Episode 18: Bringing the dead to life

Is it possible to visualize a 1,200-year-old Peruvian queen or a medieval murder victim? Using forensic facial reconstruction, history “detective” Oscar Nilsson re-creates what the long dead looked like when they walked the Earth.

Explorers uncovered an ancient tomb in Peru, where they found the skeleton of a queen who lived 1,200 years ago. Oscar Nilsson created this rendering of her.
Photograph by Oscar Nilsson

Thousand-year-old Peruvian queens and medieval murder victims may seem lost to time, but history “detectives” are on a mission to solve a mystery: What did those people look like? We hear from Oscar Nilsson, a forensic facial reconstructionist who uses a combination of science and art to re-create the faces of our ancestors.

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AMY BRIGGS (HOST): Picture it: It’s June 22, 1936, the day before Midsummer’s Eve. We’re in Sweden, the town of Varberg, near a place called Bocksten’s bog.

Two children, an 11-year-old boy and his 5-year-old sister, are working there, harvesting peat, when the boy notices something sticking out of the muck. Something that looks creepy–like bones.

The frightened children run and fetch their dad, who returns with them. He digs a little deeper in the bog, and uncovers more bones and some scraps of cloth. Dad realizes there’s a body there and summons the local police.

The police investigate the site and confirm the presence of a body in the bog, one that’s been pinned down underwater by wooden stakes. It’s a very grim scene.

But it turns out it’s not a recent crime. The person in the bog had been dead for almost 700 years.

The skeleton and its clothing were carefully excavated from the site, preserved, and studied. This bog body, now known as the Bocksten Man, has become one of the most famous in Europe.

Mysteries have swirled around him, mostly around his death, which happened in the mid-14th century. His skull has massive fractures, and a stake used to pin his body down passed right through his heart. It’s a strong bet that he died violently.

But there’s a bigger mystery around Bocksten Man. It’s pretty clear where he died, but not so much how he lived. When you see the body, on display now at the Halland Museum of Cultural History in Sweden, the first thing you notice is this grinning skull crowned by a mop of red hair—lots of it, flowing and curly—like think Natasha Lyonne.

But aside from telling us he needed a comb, looking at the skeleton doesn’t give a strong sense of the person.

And that’s where Oscar Nilsson comes in.

OSCAR NILSSON: I'm Oscar Nilsson. I'm a forensic artist based in Sweden and I'm specialized in the human face—re-creating faces from the past.

BRIGGS: By training, Oscar is both a sculptor and an archaeologist, and he blends these two talents to do his job—telling us what people who lived hundreds and sometimes thousands of years ago looked like. The technical term for that is forensic facial reconstruction, and it relies on a blend of science and art to reveal the faces of our ancestors.

NILSSON: The idea is to bring these skeletons to individuals, to make the public realize that they were humans, just like you and me. They are not skeletons.

BRIGGS: It’s not technically bringing the dead back to life, but it’s about as close as we can get.

I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo, and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week: Putting faces on the past with Oscar Nilsson. From ancient Peruvian queens to a muder victim found in a bog, Oscar’s work is revealing perhaps the most human dimension of our ancestors by showing us literally what they looked like.

The Oscar Nilsson stories are some of the most fascinating at National Geographic. Each one reveals different people from the past–like Adelasius Ebalchus, who lived in northern Switzerland and witnessed the last gasps of the Roman Empire. I think he kind of looks like Hugh Jackman, but your mileage may vary. Or the Whitehawk Woman, who likely died in childbirth some 5,600 years ago in Stone Age Britain.

I don’t know about you, but “forensic reconstructionist” was not a job that showed up on “career day.” I was dying to know how he got started.

BRIGGS: So when you're meeting someone for the first time, like at a cocktail party or a dinner party, how do you explain what you do?

NILSSON: Well, actually sometimes if I'm not in the mood to talk about my job, the easiest way to get out is to say that I'm working with someone, something like computer-based work. But if I however would explain my job, I would say, I work for museums and I re-create faces from the past.

BRIGGS: Yeah, I imagine most people would be fascinated and then others might be a little bit like, find it morbid and be like–-react to it the same way when you tell them you work with computers.

