Two years ago an excavator unearthed a human skull during construction work on a playground southeast of Stuttgart. To this day no one knows who the dead man is or what he looked like when he was alive. This is a case that was never solved and is now being reopened along with other cases. The bones of the skull will be used to reconstruct the face. Police will then release the model as a sketch in the hope that new evidence will be found.

This technique is now being taught for the first time at a police academy in Germany. In a seminar at the Böblingen Police Academy, forensics technicians learned how to give faces to the dead. First, the facial muscles are placed on the skull with plasticine. Participants then model the skin, followed by ears, eyes, nose, mouth and hair.

The identification of the skulls greatly helps the police

“From the skull we can determine what the person looked like,” says Rainer Wortmann, special coordinator at the Baden-Württemberg Criminal Investigation Service. This requires a lot of intuition and precise tools. Wortman works on the skulls for a week with a dozen colleagues. They search, observe and compare. Slowly, faces appear.

“Most of the time it’s the last hope for locating people,” says Joe Mullins, head of the seminar. He is an expert of the National Center for Missing Children in the USA. and has been working with this technology for more than 20 years. In this process, Mullins estimates that about one-sixth of the hundreds of skulls that have been examined have been identified. Wortmann brought the expert to Germany especially for this purpose, who transfers his knowledge to the laboratories of many European states.

“The heads end up looking like wax figures in a museum,” Wortman says. But compared to the famous works of Madame Tussauds and other wax museums, no one knows who these faces belong to, as there are neither photographs nor descriptions of the unidentified victims. “I don’t have a witness to direct me,” says the expert who has to read all the features from the skull himself. For him, this is the biggest difference compared to working with normal, two-dimensional images of dead people.

In the seminar, the participants work on, among other things, cases from Baden-Württemberg. One of them is the skull excavated two years ago outside of Stuttgart. Without a skeleton or lower jaw, the skull had been found on the ground. A skull found near Rastatt in 2017 is also being reconstructed, and there is even a case from the 70s.

Formatting of many key features becomes possible

Criminologists are particularly facilitated by the “theory of proportions”. In the case of eyes, for example, the shape and center of the eye can be easily read. White glass balls are used as eyes and iris and the pupil is painted on them. According to Wortman, the eyelid crease can also be successfully determined.

Today, DNA analysis can even be used to read hair color, eye color, determine gender, age, and other details. “However, you cannot read individual features from a skull. Wrinkles, scars or tattoos remain undetected,” Wortman says. In order not to have to touch the evidence, forensic technicians do not work on real skulls, but on 3D scanned and printed models.

Until now, the demand for the so-called restoration of the soft tissues of the face was not great in Germany. Skulls can often be found, but not all are criminal cases. However, after consultation with the case manager, they now want to reopen some old cases (cold cases). “We’re doing pioneering work here,” says Wortman, referring to Germany. “In the future, whenever skulls are found, we will be able to use this method to put a face on the dead and thus identify them.”