St Giles’ Cathedral, one of Edinburgh’s most famous historic landmarks, sits in the heart of the city’s picturesque old town. It was erected in the 12th century, before much of the old town was built. Beneath it and within its walls hundreds of Scots have been buried over the centuries, and now, thanks to state-of-the-art facial reconstruction technology, we’re gaining a glimpse of who these people were and what they might have looked like.
Edinburgh City Council and the University of Dundee have teamed up to reconstruct the faces of people whose remains were discovered beneath the cathedral in the 1980s and ‘90s. Their recent work has identified a 35- to 45-year-old man buried sometime in the 12th century and a middle-aged woman who suffered from leprosy and died in the mid-15th to 16th century.
The woman was likely of high status as she was buried inside the cathedral, next to the altar of St Anne. She may have belonged to the Tailors Guild, Karen Fleming, a forensic artist who worked on the woman’s reconstruction, said in an emailed statement.
“This particular reconstruction interested me as there were obvious signs of leprosy which made for interesting research,” she said. “She would have contracted this in adulthood and the signs of lesions under the right eye may have led to the loss of sight in that eye.”
Leprosy is a contagious disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae, which leads to chronic symptoms such as skin lesions, nerve damage, vision problems, and even physical deformities. During the Middle Ages, the disease plagued Europeans, but it declined in the 1600s, likely thanks to a mixture of social changes and people becoming resistant to the microbe. Today, leprosy still affects a number of nations around the world, including India, Brazil, and Indonesia.
The man reconstructed by the team lived 400 years earlier than the woman and was not of such high status. Buried in the same century that the cathedral was erected – it was not as grand a building back then – he is thought to be one of Edinburgh’s first official residents. While he did not have leprosy, he was missing a jaw, which posed a bit of a challenge for the researchers attempting to reconstruct his facial features. Luckily, they managed to come up with a solution, they adorned his jawline with a bushy beard.
"I was able to accurately predict all the other facial features though," forensic artist Lucrezia Rodella told IFLScience, "since the cranium was in good condition, which is pretty uncommon considering how old this skull is." The team thinks he stood at about 5 feet 6 inches (1.67 meters) tall.
So how do you go about reconstructing the faces of people that lived centuries ago? Well, it’s all in their bones. By closely examining the structure of a person’s skull, scientists can work out how much tissue there likely was on different parts of the face, assess how symmetrical it was, and determine the size of different facial features.
"For example, the eyes’ fissure is one of the most certain things that can be predicted: since the eyelids are muscles they have to be connected to a bony part," Fleming told IFLScience. "Once we have an idea of the face shape we use a database of facial images, this is used to select features that can be altered to fit the skull. Hair and eye colour cannot be predicted unless the remains have been DNA tested so we consider what might have been common colouring of people from that time period."
This isn’t the first time scientists have reconstructed the faces of Scotland’s past inhabitants. They’ve previously brought to life an 18th-century “witch”, a 17th-century soldier, and a Medieval man from Aberdeen who became the butt of many cruel online jokes.