LSU’s FACES Lab presents facial reconstructions of two Civil War-era soldiers

LSU’s FACES Lab presents facial reconstructions of two Civil War-era soldiers

POSTED: Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 4:00am

UPDATED: Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 4:04am

Civil War ironclad warship the USS Monitor sank on Dec. 31, 1862, taking 16 of the 63 crewmen aboard down with it. These soldiers were either lost at sea or trapped inside the ship, which was being towed though rough seas off Cape Hatteras, N.C. None of the 16 soldiers had been seen since, until now.

As part of the USS Monitor 150th Anniversary, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries partnered with LSU’s Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services, or FACES, Lab to have facial reconstructions completed on two of the soldiers found aboard the Monitor.

The skeletal remains of both sailors were discovered inside the Monitor’s gun turret after it was raised from the ocean floor in 2002. While much has been learned about the physical characteristics of the men, their identities remain a mystery. By releasing images of the reconstructed faces, NOAA hopes the public will be able to assist in the ongoing effort to identify the sailors.

“These are the faces of men who gave their lives for their country at a pivotal moment in American history,” said David Alberg, superintendent of Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, which was established by Congress in 1975 to protect the Monitor wreck site. “The best case scenario is that someone will emerge, perhaps a descendent, who can give these faces a name.”

During a ceremony held in Washington, D.C., on March 6, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries released forensic facial reconstructions of the faces of the two crew members. Mary Manhein, director of the LSU FACES Lab, and Nicole Harris, LSU FACES Lab forensic anthropologist/research associate, attended the ceremony to present the reconstructions. During the ceremony, a plaque was dedicated at the United States Navy Memorial in memory of the Monitor crew.

“We don’t know all the answers about their lives, but the reconstruction is a way to bring the past to life, to create something as similar as possible to the original,” Manhein said. “To see the faces take shape, to go from bone to flesh is very exciting. Our hope is that someone seeing the sculptures may recognize the face as an ancestor.”

A Civil War-era Union ironclad warship that revolutionized naval warfare, the USS Monitor is best known for its battle with the Confederate ironclad, CSS Virginia, in Hampton Roads, Va., on March 9, 1862. The engagement marked the first time iron-armored ships clashed in naval warfare and signaled the end of the era of wooden ships.

Less than a year later, while being towed to a new field of battle, the Monitor capsized and sank. The skeletal remains of the two sailors were found in the turret during a recovery operation conducted by NOAA and the U.S. Navy. The remains were turned over to the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, in Hawaii, which has worked to try to identify the sailors. To date, no trace of the other 14 missing members of the crew has been found.

According to a JPAC report, both of the recovered skeletons were well-preserved and nearly complete. Manhein and her team examined scans of the skulls and hip bones and agreed with the conclusions of the JPAC report.

“When JPAC sent the cast to us, they also sent us a hip for each of the men, and … just like we do in forensic anthropology in modern cases, we look at certain areas on the hip bone and those areas can give us an idea of how old these men were,” Manhein said. “One appears to be somewhere between 17 and 24 years of age and perhaps probably in his early 20s, and then the other is somewhere between 30 and 40, perhaps his early 30s or so.”

Both JPAC and the team at the LSU FACES Lab agreed that both men were white, although the Monitor’s crew included at least one African-American.

Forensic anthropologists at the FACES Lab created facial reconstructions by using a combination of scientific and artistic research, 3-D clay facial reconstruction, computer-generated modeling, and computer-enhanced imaging techniques.

“Here at LSU, we work on all kinds of cases, all kinds of projects,” Manhein said. “Mainly, our job deals with forensic anthropology. We help law enforcement agencies all across the state and country to identify people. Occasionally, we get the opportunity though to work on research projects, which deal with three-dimensional images of persons who are known and those who are unknown.”

Manhein and her team became involved in the project through Wayne Smith of Texas A&M, who was already involved. Smith told Manhein that they were looking for someone to complete three-dimensional clay images of the soldiers, and the FACES lab team jumped at that opportunity.

“It is so exciting to be a part of this,” Manhein said. “I mean, the Monitor and the Merrimac, we’ve heard about that all our lives in history classes; so, to be able to participate in it is so rewarding and to be able to create images of what they may have looked like is even more rewarding. And the idea that they don’t know who they are and that perhaps some decedents will come forward … perhaps we’ll be able to give them a name.”

While the FACES Lab, which is part of the LSU College of Humanities & Social Sciences’ Department of Geography & Anthropology, primarily works with law enforcement agencies on cases involving forensic anthropology, these types of research opportunities are nothing new to them.

“We’ve worked on quite a few projects like this, certainly from 100-150 years or so ago,” Manhein said. “We’ve actually done two-dimensional projects on a couple of cases where the individuals were 2,000 years old, so it’s not that unusual that we work on ancient cases.”

Manhein’s team received casts of the two skulls and hip bones from JPAC and began the process of creating the clay facial reconstructions by first placing tissue-depth markers on the skulls.

Eileen Barrow, LSU FACES lab imaging specialist, determines how to place the tissue-depth markers and how much clay to use and where it should be placed.

“She’s so instrumental in this project,” Manhein said of Barrow. “We put these tissue-depth markers on the skull, and they are cut to very precise measurements, in millimeters. The width of the nasal opening helps us to know how wide to make the nose. The width of the mouth is determined by canine to canine. The height of the lips determined by the gum line, so we have formulas we use for a lot of this, but a lot of the success comes from the imaging specialist who creates this image.”

Once the clay facial reconstructions were completed, the models were taken to the LSU Engineering Communication Studio, where they were scanned with 3-D equipment shared by the FACES Lab and the College of Engineering. A 3-D image is first made by the scanner and is then put through the 3-D printer, which produces an ABS plastic replica of the item, in this case the clay facial reconstructions.

With a tight turnaround to have the models completed and ready for their unveiling at the 150th anniversary ceremony in Washington, D.C., Manhein said the FACES team overcame challenges along the way.

“Certainly the challenges are in trying to create images that fit for that particular time period,” she said. “The challenges also were in the length of time we had to create these images and get them to the museum for them to have their display. There’s always a challenge with any case like this though.”

The sculptures will be kept as part of the Office of National Marine Sanctuary’s Monitor collection and will be used in future exhibits and education programs.

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