The Uncanny Face Model They Made With Richard III's Skull

By Megan Garber
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Philippa Langley, originator of the Looking for Richard III project, with a 3D-printed model of Richard III (Gareth Fuller/PA via The Guardian)

Let's say, just hypothetically, that you have exhumed what you believe to be the body of an infamous British monarch from beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England. Let's also say, given your knowledge of history and the distinctive deformations of the skeleton, that you are fairly certain the remains actually do belong to the king who was at once an agent of political change and, thanks to a British monarch of a different strain, one of literature's most iconic villains.

Would you then:

a) combine DNA analysis, genealogical research, osteology, and carbon dating to confirm more definitively that the bones do indeed belong to the king in question
b) analyze the body's skull to make a digital reconstruction of the king's head
c) use 3D printing to render that design into a physical model of the king's head
d) send the model on a tour throughout England
e) all of the above

If you are the Richard III Society, your answer would be (e). After the discovery of the remains of Richard III in February, a professor at the Society, Caroline Wilkinson, put the new evidence about the king's body -- a centuries-old smoking gun -- to use. The professor, The Guardian reports, worked with the forensic art team at the University of Dundee to digitally determine what the king's face would have looked like in person (well, "in person"). From there, the team used stereolithography -- yep, 3D printing -- to convert that rendering into a physical model of the king's face. They extrapolated details like hair color and clothing style from portraits painted during Richard's time.

The results of this endeavor are fairly creepily Tussaudian: The twisted-spined king, in the form of a 3D-printed bust, looks essentially like a decapitated wax figure. But it's a high-tech wax figure. The forensics-based model -- which, yes, will now be going on a tour throughout England -- offers a new perspective on an old story: It brings a new dimension, quite literally, to ancient history.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/the-uncanny-face-model-they-made-with-richard-iiis-skull/275965/