22 December 2022

We are probably wouldn't recognize ancestors from prehistoric times on the street, says sculptor Ondřej Bílek

Ondřej Bílek as a sculptor reconstructs the faces of our ancestors | Autor: Jan Prokopius

Thanks to the work of sculptor Ondřej Bílek, we can meet our ancestors face to face in museums. Together with anthropologist Eva Vaníčková, they reconstruct the faces of people who lived in our territory tens of thousands of years ago on the basis of skeletal findings. They founded the Laboratory of Anthropological Reconstruction at the Moravian Museum and create models mainly for museum exhibitions. According to Ondřej Bílek, we would probably not recognize our ancient ancestors of Homo Sapiens on the street among our contemporaries.

It all started with a copy of a Neanderthal skull from La Chapelle, in the studio at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the BUT. “I was talking with my colleagues about the fact that there are methods to estimate the appearance of a person just from skeletal remains. I was wondering how accurate that might be. So I took the skull and, without professional anthropological knowledge, I modelled the muscles and tried to create a likeness,” he describes. As he wanted to know how much he hit, he contacted Anthropos in Brno and sent them samples of his work. “I asked them if they could tell me anything about it. Or possibly if they could recommend me some literature that deals with the topic and from which I could draw,” adds sculptor Ondřej Bílek.

The Anthropos team not only contacted him, but they also connected Bílek directly with anthropologist Eva Vaníčková, who specializes in anatomy. “She had a diploma thesis on this subject and also completed an internship in Russia, where one of the methods of anthropological facial reconstruction originated,” says Ondřej Bílek. The word was given and Bílek and Vaníčková decided to try the collaboration between the anthropologist and the artist. “The first reconstruction was the Princess of Bull Rock. Eva explained to me the principles according to which each method works. Eva uses a combined one, which involves measuring the thickness of the soft tissues at specific points on the skull. The tissues are then applied to the skull at a given thickness using modelling compound,” the sculptor explains. In addition, Eva Vaníčková also calculates the basic shape of the nose and the size of the ears.


Ondřej Bílek also knows the colour of eyes, hair or skin. “If any genetic material is found, it is usually analysed. Besides the colour of hair, eyes and skin, experts are now able to partially determine the origin. When we reconstructed the Roman from Pasohlávky, we not only knew what colour his eyes and hair were and how his skin was coloured, but also where he probably came from. It turned out that he was from somewhere in the area of present-day Macedonia,” explains Bílek.

There are percentage estimates that reflect the accuracy of a given method, but their reliability is questionable. “We can capture the basic shape of the head quite accurately. But the fact is that even a deep wrinkle can make us a different person. There's a lot of things that can't be traced. For example, we don't know if the person was fat. It doesn't show on the skull,” he notes.


He admits, however, that he would be very interested to see how accurate he really was with the likeness of our ancestors. “My friend and I have even agreed that he will give me a CT scan of his friend's skull, but he won't tell me who it is. I'm gonna try to model it and see how close I am. This is a procedure that is done from time to time to verify the method,” Bílek points out. The context of the findings is also important. “In what place was the person buried, what did the grave contain, how was he buried. This tells us a lot about an individual's social status, which can be reflected, for example, in clothing,” he adds, noting that with each new project he tries to study as much as possible about the period and customs.

Nowadays, experts can also determine eye and hair colour from archaeological findings | Autor: Jan Prokopius

If we had met our ancestors from Dolní Věstonice or the Shaman from Francouzská Street, for example, we would probably not have recognized them from our contemporaries. “As far as anatomy is concerned, there are no major differences. They would probably be indistinguishable on the street. At least homo sapiens. The only difference between the first people to inhabit our territory was the colour of their skin. It is likely that they had it much darker than we did,” Bílek points out.

The sculptor admits that there is not much space left for his own work on anthropological reconstructions. But he adds in the same breath that he doesn't mind. “I find the reconstructions fulfilling and they are time-consuming. It takes about half a year to create a head, it takes a year to reconstruct the whole figure. That's why it's good to have several projects going on at once.

The author can then take a break from something and get the necessary distance,” he says. I am currently working on the reconstructions that will be part of the exhibition of Zdeněk Burian's paintings. “Next year, he will have an exhibition at Anthropos to show how much the view of our ancestors has changed since the time of his work. Among the many interesting exhibits complementing Zdeněk Burian's paintings, the exhibition will also include a reconstruction of a figure of Homo floresiensis, a close relative of contemporary man, or a reconstruction of a cave bear from the Moravian Karst,” said sculptor Ondřej Bílek at the end of the exhibition.


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