border, then moved several hundred miles [east] to Sussex at some point, and was buried with good luck charms in a grave at the entrance to a Neolithic ceremonial site.

The remains of a fetus found in her pelvic area suggest she likely died in childbirth, a scientific insight that informed Nilsson’s artistic depiction.

“I wanted her to look a bit curious—thinking about the future—because I'm thinking of the moment when you see her is perhaps before she's giving birth to the child that probably led to her death,” says Nilsson.

The swaggering 2,300-year-old Slonk Hill Man posed his own particular problems, Nilsson adds. According to his bone structure, the Iron Age twenty-something was “probably kind of good-looking,” which can sometimes lead to a reconstruction that looks too much like a mannequin, the sculptor explains. The skull also featured a pronounced point where the brow ridges joined, which could have given Slonk Hill Man a bit of a “cruel” expression. “It was difficult to make him smile without looking too creepy,” Nilsson says.

Then there was the artistic decision that had to be made with Stafford Road Man, a Saxon-era adult who likely died from a terrible facial abscess. The infection was probably grotesquely swollen at the time of his death, but Nilsson chose not to exaggerate the ailment. “I wanted to show him with some kind of dignity, and establish a connection between him and the visitor to the museum.”