NILSSON: Exactly. I mean, I work with skeletons, not on the original ones, but on skulls, copied skulls of skeletons. I mean, this is strong symbol, the human skull. And it's also associated, of course, with death. So I think this gets very, very fast—gets really serious when you talk about these things. ‘Cause, I mean to talk about death and the end of our lives, that's not a party. That's a real party pooper.

BRIGGS: What drew you into the work? How'd you get started?

NILSSON: I'm the guy that used to sit indoors, sketching and painting and sculpting when the other kids were outdoors. Boys back in the seventies, we played with tin soldiers and stuff like that. I did as well, but when I realized I could do it—I could do these little tiny humans myself—that was something of a big moment for me, when I had the trust in doing these 3D sculptures myself.

Actually I thought at first to become an illustrator with sketching. But I soon realized that this was a real hard-competition field. So instead of this, I started studying archaeology, and I realized there as well that was a very, very competitive field to get a job in.

BRIGGS: Luckily there happened to be one career path out there that merged these two interests of Oscar’s.

NILSSON: I read an article, in a book, an archaeology book—it was an article about a guy in England called Richard Neave that reconstructed faces from the past. And I remember that moment when I saw that article in that book that I thought this: I have to try to do this at some point in my working career.

BRIGGS: Oscar told us forensic reconstruction dates back to the early 19th century. People in the U.S., England, and Russia developed reconstructions to help the police catch criminals. They’d often create these sculptures just using pictures and people’s descriptions.

NILSSON: But I mean, for the last 20 years or something, the interest in this technique has really exploded, and I think it's closely tied to this—all these DNA traces, the development of this technique that has really has been a game changer and helping us to know a whole lot more about species like Neanderthals and also about the migration of Homo sapiens over the globe.

BRIGGS: In his work, Oscar uses a wealth of tools to create these portraits that speak so strongly to us today. When we spoke, Oscar was working on a new project that sounded fascinating. It’s the face of a Scottish woman who lived during the Bronze Age, more than 3,000 years ago.

(Sound of Nilsson working in his studio)

BRIGGS: He’s brushing the sculpture with a bristly brush, part of the sculpting process. But before we get to this stage, there are a lot of other steps. Often, Oscar starts with an exact 3D replica of the original skull. He then uses information about the person’s sex, estimated age, and origin to do the rest.

So take me through the process of creating a reconstruction. What are the steps?

NILSSON: If you are a—like me, if you're a man in your fifties from Scandinavia with—of normal weight, I can expect to have other values, other measurements than if I would be a, let's say, five-year-old female from China. So these things I need to establish first.

And the idea is to then reconstruct the face and cover the face with clay, but my technique is not only this, but it’s also to use the reconstructing of the facial muscles. So I reconstruct the muscles, muscle by muscle, about 18 different muscles in the face. Gradually, a face starts to emerge.

BRIGGS: You mentioned earlier that, you know, sometimes you get information on DNA from a skeleton. Is that more typical now that we're sort of farther along in DNA technology? Or is that something special?

NILSSON: I would say that almost every project nowadays there–-the museum tries to involve DNA in some way, that we actually can say that this is the colors that this individual had on their eyes, and the correct color of the skin and stuff like that.

Because I think this is really important in at least two aspects. The most obvious reason is, of course, that it heightens the degree of correctness of the reconstruction. But it's also very important in a more ethical aspect because when you deal with skeletons that are old—whether that are from the Stone Age, the discussion of who were the first inhabitants of England, who were the first inhabitants of Sweden, and any country for that matter—these questions are really sensitive.

BRIGGS: Our human ancestors left Africa over 100,000 years ago. They settled in places all around the world. After thousands of years of evolution, their hair and skin color changed. So the first humans to arrive in Europe don’t all look like Europeans today.

NILSSON: I mean, for example, the first, well-preserved skeleton of Britain, the Cheddar Man, he was reconstructed by some colleagues of mine, I think it was five, six years ago.

BRIGGS: Cheddar Man was found in a cave in 1903, near the village of Cheddar in England. But scientists have been studying his body ever since. His skeleton–one of the oldest ever found in Britain–is nearly complete, and a valuable source of information about what life was like some 10,000 years ago when he was alive. And the ability to study his DNA yielded some unexpected results.

NILSSON: They could see on his DNA that he had blue eyes and dark hair, but he also had really dark skin.

