THE HISTORICAL EXHUMATION PROJECT
Forensic Artist Reconstructs History
|By JACKIE TOROK
County Sheriff's Officer Wesley Neville has gotten to know three Louisiana settlers
personally, even though they've been dead for almost 150 years.
Neville has been in
law enforcement for 11 years and has spent the last five as a local forensic artist.
He is one in a team of experts and researchers across the country who are
working on the Historical Exhumation Project based in Southern Louisiana. The
project is designed to interpret the lives and deaths of 18 French Acadians whose bodies
were found in two disintegrating grave sites and reintroduce them to the genealogical
record before properly reburying their remains.
Neville was chosen to
participate in the project by its project director, Forensic Consultant, Lucretia McBride,
after she came across his web site, which shows examples of his work, such as his
rendering of local crime suspects and their victims, and the various techniques he uses as
a forensic artist.
Web Site intrigues me," McBride, a former law enforcement officer specializing in
forensic investigation, told him. "There is something about the site that I
cannot get out of my mind."
The research team
already included an archeologist, a botanist, a DNA expert, an anthropologist, an
entomologist, a genealogist, an expert in metallurgy and coffins, a mortuary science
expert, a textiles expert, a dentist, a radiologist, a toxicologist, and a
Medicolegal death investigator, said she recruited Neville for the project because a
skilled forensic artist could help put faces on the people whose remains were found in the
precedent-setting project. It will establish the lifestyle of the French Acadian
culture based on science, forensics and historical interpretations," she said.
"We're opening a whole new area here."
McBride said the
prospect of putting faces on the people also appealed to the legal titleholder of the
graves, who is a descendant of the tomb occupants.
correspondence via e-mail and several telephone calls later, Neville accepted McBride's
offer to become a part of the project team. Members of the team meet several
times at the Jefferson Parish Forensic Center in Louisiana during the year to exchange
findings, gather information and get to know each other.
"I could not
pass up the opportunity to participate in a project where so many established
professionals are involved," Neville said. "The whole idea of the project,
and what the goals are, intrigues me and is something I believe in."
While Neville has
spent about a year on the project, it actually began three years ago as a mission to save
the contents of two badly deteriorating graves from the 1850s in southern Louisiana.
In two above-ground and two below-ground vaults beneath one of the graves,
researchers found the remains of 18 individuals, 3 who were recovered from cast
iron coffins: a woman named Clemence, who was in her early to mid 30s when she died in
1857; her sister; Celeste Leontine, who was 27 when she died in 1852; and a 14-year-old
boy named P.W., Clemence's son, who died in 1853.
Neville got their
skulls from Team Member Forensic Anthropologist in Atlanta, who also passed along his own
findings such as their approximate age, race, height, weight and their causes of death.
"As the artist,
my contribution to the project includes a variety of identification methods,
including Two-dimensional Reconstruction, Three-dimensional clay reconstruction, a
Computerized age-progression, and computer color enhancement of the reconstruction
photographs. These techniques, some new, some established, are rarely done in conjunction
with one another, but the fact that the victims are already identified, and the abundance
of information available from the various forensic specialist's findings, allow me the
flexibility to experiment with various different techniques," he said.
Clemence, Leontine, and P.W.
One of the challenges
facing the researchers is the lack of information about the regional embalming procedures
of the 1850's. Another is the uncertainty of the causes of death for the tomb occupants.
Before handling the
skulls Neville donned masks and rubber gloves. The first thing he noticed was the apparent
family resemblance in the makeup of each of the three skulls. All of them had significant
overbites. Leontine and P.W. had straight teeth, but Clemence's teeth were crooked and she
also had an upper denture plate.
The size of the nasal
aperture in each of the three skulls also was similar, and all three had a slight
curvature of the nasal bone. Neville said theis gave their noses a slight
"hook" appearance, meaning that their narrow noses would show an obvious drop
off the bony portion of the upper nose.
Leontine's eyebrow shape would be a bit different from that of the other two skulls,
with a somewhat downward slope. He also considered the original ancestry of the tomb
occupants, before deciding that their eyes were blue. Documentation from
those present at coffin openning indicated that both Leontine and Clemence
had blue eyes. This was also a common color for the people in their geographic
skull is long and narrow with a long forehead," he said. "Her hairline could be
determined due to a wrap placed around her head at the time of her burial holding the hair
in place, thus causing a noticeable discoloration of the skull, " he wrote.
"P.W.'s skull was shorter and more proportioned than that of Leontine."
skull is a combination of the previous two. While Clemence's skull is short like P.W.'s it
has the bone structure -- cheekbones and chin shape -- as that of Leontine's," he
Neville washed their
skulls in a solution of bleach and detergent before beginning the reconstruction process.
"This is another
safety precaution, as well as allowing the tissue markers to adhere to the skull
adequately," he said.
Once the skulls were
thoroughly cleaned, Neville placed them on a stand and photographed them. The first
technique he used on the skulls, one at a time, was the three-dimensional method of facial
reconstruction. To do this,he placed each skull on a stand so that it can be tilted and
turned in all directions. He positioned the skull to align the ear holes with he
bottom of the eye sockets. By using proper tissue depth data determined by the race,
gender and age, Neville placed artificial eyes in the sockets, then centered them and
adjusted them to their proper depth.
