Historical Reconstruction for the National Geographic Channel

Fort William Henry…”The Last Mohican?”

image of karen t. taylor on the decrypters series on national geographic channel

image of the decrypters logoThe Decrypters is a series produced by Shine Television of London which aired on the National Geographic Channel in the US. For each episode the “Texas Team”, composed of anthropologists from the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University (FACTS) and other specialists, examined historically interesting skeletal cases using modern investigative methods. It was my task to assess each of the various skulls and artistically determine how the individual might have looked in life.

The episode called “The Last Mohican?” centered around a skeleton found at Fort William Henry in Lake George, New York. The fort was active during the French and Indian War, 1754-1763, a conflict between France and Great Britain. Both sides had Native American allies from multiple tribal groups. The violent siege and massacre in 1757 were later memorialized in the 1826 novel by James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans.

Image of book, The Last of the Mohicans

This early book edition includes cover art by renowned illustrator N. C. Wyeth.

The skull was in excellent condition despite the fact that it was more than 250 years old.  An assessment of the skeleton by the team’s anthropologists determined it to be Native American of unknown tribal affiliation. This strong male had been buried in an honored and revered manner along side British soldiers.  Indications were that he was held to be an important and respected person by the occupants of the fort. 

The right lateral view of the skull shows where I applied a bit of clay to stabilize the mandible for photography. There was slight damage to the zygomatic arch or cheekbone.

image of skull used in historical facial reconstruction by karen t. taylor
image of skull used in historical reconstruction by karen t. taylor
image of fort william henry historical facial reconstruction by karen t. taylor
Using an approach I developed in the mid-80s and have frequently employed in forensic identification cases, the facial image was drawn over the architecture of the skull.  The overall forms of the head were revealed and then each feature was determined according to anatomical formulas described in my text Forensic Art and Illustration.
 image of the lateral view of karen t. taylor's historical reconstruction from fort william henry
The drawings are done on tracing vellum over one-to-one photos of the skull applying tissue depths according to anthropological standards for various bony landmark locations.  Artistically, I try to “feel” my way around the structures of the skull with my pencil so that the resulting face reflects the subtleties of the facial forms.  One of the anthropologists, Dr. Kate Spradley, commented that she could “see” how I was thinking my way around the skull, which made me really happy.  All in all, this was a very rewarding case study for me.
 image of historical reconstruction done by karen t. taylor
My vision reveals the handsome face of an early Native American, strong and proud.
 lateral view of historical reconstruction done by karen t. taylor
The lateral drawing highlights the shallow head depth sometimes seen in this ancestral group.  Another feature is the “chignon” or rounded prominence on the center back of the head.
detail of historical reconstruction done by forensic artist karen t. taylor depicting the eyes

This eye area detail shows how I believe the structure of the bony brow ridges would determine the look of the brow area on the surface of the face. Similarly, the crooked bridge of the bony nose would dictate the appearance of the soft tissue bridge of the nose.

image of historical reconstruction detail by karen t. taylor depicting the chin

Detail of the chin, showing how the mounded form on the surface is determined by the skull beneath.

image of karen t. taylor on the set of the decrypters working on a historical reconstruction project

This is a photo taken on the set while I was “in the zone” working and oblivious to the camera.

2a00d433c93d90bcc919e19a146880e2This skull-face comparison will hopefully reveal my efforts to depict as accurate a face as possible.  It was a privilege to be a part of this project to help restore the humanity of this long-ago hero.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation logo Writers and researchers for top-rated CBS crime drama CSI: first contacted me and sought my input for plot ideas about six months prior to the series premier in 2000. Since then, I have developed many friendships related to the show and have continued a long-term consultant relationship. The writers bestowed on me a great honor when forensic artist character, Teri Miller, played by actress Pamela Gidley, was roughly based on me. Her character was originally developed as a “love interest” for Grissum (played by William Petersen) but alas, things just didn’t work out for them and they both moved on. The episode “Snuff” marked my first visit to the California set so that both my artwork and my hands could appear on camera. “Snuff” was co-written by Ann Donahue and Bob Harris and directed by Kenneth Fink. Certain scenes for this episode were shot at the old Ambassador Hotel, site of the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968.

