Where science meets art

Moira Baird
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Corner Brook artist’s facial reconstruction helps identify First World War soldier

Sculptor Christian Cardell Corbet is shown with his facial reconstruction of missing First World War soldier Pte. Thomas Lawless. — Photo courtesy of the Canadian Portrait Academy

A Corner Brook artist’s forensic facial reconstruction of a missing First World War soldier will find a permanent home in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

It’s the only sculpture of its kind in the museum’s collection.

The facial reconstruction was one of several efforts to identify Pte. Thomas Lawless, a 28-year-old member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) from Calgary who went missing during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

His remains were discovered in Avion, France, in 2003 and it took  eight years to formally identify him using a battery of tests and a team that grew to more than 30 people.

Painter and sculptor Christian Cardell Corbet got involved in 2008.

He was contacted by Dr. Andrew Nelson of the University of Western Ontario to do a forensic facial reconstruction based on a resin cast of the skull.

The idea was to help narrow down the list of potential candidates in identifying the soldier, who was then known simply as Avion 1.

“As soon as he said it was a World War I soldier, I was completely on board,” said Corbet.

“My great-grandfather fought at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and Pte. Lawless was part of the battle at Vimy Ridge, as well. It sort of struck a chord with me.”

The work was a blend of science and art.

Corbet used tissue markers and charts to determine skin thickness and muscular depth to build the basic outline of the face.

“Then you can have a little bit more artistic leeway.

“You still have to have an anatomical background — you still have to know where the cerebrum is, how the mandible falls and how flesh falls and eyes fold.”

He had technical assistance from student Benjamin Trickett Mercer, who heated the plastilina modelling clay used for the sculpture and created the badges for the military hat and collar.

Corbet figures he’ll deliver the fragile original sculpture in person to the Ottawa museum to ensure it arrives in one piece.

“It’s a fine honour to be a part of the Canadian War Museum.”

A native of Ontario, Corbet moved to Newfoundland more than four years ago.

His first visit to the province was in 1972 as a child during a family vacation.

“I always felt a natural affinity with Newfoundland. Life is a little bit slower-paced and it’s just more peaceful,” he said.

Andrew Nelson, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Western Ontario, got involved in the Avion identification project a year before Corbet.

His first task was taking X-rays and CT scans of the skull in France.

Since the skull was in pieces, each one was scanned individually and Nelson used those scans to reproduce a digital model of the skull.

“We produced what’s called a 3-D print,” he said. “It ends up creating the physical model of what was the computer model.”

That model was used by Corbet in his facial reconstruction.

Nelson and Corbet had previously worked together on facial reconstructions of Egyptian mummies using CT scans of the skulls without unwrapping the remains.

“It’s an amazing technology,” said Nelson. “Then, Christian reconstructs the face.”

Averages of skin tissue thickness are used to determine where to place pegs on specific facial landmarks. Those pegs guide the sculpting of the face.

“He works muscle by muscle to build the face out toward the thickness of those pegs,” said Nelson. “What you’re doing is coming up with the best approximation that you can.

“A normal face has proportions. … An artist explicitly studies this and they know how to use that in the reconstruction of the face.

“The eye of the artist makes a huge difference.”

While the facial reconstruction did not specifically identify Lawless, Nelson said it helped narrow down the possibilities from the original 16.

“We eliminated a whole bunch on the basis of their stature and age. That left the group of five.

“Then, we eliminated three of them on the basis of both the facial reconstruction and DNA. That left us two.”

DNA wasn’t much help in identifying those final two.

“Mitochondrial DNA is DNA that is easiest to extract from bone, so it’s commonly used in forensic cases and in archeological studies.

“But the trick is it’s only passed from mother to offspring.”

When working their way back through generations of the soldiers’ relatives, only this maternal DNA will do.

“If it happens to be a paternal relatives that you have modern DNA samples from, you can’t make the link.”

The next step was stable isotope analysis.

“We made the decision finally between those two on the basis of the oxygen isotope signature of the bones,” said Nelson.

“The isotopic signature — the combination of the different isotopes  in the water that you drink — varies depending on the temperature, humidity, altitude and a couple of other environmental variables.”

It geographically pinpoints where someone grew up.

From this, it was discovered one man of the final two had grown up in Cape Breton, the other in Dublin, Ireland.

Lawless was the Irish immigrant who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Calgary.

He was buried with full military honours on March 15, 2011, at La Chaudiere Military Cemetery in Vimy, France.

Laurel Clegg, casualty identification co-ordinator with the Department of National Defence, said Lawless went missing during a night raid June 9, 1917.

He was identified as a member of the 49th Infantry Battalion, CEF, from the metal buttons and badges on his uniform.

A search of personnel records revealed the unknown soldier was one of 16 who went missing in the Avion area during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Since it was a small number, Clegg said the decision was made to try to identify Lawless.

Over eight years, the identification team included genealogists, historical researchers, anthropologists and genetic researchers.

The case charted a new course in the identification of soldiers’ remains.

“It was really a benchmark case,” said Clegg. “It almost created the program that we have now.

“We learned so much from it — how we approach our genetic testing, the samples we choose, and do we take it from bones, do we take it from teeth?

“We learned a lot through the identification process of Pte. Lawless because he was particularly difficult.”


Organizations: University of Western Ontario, Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.It, Battle of Vimy Ridge.His Department of National Defence

Geographic location: Corner Brook, Avion, Vimy Ridge Calgary France Newfoundland Ottawa Ontario Cape Breton Dublin

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