Facial reconstruction

The research programme

Since the beginning of June 2009, an excavation of a medieval village cemetery (virtually representing the entire span of the middle ages from the late 10th century to the first third of the 16th century), the burial ground of a Late Bronze Age settlement, and a Celtic village-like settlement has been conducted in Fejér County, in conjunction with the construction of the section of Route 62, which bypasses Perkáta.1 The name of Perkáta is well known to Hungarian archaeologists not only for its Bronze Age and Celtic finds, but also for archaeological discoveries related to the Cuman people of the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld) who, in the late 13th century, were settled there. Previously gathered certified data suggests that the church uncovered at this location is the same as the one consecrated in honour of the Virgin Mary in medieval Perkáta. The cemetery next to the church reveals clear traces of the Cuman people’s gradual assimilation to the Hungarian environment. The bodies of over 5000 deceased settlement dwellers have thus far been unearthed in the medieval cemetery. The site and the finds bare great significance for early medieval Hungarian history, and the story of the Cuman people of Hungary.2

Loránd Olivér Kovács, leader of the excavation, asked for my collaboration in interpreting the emerging traces of the structure that had once extended across the entrenchment. The pylon-like protrusion from the arc of the trench along with some stake holes implied the former presence of bridge, possibly a draw bridge. It was while I was surveying the site – an indispensible step before preparing the reconstruction drawings – that I first had the chance to take in the sight of this rich archaeological location. The intriguing shapes scattered in the loess soil – remnants of buildings, tombs, and ditches – so hooked my imagination, that I endeavoured to make further interpretive drawings. With the help of survey drawings, close-up and aerial shots, as well as consultations with experts, what initially seemed like a chaotic excavation site, gradually began to reveal a roughly outlined image of the history and appearance of this settlement, as it existed through the ages. While an exact interpretation and reconstruction, as an objective in itself, should be possible and necessary, because of the scarcity of available information, this goal could hardly be realized flawlessly. In this area, with its remarkably poor natural supply of stones, the fate of unused stone buildings was sealed. Only meagre ruins – a few piles of stones – attested to the former presence of the church which had survived a number of historical periods; the rest was most probably carried away and used elsewhere. The marks of foundation ditches and precise excavation techniques nevertheless made the depiction of the stone church, as it may have appeared in the various architectural periods, possible. (As a number of questions arise in relation to the earliest, Árpád Period church, the drawing only indicates the size of the building.) For the other graphic representations, at the current stage of the research, I saw it appropriate to make several interpretations, as the delineation of the different alternatives also helped in rendering the results visible, thus aiding further thinking and interpretation.  

Next to the architectural remains, the excavated cemetery – that is to say cemeteries with the remnants of over five thousand graves – made for a stunning spectacle. The skeletons of settlement dwellers, as per standard practice, had already been lifted from their resting place, numbered and piled into boxes.    

My previous experiences of making facial reconstruction drawings based on skulls were now applied in service of conjuring the facial features of Perkáta’s former residents. Collaborating with visual artists and using the tools of fine arts as a means of representation are not uncommon practices in Hungarian archaeology.  To mention a few examples, I am most familiar with the work of Márta Lacza, János Major, and Károly Árpás. The latter artist, a sculptor, was credited for the first head reconstructions in Hungary. He combined his professional experience in the fields of sculpture and graphics with the principles of anatomy, taking into account the unique properties and characteristics of the skull. In these past decades, excellent artistic head reconstructions have been created by Ágnes Kustár – who studied sculpture and has been making facial reconstructions since 1996 – and Gyula Skultéty Gyula, sculptor-anthropologist...

As a significant number of visual artists today still work with forms, also using them as tools of interpretation, the “science” of drawing continues to be part of the curriculum at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. It must be stated that drawing is not primarily an activity of “copying;” it is a means of processing various phenomena through forms, observations and perceptions. Thus, it is not so much a function of dexterity, as it is the result of an analytic processes, revealing how much of the subject the drawer has grasped, and how he or she went about doing so.

Gyula Skultéty writes about his skull-based reconstruction work: “The reconstruction of a face is not an excessively difficult task, as the basic information required for it (such as age, gender and proportions) can be read from the skull. While the anatomical knowledge along with the theoretical and practical knowhow can be attained, the skills required for portrait making are more difficult to acquire.”3

At the Art Anatomy, Drawing and Geometry Department of the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, in parallel with four semesters of anatomical studies, students also practice the transference of visual phenomena to two dimensions, which in essence means the articulation of the mental image for a given topic.

