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.