My role in this episode included several things.  I consulted with writers about how to accurately incorporate forensic facial reconstruction into the plot, I created the step-by-step sculpted props, and I acted as an assistant to the actors on the set. The first step was to do storyboard type drawings of the various stages for the facial reconstruction props.  This would allow the writers and directors to plan the action prior to filming.  Time is money and careful advance planning is critical.

Storyboard sketches for the CSI: episode "Snuff" by Karen T. Taylor

Storyboard sketches for the CSI: episode “Snuff”

3 Steps of the CSI: Prop Facial Reconstruction by Karen T. TaylorWhile still in Texas, I created three primary stages for the facial reconstruction. Sculpting in real time would be far too time-consuming during filming, so all of this advance preparation was necessary.  As part of the plot, anthropologist “Teri Miller” determined that the skeletal victim had Downs Syndrome, so my reconstruction had to reflect that.

Actor Blair Williamson and Karen T. Taylor on the set of CSI: in Los Angeles

Actor Blair Williamson and I had a lot of fun and he even tried his hand at modeling some clay.


My time on the set in Los Angeles was great.  One of my favorite things was interacting with young actor Blair Williamson who played my “victim” in the life sequences.  Blair was so enthusiastic and really enjoyed seeing the sculpture I had made to resemble him.


Karen T. Taylor, Dr. Telgenhoff and Anthony Zuiker on the set of CSI;

Fun with “Dr. T” and Anthony Zuiker

Dr. Gary Telgenhoff is the Forensic Pathologist and Deputy Medical Examiner at the Clark County Coroner’s Office in Las Vegas, Nevada.  He’s also a consultant for the show and happened to be on the set when we were filming.  When “Dr. T” and CSI: creator Anthony Zuiker get together, there’s no telling what might happen…lots of fun.  His T-shirt says “Coroner – Stop by for a cold one.”

There’s a lot of “hurry up and wait” in television production. I feel like my time spent testifying in court has given me some good preparation for that. Sometimes on the set, I just sat around in the background and waited until the director yelled my name for assistance.

photo of forensic artist karen t taylor on the set of CSI in Los Angeles

In the background on the CSI: set

Forensic artist Karen T. Taylor on the set of CSI: with actors William Petersen and Pamela Gidley

On the CSI: set with William Petersen and Pamela Gidley

At one point, Billy Petersen remarked to me, “Hey, you don’t seem to be bothered at all by the craziness on the set. Some of the other advisors have problems with it.” We then had a good chat about real autopsies, testifying against real rapists and murderers and trying to help real crime victims. I explained that stress for me was struggling to do a fast and accurate composite sketch when a child had been abducted and the news crews were outside my door…the potential for life or death.  He totally got it and understood why I was unfazed, even a bit amused by the “Hollywood” variety of stress.  I have gained a genuine respect for the pressure-filled schedules and demanding work that is necessary during the creation of television shows.  I am awed by the amazing skill and craft of the actors and all of the various individuals involved in production of a show like CSI:.  I am proud to have had the opportunity to be a part of it.

There was time for a few fun photographs to be taken.  All in all, I felt that the filming went  well on this episode and the facial reconstruction sequence appeared quite realistic.  In the capable hands of the director, it was beautifully filmed and assembled. Later, I was pleased when I watched a DVD of the episode that included commentary by Director Kenneth Fink and he described how proud he was of the facial reconstruction scene in particular.  That made me happy…

Karen T. Taylor in the morgue area of the CSI: set

In the morgue area of the set

Karen T. Taylor in Grissum's office on the CSI: set

In Grissum’s office

Karen examining some of the creepy stuff in Grissum's office

Examining some of the creepy stuff in Grissum’s office

The facial reconstruction sequence on CSI: with the hands of Karen T. Taylor

The facial reconstruction sequence with my hands sculpting