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Brushes With Death: Examining the Human Condition

August 1st- October 31, 2021- International Museum of Surgical Science

What is a post-mortem facial reconstruction?

A post-mortem facial reconstruction is the artistic approximation of the facial characteristics of an unidentified deceased person based upon the person’s unique skull structure. This visual process can be done digitally, drawn by hand, or sculpted with clay. Reconstructions can be used for museum displays, education, and identification purposes. 

     For this exhibition Gallo created several post-mortem facial reconstructions from the International Museum of Surgical Science’s unique collection of skulls with cranial modifications from ancient Peru. While her previous reconstructions have been mostly sculptural, this exhibition depicts a series of hand-drawn 2-dimensional reconstructions. The challenge that came with this collection was the lack of lower mandibles, also called the jawbone, which is a large portion of a person’s face. Although there is a way to approximate the lower mandible, Gallo decided against this to keep her facial approximations as accurate as possible, to ensure the authenticity of each person’s face. Gallo utilizes her skillset as a draftswoman to bring to life these people forgotten to time and highlight their unique cranial modification.


Reconstruction of Skull #1999.1609. 1.-2. (Profile)

Pastel and charcoal on paper


Intentional head shaping was prominent in South American culture by the 12th century. Cranial modification could serve several distinctions, such as showing elite social status or signifying membership to an ethnic group. Archaeologists infer that a variety of specific cranial elongation techniques characterized each social grouping. To acquire such a narrow head, parents would wrap their infants' heads in cloth for a rounder shape or bind the child's head between two pieces of wood for a flatter shape, hence the term “cradle-boarding.” This process would start around a month after birth and continue for approximately six months.


Reconstruction of Skull #1999.1609. 1.-2.

Pastel and charcoal on paper


Sex: Female

Age: 20-25 

Ancestry: Bolivia

Human skull without lower mandible, missing all teeth except the right second molar. Severe damage to the left zygomatic arch. Large fissure to left occipital suture. Cosmetically elongated through the binding process. The top of the braincase is removable. There is a large trephine hole to the left parietal and a small trephine hole to the occipital bone. 

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Facial Reconstructions of Ancient Peruvian Skulls


     Archeological evidence indicates that trephining is likely the oldest form of surgery, with a strong presence among the prehistoric peoples of what is today the Republic of Peru. These skulls date to c.2000 BCE and were excavated from burial sites on the Paracas Peninsula along the Peruvian coast. While trephination has been used to treat an array of neurological disorders throughout human history, it is not known if the procedure also held ritualistic or therapeutic functions among prehistoric peoples. 

These 4000-year-old skulls show evidence of trephination. Some also show evidence of remodeling (bone regrowth around surgical sites), meaning that these individuals survived for years if not decades after their procedures.

     Gallo’s post-mortem facial reconstructions of these pre-colonized peoples rehumanizes these medical specimens. This task was even more challenging due to the lack of a lower mandible (jaw bone) on all of these skulls. To keep the reconstructions as authentic as possible, Gallo decided not to approximate them, but rather attract the viewer's eyes elsewhere in the drawing such as the center of the face. To bring her drawings even closer to reality, Gallo has taken liberties with hairstyles, after having researched preserved mummies from the same location and time period with well-preserved hairstyles from the day they died. She also studied the fabrics that were included in the styling, which were a cultural norm and marker of societal standing, learning that all genders in their society wore the same styles and braids.

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The Work Behind the Faces


     To be able to create an accurate facial-approximation requires years of studying human anatomy, understanding the art of age-progression, and learning every plane, curve, and indent of the skull being reconstructed. In this exhibit, Gallo shares a portion of her preparatory work for the post-mortem facial reconstructions of ancient Peruvian skulls.


     Gallo first starts this process by photographing the skulls with tissue depth markers attached to key points on the skull. These markers determine how far the skin tissue sits off of the skull and over muscles and cartilage. Gallo then puts the printed image of the skull with the markers under a piece of duralar, a thin sheet of translucent paper, so she can draw on the duralar to see the map of the skull below. She then layers these sheets of duralar as she completes different sections of her drafts, thus saving each step in the process as its own drawing, which can later be compiled to create the final drafts that can be seen in the next room. From these preparatory works where Kathleen Gallo puts the faces back together piece by piece to reveal the final reconstructions, recreating a face that existed about 4,000 years ago.

Works for sale, contact the artist for more information

Previous Post-Mortem Facial Reconstructions

Expedition Magazine 2020

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Neal Andertal

     The Neandertal skull seen here is that of Shanidar 1, a very famous archeological find. He has healed facial trauma that may have rendered him partially blind on one side. He was likely hard of hearing due to extra bone growth in his ear canals, and probably suffered other bodily trauma, some of which required intensive care from others in his hunter-gatherer group. His set of remains is significant because he serves as the earliest evidence we have for medical care among Neandertals.

Plaster, acrylic paint, synthetic hair, 2019.

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Before and After Identification, Forensic Reconstruction of Case
This reconstruction was done for the Pima County Police Department in hopes of identifying the remains. The man who was identified from the reconstruction was found in the desert in Arizona after passing away from exposure. Clay superimposed with a photograph, 2017.
(Image courtesy of the Pima County Police Department)

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Finished Cast of Reconstruction of Morton Skull #1097
Morton Skull #1097 is a part of the Penn Museum's permanent collection. This Liberian male was in his 30s to 40s when he was killed in Africa around the 1850s. The Penn Museum in Philadelphia is in possession of the other cast of this reconstruction. 3D printed plastic, plasticine clay, 2020.
(3D printing and digital aid credit to artist Rob Roesch, image courtesy of the Pima County Police Department)

Samuel Morton is not a household name today, but his views have shaped the very framework of American culture. Morton is one of the most infamous names in the history of scientific racism. His methods included measuring the internal volume of hundreds of human crania (skulls without the jaw bone) from around the world in order to prove that white Europeans had larger brains than any other race. Although some people naturally have smaller skulls than others, we now know that head size does not indicate intelligence. This man’s skull was used without his consent in service of scientific racism, thus stripping him of his personhood. In the process of reconstructing his face, some of his humanity has been restored.

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Mutter Museum Reconstruction of Francesca Seycora

This Reconstruction was done at the New York Academy of Art during a Forensic Reconstruction workshop. This skull belonged to a Viennese sex-worker, Francesca Seycora, who was only 19 when she died of Meningitis during the 19th century. Her skull is on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, PA. Plasticine clay, 2018.

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