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Museum scans centuries-old bones to reveal unfamiliar faces

By Elena Watts
April 16, 2014 at 10:01 p.m.
Updated April 16, 2014 at 11:17 p.m.

From left: Drs. Stephen Cooper and Bruce Tharp examine fragments of human remains found at Fort St. Louis as Eric Ray, Museum of the Coastal Bend curator, looks on.

Dr. Bruce Tharp, radiologist with Victoria Radiology Associates, read scans of 325-year-old bones belonging to two early French colonists at Citizens Medical Center on Tuesday.

"One of the biggest challenges was identifying the bone fragments encased in the clay matrix," Tharp said. "We were able to determine 95 percent of them."

The 3-D high-resolution images were created to help Amanda Danning, a forensic sculptor, reconstruct the colonists' faces for the Museum of the Coastal Bend.

"We make plastic copies of the bones to minimize contact with the real bones," said Eric Ray, curator of exhibits and collections for the Museum of the Coastal Bend. "She takes all the signs provided by the bones - where the muscle was attached, the traumas of life that left marks - and builds up the soft tissue."

The five-day facial reconstruction project begins May 6 at the museum, and community members are invited to witness the process.

Danning will help visitors understand how she reaches the reconstructions. She will also explain her levels of confidence about the various parts of the face, Ray said.

The bones were unearthed during the Fort St. Louis excavation in Victoria County in the early 2000s, Ray said.

The earliest European settlement on the Texas Gulf Coast met its unfortunate end in the late 1600s, about the time the two early colonists, a woman and a man, were killed by Karankawa Indians, Ray said.

The Karankawa took the children in the colony to live with them. The children later described the colony's demise to Spanish colonists, who recorded their accounts.

Textual records of the colony and forensic science helped researchers link the identities of the woman and the man to the bones found, Ray said.

According to the children's accounts, Isabelle Talon was killed by a blow to the head. The bones belonging to the woman reflect the injury, Ray said.

Written accounts describe the Marquis de la Sablonniere's inability to walk, Ray said. Researchers are fairly confident from indications of syphilis on the man's leg bones that they belong to the Marquis.

"It's easy to boil history down to a series of dates and events, so this helps restore humanity to the stories," Ray said. "And it's an opportunity to show the science behind the bones, which is interesting."

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