(Courtesy of Michael Brassell)
Michael Brassell is an art student-turned-cop-turned-forensic artist for NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System established by the National Institute of Justice. The techniques employed in his hand-drawn sketch of Meresamun are the same ones he uses to help solve missing persons and homicide cases.
How did you become involved with reconstructing Meresamun's face?
I'd actually just done a reconstruction of a mummy for the Walters Museum here in Baltimore. From there, I actually cold-called Emily Teeter and told her I'd just done the one in Baltimore and kinda had a lot of fun working on the project, which had come to an end, and was wondering if they had anybody to work on theirs. That's how I wound up doing it. Mummies are a lot of fun to work on, you know, because normally I do cold-case homicides and things like that. So it's always fun to work on a project that's more light fare versus an actual homicide.
Absolutely! Can you tell me about your process and how you used the CT scans?
CT scans give you a pretty good idea of what the skull would look like. They're very accurate. On Meresamun, the profile was probably more accurate, so that's the one that I kind of honed in on. And from there, it's really just a matter of applying the mathematics that are basically taught in art school of what a face looks like. The face is like seven and a half inches high, on average, and it's a matter of averaging these things out, like across the face, which is usually five eye lengths. All these formulas are kind of put together by the medical examiner's office or an anthropologist. They compile data of what somebody should look like, and what age, and from what continent. Obviously, the formulas get more specific when you're dealing with something like a homicide. And all these formulas are put together and basically we just kind of do the easy part--take the formula and add it to the drawing.
Were you ever frustrated at any point not having access to the actual skull or were the scans detailed enough?
Oh, yeah, they were definitely detailed enough. I didn't need the actual skull.
So then you start with this raw data and then just build it up from there, based on the equations. Are there any other things you take into consideration?
You have to take into account how old the person is because that's really where the lines of the face start to appear. There's definitely some guesswork when it comes to aging lines because you never know how somebody's going to age. What we do basically is best guess. And we get pretty close with the best guess in doing the postmortem drawings, which essentially, that's all this was--a postmortem drawing. It would be no different than if one of the local homicide units called me up and said that they found a skull in the woods. A lot of times, I won't even use the real skull. I'll use a photograph taken of the real skull.
So there really isn't much of a difference working on someone who lived 2,800 years ago and someone who lived today?
As good as these CT scans were, no--there wasn't too much of a difference.
Emily Teeter told me that they already knew just from the scans that she had wide-set eyes, a symmetric face, prominent cheekbones, and a slight overbite. Did you find that was true as you started going through this process?
Yeah, I had the local medical examiners here look at the CT scans. It was actually a very big overbite. They didn't agree so much with the wide-set eyes. Like with the FBI and the Department of Justice, they'll have an actual anthropologist come in and write up a report before they even do the drawing. For local police departments, that can get kind of expensive. We rely more on the medical examiners. The medical examiner's office usually gets a good idea of what somebody looks like, just from dealing with bones all day! But it was definitely interesting drawing somebody from 800 B.C. That was really my thought with these projects--to go to work on a case that's that old. The oldest project I'd ever worked on before was from 1969. So I think I've got that one beat.
Do you do all of your work by hand?
Yes, we still do all of our work by hand. As far as I know, the FBI still does theirs that way, too. We're starting to look into the 3-D animation software. We plan on using the same stuff as Pixar Entertainment, believe it or not. It's called Maya. The stuff that they have, we think it's absolutely the best software out there. The name of the company is Autodesk. It's essentially what Pixar Entertainment uses, but what they did was that they went in and modified the program and called it something else for their people.
What materials do you work in?
I use graphite, pencils, and what we do from there is--obviously for a project like this, they wanted something a little more artsy for the showing in the Oriental Institute Museum--and I digitally painted over the pencil drawing to make it look like an oil painting. We use computers for that, as far as putting in the skin tone and doing the more artsy look. But all of the technical stuff, like when I do the work for NamUs, it's all done in pencil. We prefer not to use color for real drawings. We find we get better results in black and white.
Why is that?
The FBI had done a study on it. It had something to do with the way that the mind sees things. If they see it in color, and the skin color's a little bit off from the person that they're thinking that the drawing represents, they're less apt to say, "Hey, I think that's so-and-so." Whereas if you leave a little more to the imagination, they'll come forward and say, "Hey, that could be..." And hopefully, that's who it is. The whole idea of doing a postmortem drawing or a composite drawing is to try to generate a name to go with the person. For mummies, it's a little bit in reverse. They know who they have, they're just trying to show what they looked like.
