Logically, I should blame the inspired transference of facial reconstruction from criminal investigations to archaeology, perhaps best known through the book by John Prag and Richard Neave – Making Faces. However, personally I blame the great Julian Richards (the prehistoric one, not the equally great Julian D. Richards of Anglo-Saxon, Viking and archaeological computing/ADS fame) who always mused about their character and personality when he encountered facial reconstructions of excavated skeletons in the TV series Meet the Ancestors as a regular feature. It’s all his fault, whether it was his idea or not!

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The Neolithic Archaeohead from the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre – Reproduced with permission from EH

Because of Julian and his sensitive caring engagement with ancient faces, they are now everywhere, populating museums across the UK. From visits to museums in Scandinavia in recent years, I know they are there too. In fact, I suspect they are everywhere in the Western world and beyond. I see dead people … everywhere.  Well, over the last couple of decades every museum with skulls has felt the need to incorporate a facial reconstruction of at least one. From the skulls of Neanderthals to those dating to the post-medieval period, a good facial reconstruction makes a fabulous focal point in any museum exhibition. I am happy to be corrected, but my understanding is that they have very little utility in terms of pure archaeological research, although the 2012 discovery of remains attributed to England’s King Richard III is an example where the possible appearance of the monarch has more than a passing relevance. If they are of limited benefit for archaeological research, what do we get from facial reconstruction? Well, the public get a sense of how an ancient person may have once looked, whether it is Lindow Man, the Ice Man, Brymbo Man or those that perished on board the seventeenth-century Swedish flagship the Vasa. Less frequently, women and children’s remains receive the same honour but it is usually men – men with beards. I see dead people… with beards… Of course, skin-colour and facial hair are purely imaginary, but otherwise, they give a powerful and unrivalled sense of the individual from the past, providing the public with the potential of imaginative and ‘face-to-face’ engagements with the long-dead. You get to stare into the face of someone who lived hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.Facial reconstructions are usually ‘busts’, heads on their own. However, sometimes they are part of mannequins dressed and posed as living people. In further instances, they form elements of reconstructed grave contexts – a snapshot of someone at the final stage of their funeral before earth is solemnly lain over their mortal remains and all the mourners headed for the nearest pub.What is universal about them in my experience is that they are never happy. They are dead, so they have to be ‘dignified’. They don’t smile. In fact, usually they look bored. Or just… dead.

Winterbourne Stoke man – aka Dennis Quaid

So it is not surprising that the new Stonehenge visitor centre, discussed in a another recent blog, has an ‘Archaeohead’ on display. In fact, I cannot imagine there was ever a moment in the design of the new visitor centre when they felt they could do get away without one. Some skeleton had to be found to be reconstructed as an ‘ancestor’ for the Stonehenge landscape. And it was a nineteenth-century skeleton from Winterbourne Stoke long barrow who was the chosen victim.

What is original about the Neolithic man’s Archaeohead? I think there are three things that stand out for me. I am not an expert, so I don’t know if these are unique, but they are certainly striking:
  1. he is handsome … apparently. News reports on the opening of the EH visitor centre focused on the fact that he is ‘very popular’ with the female EH employees, and in interview one EH employee seems to be imagining a fantasy scenario of meeting this handsome man whilst commuting. Too much information thanks! For what it’s worth, to my mind he bears a striking resemblence to a bearded Dennis Quaid.
  2. the Neolithic man has a gaze (or a squint). He is looking out at something, into the light of the landscape. Inside info from my EH ‘informant’ tells me he is positioned to gaze out at the very long barrow at Winterbourne Stoke from whence his bones were excavated by John Thurnam in the nineteenth century. Nice touch EH, I like that very much!
  3. it is not a passive gaze, he looks interested, emotional. My informant describes it as annoyed/perplexed. It makes me wonder what he is thinking. So below, I have thought up some possible ‘Have I Got News For You’ caption competition possibilities for what the Winterbourne Stoke Archaeohead is thinking. Perhaps post some of your own!
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The Neolithic Archaeohead – courtesy of EH
  1. “Pendragon who?”
  2. “How much is the entry charge?”
  3. “Land-train? What do normal trains do then, float in the sky?”
  4. “You know I spent three years at University to get a degree in archaeology and this is the only job I could get”
  5. “Modern architecture! It’ll never last”
  6. “King of the who?”
  7. “They wanted to get Brad Pitt to do this but he is just too ‘Chalcolithic’ with his Otzi tattoo and sandals.”

Please add your own Archaeohead captions!