The Art and Science of Forensic Sculpting

Amanda Danning shows the skull and reconstruction of a Mexican soldier from the Battle of San Jacinto.
Amanda Danning shows the skull of a Mexico soldier killed in the Battle of San Jacino and a facial reconstruction in progress.

A Mexican soldier who died at the San Jacinto Battleground had his head bashed in with a rifle, but that’s not what killed him, a forensic sculptor told forensic science students during a demonstration and lecture.

"He heals from this blow, and he goes out to fight again," said Amanda Danning, a facial reconstructionist who spoke to Dr. Joan Bytheway’s forensic anthropology class. "He gets to go back to San Jacinto, lucky fellow."

Dr. Bytheway said that the lessons learned from Danning’s presentation can be used by future police officers, detectives, federal agents and forensic scientists when asked to examine evidence to recreate the events of a crime.

"Forensic science is about reconstructing the events of a crime or the investigation of a traumatic death based on the evidence," said Dr. Bytheway. "Forensic art, just like other disciplines of forensic science, is a form of evidence, a piece of the puzzle that helps to build the circumstances around the event. It is not a hard science, it does not produce a quantitative result; it is speculation, but it still helps, in a presumptive way, to recreate the events of the episode."

Using science and art, Danning is able to capture the faces of historic figures who lived hundreds and sometimes thousands of years ago. Her latest project includes recreating the faces of six Mexican soldiers who died at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, when Texas earned its independence from Mexico and become its own country. Danning was able to recapture the injuries suffered by the soldiers.

Danning, who commissioned by the Friends of the San Jacinto Battleground, discussed two versions she is sculpting of Mexican Solider #556, one as he looked before his injuries and one on the day of the battle.

"He was hit with a rifle butt on the top of his nose a year earlier," Danning explained. "There was a seven millimeter depression, and bone would have came out of the flesh. It damaged the muscle of his right eye, and his eye would be lilted out to the right."

Danning works with Dr. Douglas Owsley, Director of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institute as well as other bone experts at the Washington D.C. museum, and Legendary Houston Trauma Surgeon Dr. James “Red” Duke from the Texas Medical Center to get the scientific evidence needed to support her craft.

"I bring science and art together, with 90 percent of it science and 10 percent of it art," Danning said. "I read the bones. I listen to the bones."

Danning combines two methods of facial reconstruction in her specimens, the American version which uses soft tissue depth markers, and the Russian method, which rebuilds the face using muscles, glands, fat sacs and skin. Using the combined techniques, she brings historical figures back to life, including Buffalo Soldiers, Jamestown settlers and "Sam," a 10,000 year old Paleo American skull found in Central Texas.

"It combines my three favorite things – sculpting, researching history, and talking," Danning said.

By studying the skull, scientists can determine many characteristics, including the race, ethnicity, age and injuries to the individual. Smaller nose with opening far from the sinus indicate European ancestry from colder climates, a genetic mechanism to protect against pneumonia. Larger noses, with nasal openings close to the sinuses, and broader mandibles indicate people of African descent, who come from warmer climates.

The soft tissue depth markers, which are parts of erasers cut at precise heights, are placed strategically around the skull to build the face. Bones in the nose, and muscle and glands in the eyes guide the shape of those features.

At the Battle of San Jacinto, 700 Mexican soldiers and nine Texas soldiers lost their lives, and 30 more Texans were injured, including Sam Houston, who suffered a bullet wound to the ankle. In fact, a bullet was recently discovered at the endangered historic site with a bone fragment still attached.

The skulls were retrieved by James Audubon, who scoured the country in search of birds, and were part of the collection of George Morton. As part of the study, a CAT scan was taken of each skull to produce an exact replica for the reconstruction. Scientists and doctors studied the injuries to the skulls to determine cause of death or previous injuries.

One Mexican soldier had three gunshot wounds to the head, but only one of them was from the San Jacinto Battleground. Due to smooth edges to the wounds, anthropologists were able to determine two of the shots occurred a year before the battle. A second Mexican soldier suffered saber wounds, but only one lifted his skull up and probably killed him, Danning said. A third had a huge beveled hole in the head, and scientists were able to pinpoint the trajectory of the bullet that killed him on the battlefield.

Danning also worked on the reconstruction of “Sam,” a skull estimated to be 10,000 years old. The skull predated Native Americans in the area and its features more closely resembled the Anyu of Japan, Nordics, or the Maasai of Africa. There were about 100 artifacts in his burial grounds, along with a child. The artifacts provide clues to his culture and lifestyle.

Sam lived 300 miles from the coast, but had a necklace made of coastal shells, possibly indicating trade in the area. He had tools to make other tools and his right arm was stronger than his left, with large forearms, indicating repetitive scraping or sharpening with his right hand. He was buried with hollowed out turtle shells on his face and stomach and a hawk claw in his mouth, indicating he may have been a man with spiritual gifts (the hawk was considered a messenger from the spirits) who was stopped by Mother Earth (commonly symbolized by the turtle).

The girl had a needle in her stomach, which was not strong enough to sew animal skins, indicating the possibility of woven cloth during the era.

Danning also provided demonstrations of her facial reconstruction work during the Texas Independence Day Celebration at the Sam Houston Museum.

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