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Science on the SPOT: Resurrecting the Dead

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As Director of Human Health at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Dr. Linda Spurlock’s job is to educate the public through exhibits, programming, and health education classes. But, from time to time, she is asked to utilize her unique scientific training as a biological anthropologist and forensic artist to help law enforcement identify the remains of a murder victim.

Hamann-Todd Osteological Collection
Hamann-Todd Osteological Collection, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, Ohio.

We met Linda in the Main Osteology Lab of the Physical Anthropology Department of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. This facility is home to the Hamann-Todd Osteological Collection; the largest well-documented human skeletal collection in the world.

In order to “resurrect the dead” Linda uses the skull of an individual to either sculpt or sketch an image of what the person may have looked like in life.  While she sculpts 3-dimensional models on occasion, this method is not often the best approach in forensic reconstruction cases.  It is more time-consuming and is sometimes impractical, especially if the skull is fragile. Most of the time, she creates a 2-dimensional sketch for the police department.

By looking at certain features of a skull, a biological anthropologist can determine the approximate age, gender, and ethnicity of an individual but it is up to forensic artists like Linda to “narrow down the possibilities” in order to trigger recognition by relatives and loved ones.

The first forensic sketch she did for law enforcement was based on the bones of a girl that were found in Portage County, Ohio in 1994.  The sketch was seen and recognized by a police officer working on a case of a missing girl from Rochester, Pennsylvania. This led to the DNA testing of the missing girl’s family in western Pennsylvania and the bones found in Ohio. It turned out that they were a perfect match.


After obtaining the bones from the police department, Linda prepares the skull by gluing the lower jaw into position.  Next, she takes careful measurements to determine specific characteristics of the skull.  She then cuts and glues on markers fashioned from mechanical erasers. These “tissue depth markers” indicate how far the soft tissue and skin would have extended out in life.  Next, a colleague takes two photographs of the skull:  one from the front and another from the side.  These are then printed at exactly life-size and taped to a board over which tracing vellum is then attached.

Linda Spurlock
Linda Spurlock putting the finishing touches on a forensic sketch.

To start a sketch, Dr. Spurlock draws the outline of the face based on the tissue depth markers.  She then draws in eyeballs, the widest part of the nose, and marks the dimensions of the mouth.  On the profile, she determines the projection of the nose and sketches in the forehead, nose and lips.  Next, she adds ears, hair, some shading, and fills in some of the features based-once again-on the unique qualities of the skull.  She considers herself lucky if there are a few hair samples remaining on the skull from which she can determine length, texture and color. It also helps if there are articles of clothing or a belt found with the remains. These can help determine the size and weight of an individual, and informs her decision about which standard of tissue depth markers to cut (slender, normal or obese).

Dr. Spurlock admits that even her best sketch will not be evidence enough to identify a person in a court of law.  Additional information including DNA samples, dental records, and unique medical hardware (like an artificial hip) may lead to the “positive ID” of an individual.

The older a case, the less likely it is that the individual will be recognized.

Most of the time, she works on cold cases in which the victim has been dead for several years or even several decades. In 2009, Linda was asked to sketch the likeness of a man whose bones were found in Twinsburg, Ohio in 1982. Even though it has been more than 30 years since this man was killed, Dr. Spurlock hopes that someday he will be recognized- the first step in solving the crime and catching the murderer.

Twinsburg Ohio John Doe
Anyone who recognizes the man in this sketch can contact either the Summit County Medical Examiner's Office at 330-643-2101 or Detective Sgt. Greg Feketik from the Twinsburg Police Department at 330-963-6221 or 330-425-1234

Web Extra - Linda Spurlock's First Forensic Reconstructions and Sketches

Linda shares how she first learned to do forensic work, both for anthropology and law enforcement.

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