Scientists Reconstruct The Face Of A Medieval Monk And He Looks Oddly Familiar

Facelab LJMU & St Albans Cathedral; Created by Professor Caroline Wilkinson

This is the face of Abbot John of Wheathampstead, a prominent religious figure who held a hell of a lot of power in 15th-century England – and many have pointed out a slight resemblance to some more recent public figures of our time. 

His face was digitally reconstructed by scientists at Liverpool John Moores University’s Face Lab using CT scans of the man’s skull whose skeleton was discovered during excavations a couple of years ago for a new visitor center at St Albans Cathedral in the UK. 

The act of reconstructing a face using just a skull is not an exact science so allows for some artistic license. Namely, because the shape of the skull can only provide limited insights into how soft tissue, such as muscle, fat, and skin, would actually sit on a person’s face. For the rest of the information, researchers draw on other information from the time and place a person lived to fill in some of the gaps, along with any biographical writing that might help inform the reconstruction

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©Facelab LJMU & St Albans Cathedral; Created by Professor Caroline Wilkinson 

According to a recent blog post by Medieval historian Professor James G Clark on behalf of St Albans Cathedral, sources suggested John of Wheathampstead was known for having a red complexion, so the researchers get him a rouge flush. It’s known he suffered from chronic bad health in his fifties onwards, such as problems with his spleen, kidneys, liver, and stomach, which also helped to inform the image. The team finally used historical portraits from the time to get a sense of how this man might have dressed and his hairstyle. 

As The Guardian and others on social media have already pointed out, the man’s face also bears more than a slight likeness to two other public figures of the modern age: Former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and former Manchester United and England footballer Wayne Rooney.

No? Maybe just a little bit? Wayne Rooney back in 2009 and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1997. AHMAD FAIZAL YAHYA/Shutterstock and Heide Pinkall/Shutterstock

Of course, there was much more to the life of Abbot John of Wheathampstead than a resemblance to ex-Soviet leaders and a ruddy face. He was an important figure in public affairs and played a central role in internal reforms of the church, promoting the Abbey's property interests, and securing papal privileges. Given the power of the church in England at the time, this guy was comparable to a savvy politician of today. 

“He has an impish look, but also looks like a man who was not to be trifled with – as befits one of the most powerful ecclesiastical fixers of his day," the Very Reverend Dr Jeffrey John Dean of St Albans said in a statement

“The reconstruction of Abbot John of Wheathampstead’s face brings him startlingly to life, and immediately invites us to read his character from his features,” he added. “I hope that seeing him in his human reality will raise interest in his life, and in the central role St Albans Abbey has played in this country’s history.”

Scientists at Face Lab have used similar techniques to digitally reconstruct a number of historical figures in recent years, including much-feared Scottish king Robert the Bruce from the 14th century and a 17th-century Scottish soldier who died in the Battle of Dunbar.

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