Neville glued tissue
markers directly onto the skulls on preset points, then systematically applied clay onto
the skull, following its contours and paying strict attention to the tissue markers. He
also used clay to create hair, and added necks and shoulders to create busts of Clemence,
Leontine and P.W. that could be adorned with clothing to accurately represent what they
wore at the time of their burials.
Once he finished this
process, Neville began the two-dimensional facial reconstruction process. The skulls,
with their tissue markers in place, were photographed before the 3-D sculptures were
created. Those photographs were then enlarged to life-sized dimensions. The frontal and
profile photos were taped directly beside each other on two separate flat boards.
transparent natural vellum sheets directly over printed photos of each skull and
individually sketched their faces, following the skulls' contours and using the tissue
markers as guides. During this procedure, he paid no attention to the clay sculptures.
that in an experimental procedure, the photographs of the 3-D clay sculptures will be
color-enhanced by a computer to "bring life to the reconstruction." The
sculpture of P.W. also will be age-progressed by computer by using a graphic painting
program and may show some similarities to some of the family's more recent descendants.
"This is the
first project of its kind that goes back that far for the Acadians, who were the original
Cajuns of Louisiana. For me, doing the sculptures has been the most fun, watching these
faces emerge right under my hands," Neville said.
"As I've worked
on theis project, these people -- Clemence, Leontine and P.W. -- have become a part of
me," he said. "I've imagined what their lives must have been like. They're sort
of like family to me now.
the grave site
Inside the coffins of
the tomb occupants, researchers found that their clothing, jewelry and religious artifacts
were virtually intact. Although they were stained, McBride said the lace of the chemisette
(or dickey), the ribbons on a young boy's shroud, a small crucifix containing a lock of
hair and dozens of other items were almost untouched by age.
Although the graves
belonged to the same family, no one assumed responsibility for caring for them through the
decades. One male family member went through the expensive legal process of becoming their
legal titleholder. The project came about because the graves were in such bad condition,
"They were being
held up by faith and a breath of air," she said. Conservation, restoration or repair
were not longer options.
The titleholder, an
educator , and family historian with a law degree, who traced his family back
a dozen or so generations, has had the final say on all decisions regarding the
project. "This is really a success story" McBride said. "We're giving
their dignity back to them and reestablishing the genealogical record."
Only four names were
listed on the above-ground vaults, so finding 18 individuals came as a surprise to the
titleholder and to the researchers.
"It's a fabulous
mystery, but it would have been a horrible tragedy to re-inter these individuals without
putting a name on them. And all too often, that is what happens," she
In two of the
cast-iron coffins were young women, later discovered to be sisters Clemence and Celeste
Leontine. In the third cast-iron coffin was P.W., Clemence's son by her first marriage.
Also listed on the
vault where Leontine was buried were the names of two of her infant sons, Firmin and
Gaston. Inside the vault was a coffin liner, the final resting place for Leontine's
7-year-old daughter, Mary, who died in 1857. McBride said Mary's name was found on a
plaque atop the coffin liner.
remains of several people were found in the second tomb. Beneath it, researchers found a
bricked vault containing the cast-iron coffins of Clemence and P.W. Their identities were
discovered through historical and genealogical research that now is being confirmed
through DNA testing. Excavation also is being done in front of the underground
vault to see if their name plaques are there.
The only name
found on the above-ground second tomb was that of "Francois," the father of
Clemence and Leontine. His plaque showed that he died in 1831. His remains were
expected to be found in the subterranean tomb with Clemence and P.W. McBride said
Francois' name plaque probably was removed from his tomb and placed atop the new above
ground vault when it was built sometime after 1857.
Leontine and her
nephew, P.W., were buried in molded, cast-iron Fisk mummy cases. The patented seal was
intact on Leontine's coffin.
indicates that P.W., his mother and his aunt were anointed with herbal recipes, which,
along with their type of coffin, helped preserve their garments, McBride said.
While the clothing
and cast-iron coffins will be retained for study, the personal effects of the deceased
will be reburied with them next spring, McBride said.
them, documented them, interpreted them and photographed them. We have the historical
records established," she said. "It all comes down to that it's the right thing
coffin is on display now inside a hearse from the same period at Louisiana State
University's Rural Life Museum. P.W. and Clemence's coffins also will be on exhibit there
when the research on them is concluded, McBride said.
The team is
scheduled to present its findings next spring, and McBride is compiling the final report
for the presentation, for which she has accumulated more than 5,000 documents. She
and the titleholder have plans in mind for the completed reconstruction sculptures.
project has now become all-consuming," she said. "It's just really darn
his involvement in the project has been humbling, awe-inspiring experience.
"This has been a
great opportunity for me, and to be a part of a history-making project is an honor,"
he said. "Lucretia has done an unbelievable job in coordinating the project. The
contacts I have made, both professional and personal, are irreplaceable, will follow me
through life and no doubt enhance my career."