BRIGGS: The reconstruction of Cheddar Man showed just that–a guy in his 30s with blue eyes, shaggy brown hair, and dark skin.

NILSSON: And this is what you could expect from studying the DNA with the migration that the first hunter-gatherers of Europe in the Western parts of Europe, they had really dark skin, but that was a bomb more or less in the social media when they didn't understand that this was from scientific evidence. They thought that this was some kind of, you know, political statement that the first inhabitants of Britain were not white. So this became a real hot potato.

BRIGGS: The fact that the first Europeans weren’t light skinned really bothered some people. They took to social media to call the Cheddar Man propaganda.

NILSSON: I think this is fascinating when you can see that the first inhabitant in Sweden or in England for that matter was not as white as I am or people in Scandinavia today but they were quite dark, like people in the northern parts of Africa or areas around the Mediterranean Sea. It makes me more humble and more thoughtful about history. And you really understand the big distance in time. We're dealing with many thousands of years and you start to understand that you're a part in an evolution—and evolution hasn't stopped.

BRIGGS: And it so broadens the idea of what the past can be. And I think it reveals sort of our own limitations and in our own imagination of what, you know, how like, oh, it looks this way now and people who live there look this way now, so it must be the same for way back when. And that just negates all the–it negates the way the world is with change. Change is just constant, like you were saying.

NILSSON: Exactly, exactly. In the 19th century, when archeology was more or less born as a science, everybody expected the first inhabitants in Europe to look exactly like the inhabitants did at that time.

So they just put some simple clothings on the white, blonde people and they thought that this was the correct image of these, the first inhabitants. And that was more or less what I learned in school as well. But this turns the table for me. I think it's really fascinating.

BRIGGS: Coming up: How Oscar actually reconstructs people from the past.

You've done the scientific analysis of here's how old they are, here's the DNA, here's where we know if they had fleshy cheeks or if their forehead did this, that, or the other thing. But then you get to the part of actually putting the person together–putting on the hairstyles and putting on the expressions of the faces. Tell me a little bit about that. That feels like more of the art part than the science.

NILSSON: Yeah. For me, it's a very obvious moment when I reconstruct, when I go from being really objective and trying to be as scientific or scientifically based as I can, going from that to being more artistic to make my choices, being more subjective, being more aware of describing the individual.

On the working table now is coming up a female from the Bronze Age period of Scotland. I tried to study as much as I can that is relevant from the period and the region to know as much as I can about how they lived and which type of animals they were depending upon and how much texture, how much textiles they—we could expect them to have wove.

BRIGGS: Much of this information can come from the artifacts found with the body, from books, from anthropologists. There are a lot of sources to consult, but the next bit–the humanizing–that’s where the art comes in.

NILSSON: And I try to also to make the individual feel like an individual, not only in the facial reconstruction—which is the aim really to create an individual—but also to get this effect, this individual style, so to speak in also the hair and the clothings—to make the individual stand out. So you get this life, believable—this individual to really feel like an individual from the past.

I'm really aware that the faces I make–they look like they are carrying a soul. And that's beautiful when people say so, but I always try to stress this—it's really important that I cannot describe the soul of people, of course. Let's be humble.

BRIGGS: Oscar’s not just being modest. He’s pointing out that genes and skulls can’t tell you what the person was actually like–what their hopes and dreams might have been. But Oscar tried to restore their human spirit and give his reconstructions a flicker of life.

NILSSON: And this is important. I try to put a glimpse in their eyes, so that the public can make this job themselves, to make it believable that there is a life inside that skull.

I made these reconstruction some years ago. Well, a guy that was killed in a battle in the 14th century. I imagine him standing on the battlefield just the moment when the enemy soldiers started gathering in the horizon and he realized that they outnumbered him and his fellows, and this moment of great disappointment and great fear—real great fear, of course—to try to capture that in his eyes. That's a real big task together. But I enjoy these challenges a lot. And I try to work with the eyes, in like 95 percent, I think, of this expression lies in the eyes.

BRIGGS: What is that moment like? Where you've finished the work, the, you know, the hair and the clothing and the, you know, adornments that are there. What is it like when you see that person for the first time? Can you tell me about that?

