Faces of the Franklin Expedition – From skulls and bones to flesh and faces

    Dedicated to all the members of the 1845 Sir John Franklin expedition who tragically lost their lives.

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    Studying one of the crew member’s skulls from the lost Franklin Expedition.

    Text and photos by Diana P. Trepkov

    Who are these crew members from the Lost Franklin Expedition?

    Completed three-dimensional forensic facial reconstruction of Skull #1.

    I had a very calm feeling working on members from the 1845 lost Franklin expedition, not that uneasy feeling when I’m working on an unsolved police homicide case. My mission was to help put a name to the unidentified remains of two crew members and to create faces so we can identify them.

    This is one of Canada’s oldest missing person’s cases. The Government of Nunavut Department of Culture and Heritage Archaeology Program funded the research. Douglas R. Stenton, from that Department, and Anne Keenleyside, from the Department of Anthropology, Trent University, asked me to assist. Facial reconstructions are a way for the public to recognize a face from unidentified skeletal remains. The skulls were in fairly good condition. Both skulls belong to males ranging from 18 years to their late 40s. Both skulls are Caucasian, and point to European ancestry.

    Facial reconstructions have been found to be more successful when a face is viewed as a whole. Tissue depth markers were cut to proper measurements and then glued to the skulls. A facial reconstruction is meant to provide only an approximation of what an individual may have looked like in life, and is not a method of positive identification. Dental records and DNA are accepted methods that are used to make a positive identification.

    Being a forensic artist is an extremely interesting career, never boring, but sometimes the unknown is the hardest. Working on these skulls was very intriguing as my mind kept wondering who they were?

    Building the face of unidentified skull #1

    The first skull didn’t have a mandible, which is the jaw, only the cranium. The mandible is the “white” jaw on the side profile skull with tissue depth markers. The cranium is the large, round superior part of the skull, enclosing the brain and the darker part of skull #1. I used a museum quality skulls’ mandible that matched the size of the maxilla measuring the teeth, then attached both parts together using oil base clay and wooden splints.

    I then inserted cotton balls to protect the eye sockets before placing the acrylic prosthetic eyes. To represent skin, I used oil base clay and also created a handmade wooden stand to support the three-dimensional facial reconstruction. The skull and the oil base clay is heavy, therefore the stand must be very strong to secure the finished clay model.

    The skull doesn’t lie; it tells us everything we need to know. He has thick eyebrows, a large bulbous nose, his forehead follows the skull shape and his high cheekbones are very apparent in the finished forensic three-dimensional facial reconstruction of skull #1. Since many teeth were lost from their sockets post-mortem, I used clay to fill in the spaces.

    The clothing was based on fashion research from 1845. The anthropologist provided the hat and the clothes were purchased from a thrift store. Skull #1 is now complete by three-dimensional facial reconstruction. When I look at the finished crew member’s face, I have a feeling of ease, like it is so nice to see all his features put together and see his face as a whole. People are identified in a distance through proportion. His proportions are correct because I strictly followed his skull as a template. Forensic art is 75 per cent science and 25 per cent art.

    Here I am with the finished 2D drawing and 3D clay facial reconstruction of skull #2. © Marty J. Brown

    Building the face of skull #2

    For the second crew member’s skull. I wanted to show how I would create his face in a two-dimensional facial reconstruction. Both methods, two and three, are very accurate. The first skull was done in oil base clay in a forensic three-dimensional facial reconstruction. For the second skull, I completed a two-dimensional facial reconstruction, which consists of a pencil drawing over a photograph of the original skull.

    Once the tissue depth markers are glued on the skull, then it is ready for the illustration to begin. The tissue depth markers, known as landmarks, are placed on the skull. The skull is uneven, resulting in slanted features such as eyes. Thick eyebrows are lined up following the brow bridge on the crania. Also, the bridge of the nose (where it is pinched in the middle) has an upturned nose and uneven nostrils. This shows in the two-dimensional facial reconstruction split face drawing on skull #2.

    The finished 2D converted into a frontal portrait style drawing showing large eyes, a very broad jaw and a unique forehead. The face is shown in a split transparent style to show half of the underlying skull along with half of the finished face. The skull is a template; it is like filling in a puzzle, one step at a time. When I look at the finished drawing, I can envision him having an English or Irish accent; it’s just a feeling I get. I couldn’t help but feel happy to see his finished face finally appear.

    Everyone is someone special. We all deserve the right to be identified, as everyone deserves their name returned to them so they can have a proper burial. It is very sad how these crew members died. Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers but I feel content knowing I did the best I could in bringing them back to life with forensic facial reconstructions. Luckily, the skull gives us many clues for individualization.

    After both facial reconstructions were completed and photographed, the clay was carefully removed from the skulls. Both skulls were undamaged and returned for burial.

    Who were these two crew members from the Sir John Franklin Expedition? I believe we will soon discover their identities.

    Diana P. Trepkov is a Forensic Artist, Wildlife Artist, Author, Lecturer and the Forensic Artist/Presenter for the Faces of the Franklin Expedition at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).