Jan 18, 2018 | By Benedict

Students at the New York Academy of Art have attempted to reconstruct the faces of eight unidentified men found dead on the US-Mexico border. The artists hope their reconstructions, made with clay using 3D printed replicas of the victims’ skulls, will help identify the victims.

Many of those who attempt to cross the desert border between Mexico and the United States never make it to the other side—not because they get caught, but because they die of dehydration, heat stroke, or hypothermia. Since the year 2000, 1,004 people have been found dead in Pima County, Arizona, almost 200 of whom have never been identified.

Eight of those unidentified bodies could soon have a better chance of being named and returned to their families, because students at the New York Academy of Art have used 3D printing and clay sculpting to put human faces on the unrecognizable skulls. It marks the first time that an art school has done this kind of forensic work on people presumed to be migrants, and could be a watershed moment in its field.

With the help of 3D scanning company Faro and a 3D printer belonging to the New York City medical examiner, the New York Academy of Art students were able to receive 3D printed replica skulls identical to the real ones of the victims. The real skulls were 3D scanned by Faro, before being converted into a 3D printable format using modeling and slicing software.

With 3D printed replicas of the eight skulls as their base, the expert students (only those at an advanced level can take the course) worked through all information available to them, including the height, gender, nationality, and age range of the victims, using that information to decide what kind of faces belonged to those unidentified skulls.

The artists used clay and other materials to manually sculpt the presumed faces, occasionally receiving advice from teacher Joe Mullins, a forensic artist who has worked for 18 years at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Once all models were complete, authorities photographed the models and uploaded them to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).

Of course, making a facial reconstruction based only on a skull and basic information is incredibly difficult, though the students could obey some basic rules to give them the best chancing of recreating the unknown victims: a bony projection behind the ear can indicate whether a person has detached or attached earlobes, a deviated septum or injury can be shown by small marks in the nose, while the length of the face of one’s nose always matches the distance between the top and bottom of the ears.

Mullins also offered the group technical sculpting advice, such as smoothing skin with the palm instead of the fingers for a more natural-looking texture.

Although it’s a milestone for migrant identification, this isn’t the first time students have attempted facial reconstruction for forensic purposes. Since 2015, students from the Academy have attempted to reconstruct faces using unidentified remains from the New York medical examiner’s office.

But those involved know that this particular project could be more difficult. There is no central agency concerned with missing persons crossing the US-Mexico border, and—perhaps more importantly—families of the missing are often hesitant to contact authorities, thinking their loved ones may get in more trouble as a consequence.

It is for these reasons that simply attempting to rebuild a face can be the most effective option. “We provide answers to families,” Pima County medical examiner Bruce Anderson told The Guardian. “They are very painful answers, but they are answers owed to families. In our office here, we make no distinction between American citizens and foreign nationals in doing everything we can to identify a person and determine a cause of death.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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