NILSSON: I mean, I'm hopelessly emotionally involved in my work and in my project. So I have sometimes—it's really hard to say goodbye when they leave the studio. But I still have the photos. I can take the photos up and look upon my children, so to speak.

BRIGGS: You can always visit too. You know where they live.

NILSSON: Yeah, yeah. That is true. That is true.

BRIGGS: We talked about the Bocksten Man at the start of the episode, and you’ve probably figured out by now that Oscar created the forensic reconstruction of him. Because Bocksten Man is such a well-known body in Sweden, his skeleton–what he looked like in death–was famous.

You know, when you see a skull, it's a symbol of death and it's hard to imagine the skull being alive. And like you said, what you do makes that person alive again.

NILSSON: Yeah. And it becomes an individual, a person with, you know, human dignity. And I remember a case, a project I had for several years ago. That was a guy that—he was impaled actually. He was one of the bog bodies of Europe.

And, you know, he was found in the something like in the 1930s. He has been in the school books in every school book since then. All people in Sweden had this image of the Bocksten Man. He was this guy with preserved clothes and and the hair still intact, with these three wooden pales [stakes] through his body. And that's just a horrible way of—it's not, doesn't live up to our standards of human dignity in describing each other as humans.

BRIGGS: Oscar worked on Bocksten Man in 2005. He went through all his steps to carefully create his likeness, and the results make an impact. No longer is this just a skeleton but a person.

NILSSON: So when I got the chance to actually make a reconstruction of him, in my opinion, at least I think I brought some—a bit piece of human dignity back into this individual. We have to remember that we have to treat us—each other—with respect even after death. So I think this was a clear contribution to this.

BRIGGS: Oscar’s work truly captures a moment of this man’s life. The wild crop of curly hair is there, a bit more strawberry blond. His clothes are accurate reconstructions of the garb found with his body. Unadorned, simple–-he wears a heavy hooded cloak over a tunic.

But it’s his face that takes center stage. A somber, intense look is in his eyes. He’s not smiling, but he’s not really frowning either.

To me, he looks like Bocksten Man carefully considering his options, sizing something up and making a difficult choice. It’s a quiet portrait–one where you can’t help but wonder what the Bocksten Man is thinking about.

It also seems to put more emphasis, the work you do, it takes away emphasis from how he died. You know that one moment in his life of his death, the reconstruction, you see him as a fully, as an alive person, as someone who, you know, had this color hair or wore these kinds of clothes, it puts more emphasis on the life part than the death part.

NILSSON: Exactly. You're a hundred percent right. Instead of just being one moment in his—when he was killed, he becomes a person that you can look upon and you can wonder about his life and what he thought. And all these things that make us human.


If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and please consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.

After hearing about Oscar’s reconstructions, I’m sure you want to see them, right? So check out his website at odnilsson.com (And that’s Nilsson with two Ss.)

Plus, explorers uncovered a 1,200-year-old tomb in Peru. There they found the skeleton of an ancient Peruvian queen. They asked Oscar to make a re-creation of her. Check out our article about the project.

But wait, there’s more! 8,000 years ago, a man’s bones were used in a ritual in Scandinavia. And we wrote an article about him so you can learn more and take a look at Oscar’s re-creation of the guy.

And just one more: 4,000 years ago, a mother and child were buried in Sweden. Check out our article to see Oscar’s re-creation of the woman.

That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.


This week’s episode of Overheard is produced by Ilana Strauss.

Our producers are Khari Douglas and Marcy Thompson.

Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.

Eli Chen is our senior editor.

Carla Wills is our manager of audio.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.

Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.

Ted Woods sound-designed and engineered this episode.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

David Brindley is National Geographic’s interim editor in chief.

And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more?

Oscar Nilsson’s reconstructions of Cheddar Man, Bocksten Man and others can be seen at his website odnilsson.com.

Also explore: 

When an explorer uncovered the skeleton of an ancient Peruvian queen in a tomb in Peru, they asked Nilsson to make a recreation of her. Uncover the story here.

8,000 years ago, a man’s bones were used in a ritual in Scandinavia. Take a look at Nilsson’s recreation of him.

For subscribers:

A mother and child were buried in Sweden 4,000 years ago. Read about Nilsson’s recreation of the woman and see what she might have looked like.