September 1, 2005 Using 3D laser scans of sculptures and processing images with math-based computer software, forensic anthropologists are making life-size models of George Washington at ages 19, 45, and 57. An exhibit featuring the reconstructed images and models will open at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in October 2006.
MOUNT VERNON, Va.--If a picture tells a thousand words then the portrait of America's first president, George Washington, may be telling a lie. Scientists are giving our founding father a virtual face-lift and revealing some surprising new looks.
There's no mistaking the face on the dollar bill. Even 10-year-old Ella Nejadi knows what George Washington looks like. "I know that he had a wig of white curly hair," she says. Not flattering, but it's what history teaches. Now scientists say it may not be what he really looked like. To prove it, they're re-creating our founding father.
Jeffrey H. Schwartz, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, says, "I have to do as much reconstruction of what I think he was like, physically, at the older age so I could then apply general rules of aging, but reverse to make him younger."
Forensic anthropologists use lasers to scan sculptures, busts and dentures. Then, computer scientists feed the scans into a computer that breaks down the image into tiny points. Using mathematics, the points are connected to form an image.
The new images are helping change the perception of Washington as a stiff, stern president. Schwartz says, "He would have been tough because he was tromping through the woods, but he would not have been as bulked up as he would have been later in life." The final images of Washington will help re-construct life-size models. But the young, good-looking Washington is sure to make the biggest impact.
James C. Rees, executive director of the Historic Mount Vernon in Mount Vernon, Va., says, "If we can show him as the athletic, as the adventurous guy that he really was, I think he'll be very appealing to kids." The completed life-size models will show Washington at ages 19, 45 and 57. The full exhibit featuring reconstructed images and models is scheduled to open at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens in October 2006. An on-line version of the exhibit will also be available.
BACKGROUND: Forensic anthropologists are putting together the pieces to determine what George Washington looked like as a young man, at age 45, and as president.
ABOUT FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGY: Fans of C.S.I. are familiar with the practice of forensic anthropology: it is often used to identify human remains. A good forensic anthropologist can tell a lot about a body from the bones: gender, age, height, weight, even racial group. Ridges where muscle was attached to the bone can help determine a body's physique in life, or whether that person was right or left handed (there would be more muscle attachment on the bones on the dominant side.) But only part of the facial shape can be determined from the underlying bone structure; the shape of the eyes, tip of the nose and the lips are largely guesswork. So facial reconstruction usually generates a resemblance to an individual, but not an exact likeness.
RE-CREATING GEORGE: A bust of Washington, believed to be the best existing likeness, was scanned into a computer. The anthropologists them created computer models, gradually adding the aspects that would change Washington's appearance as he aged. The computer then modeled the images at ages 19, 45, and 57.
WHAT'S THE POINT: Based on the computer models, along with dozens of other artifacts -- including analysis of snippets of hair and clothing, and his dentures -- specialists at Washington's home in Mount Vernon will build life-sized models of our first president at those different points in his life. The models should go on display in 2006 as part of a new $85 million education center and museum at the site.
SAVING FACE: Washington began losing his teeth in his 20s, and went through several pairs of dentures. Historians believe he was portrayed with a closed mouth and tight lips because he was embarrassed by the state of his teeth. Because of the accompanying bone loss, the shape of Washington's face probably changed dramatically as he aged. By the time he reached his 50s, his face was crooked: his chin receded on the left and protruded on the right because of the tooth loss.