Archeologists Reconstruct the Faces of 10-Century Medieval Dukes, Using DNA Analysis & 3‑D Models of Skulls

Maybe you’ve sung the Christ­mas car­ol “Good King Wences­las” and won­dered who this good king was. The car­ol wasn’t writ­ten until the 19th cen­tu­ry, but “Wences­las was a real per­son,” writes NPR’s Tom Manoff, the patron saint of the Czechs and “the Duke of Bohemia, a 10th-cen­tu­ry Chris­t­ian prince in a land where many prac­ticed a more ancient reli­gion. In one ver­sion of his leg­end, Wences­las was mur­dered in a plot by his broth­er,” Boleslav, “under the sway of their so-called pagan moth­er,” Dra­homíra.

Wences­las’ grand­moth­er Lud­mil­la died a Chris­t­ian mar­tyr in 921 A.D. Her hus­band, Bořivoj, ruled as the first doc­u­ment­ed mem­ber of the Pře­mys­lid Dynasty (late 800s-1306), and her two sons Spyti­h­nĕv I (cir­ca 875–915) and Vratislav I (cir­ca 888–921), Wences­las’ father, ruled after their father’s death. The skele­tal remains of these roy­al Bohemi­an broth­ers were iden­ti­fied at Prague Cas­tle in the 1980s by anthro­pol­o­gist Emanuel Vlček. Due to advances in DNA analy­sis and imag­ing, we can now see an approx­i­ma­tion of what they looked like. (See Spyti­h­nĕv at the top and Vratislav at the bot­tom in the image below.)

A Czech-Brazil­lian research team cre­at­ed the recon­struc­tions, mak­ing “edu­cat­ed guess­es” about the broth­ers’ hair­styles, beards, and cloth­ing. “The team, which includ­ed archae­ol­o­gists Jiří Šin­delář and Jan Frol­ík, pho­tog­ra­ph­er Mar­tin Frouz, and 3‑D tech­ni­cian Cicero André da Cos­ta Moraes,” Isis Davis-Marks writes at Smith­son­ian, “has pre­vi­ous­ly recon­struct­ed the faces of Zdisla­va of Lem­berk (cir­ca 1220–1252), patron saint of fam­i­lies, and Czech monarch Judi­ta of Thuringia (cir­ca 1135–1174), among oth­ers.”

The project pro­ceed­ed in sev­er­al stages, with dif­fer­ent experts involved along the way. “First,” notes Archae­ol­o­gy, “detailed images of the bones were assem­bled using pho­togram­me­try to form vir­tu­al 3‑D mod­els” of the skulls. Then, facial recon­struc­tion expert Moraes added mus­cle, tis­sue, skin, etc., rely­ing on “mul­ti­ple three-dimen­sion­al recon­struc­tion tech­niques,” Davis-Marks writes, “includ­ing anatom­i­cal and soft tis­sue depth meth­ods, to ensure the high­est pos­si­ble lev­el of accu­ra­cy.” DNA analy­sis showed that the broth­ers like­ly had blue eyes and red­dish-brown hair.

Spyti­h­nĕv and Vratislav’s oth­er fea­tures come from the best guess of the researchers based on “minia­tures or man­u­scripts,” says Frol­ík, “but we don’t real­ly know.” Do they look a bit like video game char­ac­ters? They look very much, in their dig­i­tal sheen, like char­ac­ters in a medieval video game. But per­haps we can antic­i­pate a day when real peo­ple from the dis­tant past return as ful­ly ani­mat­ed 3D recon­struc­tions to replay, for our edu­ca­tion and amuse­ment, the bat­tles, court intrigues, and frat­ri­cides of his­to­ry as we know it.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

20,000 Endan­gered Archae­o­log­i­cal Sites Now Cat­a­logued in a New Online Data­base

Beer Archae­ol­o­gy: Yes, It’s a Thing

The His­to­ry of Europe from 400 BC to the Present, Ani­mat­ed in 12 Min­utes

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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