After completing about a dozen head reconstructions, it occurred to me that offering students the opportunity to try themselves at facial reconstruction may be a useful addition to the curriculum. A number of students answered our call, and in a three-month period complete with consultations, some rather noteworthy works have emerged. Of my artist colleagues at the Art Anatomy, Drawing and Geometry Department, Ádám Albert, Zoltán Csordás, and Gyula Funták joined in on the work. Tibor Kiss also assisted in overseeing the work of the students. The program was further enriched by the invaluable designs of Piroska É. Kiss from the Scenography Department. Soon Dr. Katalin Ambrus also joined the project. During our discussions, attempts to come up with answers for the many questions that had emerged, also yielded a number of thoughts and conclusions that elevated the quality of the work. Many students showed interest in the initiative, which provided them with an opportunity to enrich their studies in anatomy. I offered my own experience in the way of guidance to the students, a majority of whom completed their work accordingly. Making reconstruction drawings was a highly productive undertaking not only for the final results, but also because during the complex work process, our students gained important skills and experiences. But is it possible to create an authentic head reconstruction? Naturally, this is always dependent on the amount and quality of the given information. In the present case, “only” the skulls were at our disposal, along with whatever relevant literature was available to us.As, based on this and our experiences, no one could expect the results to be a hundred percent accurate, we regard our work more as an experiment, with the note that the outcome of this experiment can also provide useful information.    

In the last decade, the demand for presenting professional information and findings has increased from a museological standpoint, which facilitates the interpretation of the exhibited documents on the part of museum visitors. In recent times, we have encountered a number of head reconstructions, many of which, at first sight, appeared “lifelike.” The realized works may indeed give viewers the impression that the “recreated” person may, at any moment, come to life. This effect is further enhanced by the use of glass eyes, real hair and colouring.5 (These spectacular reconstructions do help us formulate an idea of the person that once existed, and we can reasonably assume that their look was at least similar.) We should, however, keep in mind that even the use of mechanical representations can produce images of us that that we don’t feel look anything like us. A portrait is composed of the collective whole of the living person’s gaze and tiny facial gestures – something that everyone sees a bit differently. An examination of the skull in itself doesn’t tell us the body weight of the person, nor does it give any clues about his or her unique mimicry or hairstyle.     

Today, facial reconstructions are aided by computer programs with great results. While this also facilitates the work of medical experts in establishing the identity of “unknown” individuals in criminal investigations, here too, the results largely depend on the availability of information and the quality of the computer programs used. Such an approach requires advanced technology and abundant financial resources. Although today’s technical tools greatly facilitate such processes of reconstruction, acquired visual art skills may significantly contribute to such applications. One of the best known experts of our age, Richard Neave, member of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Manchester, in addition to utilizing the most highly advanced technology available today, also relies on his years of studies in fine arts.         

I began the initial phase of the facial reconstruction process by making drawings from various vantage points. Since I intended to be as precise as possible, in a number of cases, I also used photographs. In photographing the skulls, it was crucial to avoid distortions. (This is not a problem with sculptural reconstructions, where a mould is used of the original skull as the primary base.) As the features of the skull determine the character of the living face, preparing these drawings allowed me to make numerous observations, and through drawing these, I gained valuable insight about the person. During this hours-long process, traces and shapes of old injuries, anomalies and abnormalities emerged.      

As a next step, I projected the musculature onto the drawing of the skull, taking into consideration the general thickness of the soft tissue in its various regions, as it relates to bone structure and gender. This was followed by a delineation of the cartilage structures of the face. For a final step, the thus produced “x-ray-like” drawing served as my basis for creating the three-dimensional shape of the head. As I had no data at my disposal pertaining to the dietary health and the characteristics of the hair of the people in question, I placed no special emphasis on these aspects. As far as I am aware, there are no known representations of the inhabitants of Perkáta, only the works of fine art that have survived from that age can give an approximate indication of what they may have looked like. In consequence, only representations and silhouettes without hair can be professionally vouched for.    

It is natural for there to be questions surrounding the authenticity of the drawings...

The drawings signify more than a mere attempt to conjure up images of the people who once lived in this area. The peculiar dialogue that resulted from the process can be regarded as a unique means of paying homage, as the research did disturb their peace. The rapidly carried out project was not only an experiment on behalf of visual art, but also an example of a possible form of research, as well as an attempt to draw attention to this specific area of archaeology, of whose results regretfully little reaches public awareness. Of course, taking into account the fact that findings from such an archaeological excavation takes quite some time to process and publish, this comes as no real surprise. During the course of human activity, we encounter new archaeological phenomena every day, which often overshadow those that came before. This publication serves to prevent such an occurrence.  

Prof. Kőnig Frigyes dr. habil


1/ The excavation was carried out by the Agency for the Protection of Cultural Heritage on request by National Infrastructure Development Ltd until 31 July 2010. After this time, the work was continued by the Hungarian National Museum – National Cultural Heritage Protection Centre. The excavation was completed in August 2011.
2/ information provided by Loránd Olivér Kovács
3/ Skultéty Gyula: Arcrekonstrukciók [Facial Reconstructions], Rubicon, 2009/3 10.
4/ István Kiszely: “Sírok, csontok, emberek” [Tombs, Bones, People]
Ágnes Kustár – Károly Árpás: „Batthyány Erzsébet grófnő arcrekonstrukciója” [The Facial Reconstruction of Countess Batthyány Erzsébet], Körmend-Szombathely 2006., Ed.: Zoltán Nagy, pp. 249-256.
5/  Ian Wilson: Past Lives, 2001, Cassell and Co.