The face finder

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If archaeologist Nguyen Viet has his way, Vietnam might soon have a wax museum of its own. But instead of figures of popular artists and leaders of our era, this museum will showcase reconstructed faces of 2,000-year-old skulls found in the country.

Nguyen Viet, director of Center for Southeast Asian Prehistory (CESEAP) in Hanoi, has been giving a face to ancient skulls for more than three decades. At present, he is working on a project with American experts to reconstruct a 3-D figure of skeletons dating back to the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400) and Ly Dynasty (1009-1225).

Viet, the country's leading expert and pioneer in the field of archeology, paleontology and anthropology, had a major breakthrough in his research when 60 skeletons of Dong Son people were found in a mass grave at Dong Xa in Hung Yen Province, in 2003.

The excavated bones are now housed in CESEAP's museum, which was also commissioned to study and preserve the ancient remains.

The first skull Viet restored was that of an 18-year-old woman, believed to have died more than 2,000 years ago. It took him two years to reconstruct her facial features in all its detail.

"I can't forget the moment when the woman's face came to life after two years of laborious work," said the scientist. "A plastic skull was cast first, then soft tissue and skin was applied layer by layer to reveal a face."


The portrait of a 35-year-old Dong Son woman

Viet presented his findings to the scientific council of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Goethe Institute in Hanoi in 2005.

In his report, he also published studies on animal and vegetable remains, fibers, dyes and weaving techniques, and the average heights of skeletons discovered from the Dong Son Culture. In an important finding, Viet and his team came to the conclusion that females in the Dong Son period were 140-150 cm tall while males averaged a height of 145-165 cm.

"The Dong Son people wore clothes woven from flax, hemp and silk using single as well as double-strand weaving techniques. They ate a lot of vegetables, water-caltrops, watermelons, dracontomelums, eggs, and seafood," said Viet.

"They used a variety of diverse cooking tools and containers to process, cook and store foods. For example, they used bronze duck-shaped pots to steam ducks, and toothed pincers to extract garlic juice. These were found in caves near the archaeological site."

The 61-year-old scientist, together with other Vietnamese researchers and archaeologists, founded the non-governmental research organization CESEAP in 1999.


A 2,000-year-old bronze duck-shaped pot, preserved in the museum at the Center for Southeast Asian Prehistory

Viet said that when he was still a student at the Faculty of Archaeology in the 1970s, there was little awareness of forensic sculpture techniques in Vietnam. As a 21-year-old graduate student, he used to practice drawing portraits of the skulls of his classmates.

"A lot of my friends received skull-portraits of themselves at the time," he chuckled.

In 1971, the former director of Vietnam Institute of Archaeology, Ha Van Tan, recognized the innate talent in Viet and sent him to Russia to study facial reconstruction under renowned Soviet archaeologist and anthropologist Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov.

Gerasimov had spent decades at charnel houses doing autopsies and measuring skulls of dead bodies using needles dipped in linseed oil.

Unfortunately, Gerasimov had passed away before Viet arrived in Russia. The student then made his way to Denmark to learn skull-casting techniques. "There were no real skulls to practice on in Vietnam at the time," he said.

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