DAVIDSON – Caitlin Hickey, a Davidson College junior, wanted to blend her love for art and anthropology.

A Hispanic studies and anthropology double major, she is working with anthropology professor Helen Cho this semester on a forensic facial reconstruction project.

Hickey is reconstructing the face of a human skull, both in 2D and 3D form, with the aid of Davidson police officer David Houk.

Houk is an FBI-trained forensic artist and aids in investigations by creating artistic perpetrator or victim likenesses based on skulls or partially decomposed human faces.

The field lends itself to doing age progression for missing children based on photographs.

 “A forensic artist can recreate a human face from a skull similar to the way a home builder can look at an old foundation and tell you what kind of house stood there,” he said. 

Houk gave Hickey an FBI book of common human physical traits. She’s particularly interested in observing nose shapes.

“That’s all I see now, people’s skulls,” she joked.

Cho provided Hickey with the plastic cast of a real human skull from the anthropology department’s bone lab.

“You’re putting a face to these ancient skulls whether they’re hundreds of years old or millions because obviously we’re talking about skulls that are years before photography or even painting,” Cho said. 

Hickey measured her skull’s features and ran the numbers through a database compiled by the University of Tennessee to determine what she could about its sex and ancestry based on other skull averages. Analyzing small cracks on the skull helps determine age.

The reconstruction process involves placing small rubber markers all over the skull to indicate tissue depth. Hickey said its often hard to tell if a person was obese with extra fatty tissue when dealing in averages.

She’ll create a three-dimensional likeness of the face by molding clay over the tissue markers to simulate facial muscles and skin.

Soon, Hickey will compare her finished product with an actual likeness of the skull’s original owner. From what she knows so far, she believes her skull belongs to a Caucasian male of medium build and thinning hair.

Cho added that facial reconstruction often depends on artistic interpretation for fleshy facial areas like the lips or ears, but there are clues to guide the process. For example, Hickey said the edge of the lips often match up with the edge of the eye’s iris.

Hickey recently accepted an internship with the University of Tennessee this summer where she’ll work with law enforcement personnel and other students who study decomposing cadavers at its body farm.

“There’s an ethical question, should you be reconstructing someone, especially without their permission,” Hickey said. “If the face is the window to the soul, reconstructing someone’s face is sort of like superimposing your ideas of who they are on them.”