Putting Flesh on Bones

When the county coroner calls, Linda Spurlock sharpens her drawing pencils. Spurlock, Ph.D., is a scientist and a forensic artist, at home in the world of reconstructing a 4.4 million-year-old pelvis from an early human ancestor and in illustrating what a modern-day crime victim’s face would have looked like, based on the evidence revealed in a decomposed skull.

As a biological anthropologist and a professional archaeologist, her work has in scientific journals such as Science. It might also appear on the website of the International Center for Unidentified and Missing Persons (The DOE Network) or on a police flier.

“I love doing this. It takes your scientific training as well as artistic training,” said Spurlock, who joined Kent State in 2012 as an assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Where science and art overlap, there’s a moment when you can educate people.”


Facial reconstruction, her specialty, can narrow the search for a missing person or unidentified victim, since people are most likely to recognize a face. From skeletal remains, she can discern the sex, age and height of a person and hazard a guess at ethnicity. But the face yields identifying clues. The skull shows if the eyes were wide-set or narrow, the shape of the chin and the breadth of the mouth. The nasal spine – the bone under the nose – determines how much the nose projected, its slant and length. She keeps her sketches deliberately ambiguous, maybe offering two versions of hairstyles, which she could not know. The proportions are what make a face recognizable, she said.

“I’m hoping the proportions are good enough to jog someone’s memory.” 

Clues to Homicides 

Her sketches can remain on a website or in police files for years before a memory is jogged. In one case, her facial sketch of a teenage girl whose decomposed skeletal remains were found by a hunter in Portage County in November 1994 appeared in local newspapers. But it took seven years for a Pennsylvania detective to run across the sketch on a missing persons website. The sketch led a Pennsylvania district attorney’s office to conduct DNA tests on the remains, positively identifying a 14-year-old who was reported missing in July 1994. The identification started a homicide investigation.

Still unsolved is a cold case from Twinsburg of a body found in 1982. She illustrated the face in 2009, after doing a three-dimensional head reconstruction, but the person still has not been identified. Rarely does she learn the outcome of the cases she is involved in, Spurlock said.

Her three-dimensional reconstructions are done in clay. The nose is the easiest part to reconstruct, she said, even though it is missing from the skull. For other facial details, she cuts erasers and adds them to a prototype skull, filling out the form before adding clay.

She became interested in facial reconstruction in the 1980s during an archaeological field trip to Puerto Rico, where she drew the Lucayan Indians, possibly encountered by Columbus in 1492. In the 1990s, she attended workshops with two pioneers of craniofacial reconstruction, Betty Pat Gatliff and Kathy T. Taylor, who wrote the book, “Forensic Art and Illustration.” Spurlock began working on forensic facial reconstruction cases, and in 2000 she modeled the head of Marilyn Sheppard, which was used in trial when the estate of Dr. Sam Sheppard sued the state of Ohio for the time he spent in prison for the murder of his wife.

Reconstructing Ardi’s Pelvis 

Her reconstruction of a pelvis of the 4.4 million-year-old “Ardi” skeleton, or Ardipithecus ramidus, earned her co-authorship of a paper written by Kent State Distinguished Prof. C. Owen Lovejoy for a special edition of Science magazine on Oct. 2, 2009, describing the Ardi find and its significance. In 11 papers in that issue, Lovejoy and other scientists described the hominid remains, the earliest found to date, as the first human ancestor yet discovered who was capable of walking upright. The pelvis construction was one of the keys to showing that. 

Spurlock, who was trained in osteology by Lovejoy, then was director of human health at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where she worked with the thousands of bones in the Hamann-Todd Osteological Collection. Observing and measuring the original Ardi fossil of one side of the pelvis and following its dimensions and contours and using CT scans, she was able to complete the reconstruction by mirroring a second side in her sculptural model. She recreated a missing sacrum. 

Her illustrations of the human, chimpanzee and early hominid pelvises during the birth process were used in Scientific American

Spurlock has taught anatomy at Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED) and other colleges. Her interest in drawing dates back to her high school days, when she first took art classes. It has thrived alongside her interest in science. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in anthropology from Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York, and a Ph.D. in biological anthropology from Kent State in 2001. 

She sees scientific and forensic illustration and fossil reconstruction as “my way of keeping in the art world.”

“You learn so much about what you’re asked to depict,” she said.

See more in the video below