Photograph by AXEL ÖBERG
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To reconstruct the faces of long-ago humans, Oscar Nilsson uses artifacts found by fellow archaeologists, as well as his skills as a sculptor.
Photograph by AXEL ÖBERG

Archaeologists give him skulls—he brings them to life

Oscar Nilsson uses high-tech tools—such as 3D printing and DNA analysis—to refine his reconstructions of ancient humans’ faces.

This story appears in the August 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Oscar Nilsson has the gift of being able to put a face (but not necessarily a name) to roughly a hundred once anonymous individuals whose remains have been excavated by his fellow archaeologists. The Swedish reconstruction expert relies on his deep knowledge of facial anatomy as well as his skills as a sculptor to bring to life, for example, the regal visage of a 1,200-year-old Peruvian noblewoman or the surly adolescence of a 9,000-year-old Greek teenager.

Nilsson begins with a 3D-printed copy of an original skull and crafts facial features by hand, guided by bone structure and relying on scientific data sets to estimate the thickness of muscle and flesh in different areas of the face. Once reconstruction reaches what Nilsson calls the mannequin stage, his artistic chops kick in to “get life into the face” with scientific accuracy. (See Nilsson’s latest reconstruction—a Scandinavian man whose skull was found at a perplexing ritual site.)

The new and rapidly developing field of ancient DNA has been a “game changer” for facial reconstruction, Nilsson says. When he entered the field 20 years ago, determining the skin, hair, and eye color of his subjects was a guessing game. But in the past decade, improvements in extracting and analyzing DNA gave Nilsson more data about populations’ travels and origins, so he could give, say, an early inhabitant of Mesolithic Britain the appropriate dark skin and eyes. “It’s fantastic that we can get that detail,” he says, “to make it really relevant.”

WATCH: FACE OF ANCIENT QUEEN REVEALED FOR THE FIRST TIME

Dec. 13, 2017 - Scientists reconstructed the face of a Peruvian queen nearly 1,200 years after her death. Using a 3D print of her skull as a base, her facial features were rebuilt by hand. Found in 2012, the woman was buried in a tomb that also contained 57 other noblewomen.

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