You're using the same techniques as when you're looking for a missing person or solving a murder case, correct?
Yeah, absolutely. The missing people, especially, because that's where we get the most skulls, from missing people--100 percent exact same technique. I try to do as many as I can by hand. There are other artists who work for NamUs, I'm not the only one, some of them prefer to use Photoshop, and they basically draw with Photoshop. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that. Everybody's got their own style. Some of the ones that are left deteriorated, I'll use Photoshop and go in and give them more of a lively appearance. It's a great organization. Probably one of the coolest things I do is being an artist for NamUs.
How accurate do you feel the reconstruction is?
I feel the profile that we did of Meresamun is probably right on the money. All the details were there. I mean, there's always, with a postmortem, in the back of your head...geez, you never know. Somebody could always look a little bit different. But I've been doing this since 2006 and I would say, with all the cases I've worked on, it's a pretty accurate drawing.
Brassell's sketch of Meresamun in profile (Courtesy of Michael Brassell)
What is your background?
I started out as an art student. I went to the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. And from there, I became a cop and worked on the streets here [in Baltimore] for quite a while. Then the commissioner found out I went to art school and they sent me down to the FBI Academy. And so I went there for doing the forensic facial imaging and have been doing them ever since. We tried to do the computer ones that started to get pretty big in England. There's a software company out there called E-Fit. And we were using the E-Fit software for sex offences. But we found it was taking too long--the actual software itself had limitations--and that's what brought me into the game. After I got certified by E-Fit, I was able to show the high command that we could actually use pencil and paper and get more accurate and faster drawings.
You wouldn't expect that! Do you think the technology's finally catching up?
It's only as fast as the database can retrieve the data. And when somebody still has to sit down to look at 500 noses to say, "That's the nose I think the guy had," it's a lot easier to draw that nose--and a lot faster.
That reminds me--I know that Meresamun had numerous layers of linen bandages. Did that distort any of her features, like her nose?
No, I think because of all the different layers, we were able to see everything pretty well. The nasal spine, which is what we use to determine the length of the nose, is right there. Now, this is on the profile view. There was a three-quarter view where we did the actual portrait, which was more of a painting. I really feel that the painting is exactly that--it's more a piece of artwork, although I think it's a very fair likeness of what she would have looked like, but I don't think it's as accurate as the profile.
Really? Because the profile scans were that much clearer?
They were just that much better, without a doubt. That's why I feel so confident about the profile one, just because of the clarity of the CT scans.
Were you looking at the scans in 2-D or 3-D files?
I had both. I had the 3-D files in Quicktime and then I had the JPEG images that were sent to me as well. From there, we used FinalCutPro, which is, you know, the editing software, like they shot Napoleon Dynamite on. So that's one of the big staples for all of the video stuff that we do. In the police department, we use FinalCut Pro, and so from there, I kind of edited it all together, picked out the images I wanted--that I thought were the best representation--went through it, and did the postmortem from there.
Would you hope to keep drawing more ancient people?
I really would, yeah! I think they're so much fun to do. I think it's so interesting to go into the different parts of Egypt and, you know, depending on what dynasty, all the research that goes into it. I probably did three weeks of research before I even started drawing, so I didn't sound like a complete idiot when I was talking about mummies [laughs]! It's been so long since I had art history in school that I was really afraid about coming across as somebody who didn't know what they were talking about. And plus, it really helped to determine the region and generate what the person would look like.
Did you go back to the ancient sources? Or...
A lot of my art history books. I pulled those out from school. And I jumped online. And the Walters Art Museum had given me some books to read. So yeah, it was definitely a fun project and definitely one I'd like to do again.
As the technology continues to develop, it'll be exciting for archaeologists to see the faces of the people they study.
Yeah, I agree. It's one thing to look at bones and say, well, you know, this is from the year that the person's from. But it's also nice to say, this is what we think the person would have looked like. Like I said, the mathematic equations we use to put these postmortems together--we get pretty close. A lot of it's gut feeling--like I said, there's no scientific basis for me to say, hey, I honestly believe this is what this person looked like--but everything is just so crystal clear around this skull. I can't imagine this being wrong.
Do you prefer working with the ancient or the modern materials?
I'd have to say the ancient because there's no sad story in the end. You get a hit on a missing person--a skull in the woods or one of the drawings from the '70s of somebody who was hit by a car at the side of the road--and at the end of the day, it's a sad ending. Some mother is going to find out their daughter is dead and is not coming home. Whereas with ancient artifacts, we already know the person's dead. We're just trying to come up with what the person looked like. So it's a happier ending.
Eti Bonn-Muller is managing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.