Daily Archives: October 28, 2009

Hey, speaking of the History Channel

…did anybody watch that documentary on facial castings of historical figures that aired a couple of nights ago?  If you didn’t, it’s running again in early November.

If you didn’t catch it, they took life masks and death masks of notable individuals, scanned them into a computer, and added color and other enhancements to create three-dimensional representations of what these guys actually looked like.  The idea is that what you end up with is as accurate as a facial cast, but you can move it around and  manipulate it.  You can make Lincoln smile and blink, you can take out Washington’s dentures to see the natural shape of his jaw, and so on. 

George Washington, from the Laurence Hutton Collection, Princeton University, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Manuscripts Division

It was morbidly fascinating, and parts of it were instructive.  (Who knew Washington’s mouth was so flabby without his false teeth in there?)  It’s hard to deny the captivating power of facial casts, and the insight they give us into a person’s appearance that transcends anything you can get from a painting or sculpture.

I got a little irritated, though, at all the overselling of results.  Now, for the first time, we can see Washington as Martha saw him!  Here, for the first time ever, is the real face of Lincoln! 

Scientists, doctors, and technicians who dabble in history have this tendency to overstate the implications of their work.  I don’t deny that the hard sciences sometimes offer historians a certainty that’s very appealing.  The only catch is that what they can tell us is often so very limited.  They can reconstruct Washington’s appearance, but not his world.  They can show us Lincoln’s face, but not what was going on behind it.  No high-end scanner or empirical test is going to answer these types of questions, the questions that demand the kind of research and analysis that historians have been doing for a long, long time.

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