Face to Face with History

Facial reconstruction of 17th century sailor on "La Belle"
Facial reconstruction of 17th century sailor on "La Belle"

Saturday, January 28, 1:30 PM:  Putting a Face to the Name

The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum is hosting a program on forensic anthropology and facial reconstruction. The program is free for Bullock Museum members, and only $5 for the general public. Reservations are required; call (512)936-4649.


Forensic artist Amanda Danning’s experience bringing to life the story of a French sailor, drowned off the Texas coast some 300 years ago, is a fascinating look at how the tiny details — the scars, the weathering, the bumps and bruises — construct a life.


On the first floor of the Bullock Museum lies a reproduction of a skeleton, the remains of a sailor found resting on a coil of rope.  He was one of nearly 30 crew and passengers that died on the ill-fated voyage of the 17th century French exploration ship La Belle, the final in an expedition to settle a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River led by Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle.


Reproduction of sailor's skeleton, in the Bullock Museum exhibitsFor 300 years, he lay undiscovered in the bow of the ship buried in the sand off the coast of Matagorda Bay.  The only clue to his identity was a pewter cup found near his body with the inscription, “C. Barange”.  Now thanks to forensic science, we are able to see into history and discover something about this mysterious sailor’s story.


After the discovery of the ship in the early 1990s, a massive restoration project was initiated by the Texas Historical Commission and a small part of that project was to study the sailor’s remains in effort to learn more about him.


Anthropologists analyzed the skeletal remains, looking at gender, age, origin, cranial and dental patterns, the condition and structure of his bones, and other features that provided clues about his life.  From their findings, it is known that he was 5’4″ tall, in his mid-30’s at the time of his death, and of European descent.  From the slightly abnormal shape of his pelvis and the subsequent wear in his hip socket, they could surmise that he would have walked with an uneven gait or limp and probably had an uneven stance.


Additional abnormalities surfaced.  The sailor had suffered a broken nose, most likely from a right-handed opponent in a fight.  Though the cause is speculative, it is probable that the blow caused some soft tissue damage and would have resulted in some scarring.  In addition to some healed and active tooth decay, there was an unusual pattern of wear to his left incisors and canines.  This type of wear and tear was not the result of chewing, but from using his teeth as a tool.  It is possible that he frequently used his teeth to hold rope while tying knots for rigging.


As a  forensic artist, I was excited to put a face to this fascinating sailor.  Once all the physical factors were examined and the effects on his appearance determined, soft tissue depth markers were attached to a model of his skull to create a guide for his facial features and head shape, and to ensure that the artistic rendering did not stray from the science.  Very close attention was paid to his muscles for determining facial characteristics and other more subtle qualities like laugh lines, wrinkles, and scars.


I have always been in awe of the role that art has played in telling and preserving history and the roles it plays in politics and science.  And in this project they have worked together to produce amazing results.  After months of meticulous work and highly scientific attention to detail, the sailor’s face finally took shape.


Throughout the existence of mankind, history has been recorded by the victors.  Modern forensics makes it possible for us to tell the stories of those unfortunate enough to have not been a general, a king, or one of the wealthy elite — the commoners the lives of which biographies were not written, portraits not chiseled.  What could be more important than bringing our generation face to face with those individuals that lived and died sans fanfare?


An artist since the age of three, forensic sculptor Amanda Danning has worked on facial reconstructions for the Smithsonian, Sam Houston Memorial Museum, U.S. Bureau of Reclamations, and The Buffalo Soldier National Museum, in addition to the La Belle sailor project. Amanda also sits on the International Association for Craniofacial Identification, an international committee to establish standards and best practices for the forensic facial reconstruction industry.


Putting a Face to the Name: Imagining C. Barange of the French Shipwreck La Belle

Saturday, January 28, 1:30 p.m.

Want to know more about La Belle‘s sailor? This full day of programming will explore the fascinating world of forensic anthropology and facial reconstruction.  Visitors will learn more about why skull shapes vary across the world and what they reveal about a culture’s history.  James Bruseth, guest curator of the upcoming special exhibition on La Belle and forensic artist Amanda Danning will present the history of La Belle, its mysterious sailor, and the process of bringing him to life.  Danning will also demonstrate a few of the steps involved in facial reconstruction.

Call (512) 936-4649 for reservations. FREE for Bullock Members, $5 for non-members.


Following its extensive restoration, La Belle’s hull will be on exhibit at the Museum beginning in 2013.  In the meantime, learn more about the doomed voyage and view artifacts from the ship on the Museum’s first floor.


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