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Oct 04 2012

Hasn’t changed a bit in half a millennium

Archaeologists are digging up a Tuscan convent and have found some skeletons that might include the remains of Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, also known as Mona Lisa. She’s still lovely after all this time.

One investigator has been going through the bones, trying to identify the dead woman, so they can apply forensic reconstruction to her skull.

Wait…why?

I mean, we already know what she looked like. I can understand general historical research on Renaissance remains, but pawing through the graveyard to find one famous person simply to reconstruct a face we’re already familiar with seems peculiarly ghoulish — nothing but a sensationalistic game. What question does this answer, what do we learn from this pointless exercise?

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who wonders about that.

But not all experts are convinced by the claims of Dr Vinceti and his team. Dr Kristina Killgrove, an anthropologist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the US, said on her blog: "Although the excavation is being carried out in a professional manner, Vinceti’s quest to dig up the ‘real’ Mona Lisa is not grounded in scientific research methodology." She added: "The news media’s breathless coverage of it threatens to signal to the public that archaeologists are frivolous with their time, energy, and research money."

Maybe, once they identify the skull, they can send it off to the Louvre and mount it on the wall next to the painting. <sarcasm>That’ll be informative.</sarcasm>

32 comments

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  1. 1
    bartmitchell

    What if they did a double blind experiment to test how reliable skull reconstruction is? Give the experts a handful of skulls to do reconstruction on, and see how the reconstruction of Lisa looks when they don’t know who they are rebuilding.

  2. 2
    PZ Myers

    That can be more easily done with donated cadavers.

  3. 3
    ronstrong

    “The news media’s breathless coverage of it threatens to signal to the public that archaeologists are frivolous with their time, energy, and research money.”

    So does this mean archeologist’s DON’T actually go around with whips rescuing magical artifacts from Nazis/Commies/Whatever?

  4. 4
    rturpin

    Yeah, yeah. Silly work.

    But there is a world of archaeology needing more study. My own view is we should double the funding for archaeology, and triple the funding for basic biology research. What is more important to study, that our own nature and our own past?

  5. 5
    DLC

    it might be of some small interest to do a comparative study of bone density and thickness between then and now. But skull facial reconstruction ? I don’t see much scientific merit.

  6. 6
    Glen Davidson

    I mean, we already know what she looked like.

    But of course we don’t. Da Vinci interpreted her, as all painters do.

    Don’t get me wrong, reconstructors (is that the term?) also interpret, although they do have some solid bases upon which to begin if they do have a skull. So it’s not clear that they’d get it “more right” than did da Vinci, and I don’t know if it would matter if they did.

    It sounds like dubious archaeology all right, but we only “know what they looked like” in the artists’ eyes, apart from facial casts, skulls, and other more “objective” data.

    Glen Davidson

  7. 7
    katkinkate

    bartmitchell, I agree that would be interesting.

  8. 8
    eigenperson

    In the abstract, I think it would be worth doing this sort of thing to find out how faithful the old masters’ portraiture actually was.

    However, in practice I am pretty sure a huge amount of noise will be introduced by the reconstruction process (and the high probability that it won’t actually be the right skull after all), making this sort of thing too imprecise to yield any worthwhile results.

  9. 9
    hillaryrettig

    something ineffably sad about that juxtaposition

  10. 10
    Keith Peterson

    They probably just want to turn her grave into a tourist site and put her skull into a museum.

    The dead can’t complain when they’re being exploited for money after all.

    Welcome to capitalism.

  11. 11
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    My first thought was the same as bartmitchell’s, from a different angle. Once you tell anyone who can do the reconstruction that it is the “Mona Lisa” model, they will be too biased to ever do a proper job. Of course, if this is the model, they might to do replicas of the skull and randomly slip them into classes and teach an important lesson one way or the other.

  12. 12
    kreativekaos

    Wait…why?

    Why? Why not. One of the most basic of human and scientific drives: curiosity. (Though I do agree research dollars could be better spent than on what one might consider, ‘pop archeology’.)

  13. 13
    lindamccann

    Why do experts think the younger version was not by Da Vinci? They cite the background. I think it’s far, far better; a real presence, like Vermeer’s ‘Girl With a Pearl earring’. The older portrait doesn’t have the same effect on me. Am I a Philistine?

  14. 14
    Menyambal

    If it really is THE Mona Lisa, they should put the body/bones into a nice coffin/grave and leave it to rest in peace. Or can we dig up George Washington next, just to mess with his skeleton?

    I see nothing to be gained from a reconstruction process. But if they are going to do one, they should just take a computer scan of the skull and put it back in the ground—with dignity.

  15. 15
    mildlymagnificent

    Why do experts think the younger version was not by Da Vinci?

    There’s all kinds of argle-bargle about the painting itself. (Don’t ask me to learn a whole new technical language just for this discussion.)

    The really telling feature is that it’s painted on canvas. His consistent preference was for wood – as in the famous painting. So it’s already got one huge strike against it before you even look at the painting itself.

  16. 16
    franko

    I’m with Bartmitchell and Improbable Joe. ‘Forensic reconstruction’ strikes me as a potential pseudoscience. What’s needed is blind reconstruction of faces from skulls of people whose looks are well known. We have plenty of examples of people whose faces change markedly through dieting (or the opposite!) and because of other health-affecting conditions, none of which alter the skull’s bone structure.

  17. 17
    jamesfish

    This reminds me of the time they sequenced Petrarch’s mtDNA, because… because it was Petrarch’s mtDNA. Only they weren’t even sure it was Petrarch, so we learned that someone, who might have been Petrarch, had mitochondria. Way back in the 14th century! Imagine that.

  18. 18
    McC2lhu doesn't want to know what you did there.

    I would do the reconstruction just to show it as an exercise in futility and confirmation bias. Take a scan of the skull, use the 3D plastic modeller to rebuild a dozen of them. Tell six reconstruction experts that it’s the lady who posed for the Mona Lisa, and the other six that it’s a human skull. You will get six faces that look exactly like the Mona Lisa, down to the whimsical half-smile, and six maybe-Italian women that sort of look the same, each with slightly varying features. Then put it in an exhibit called ‘SCIENCE!!! or not.’

  19. 19
    weaselrodriguez

    Why did The Independent choose a picture of the Isleworth Mona Lisa for the article? Even if it does show the same woman at a younger age, wouldn’t it make more sense to compare the skull to the painting depicting her at an older age?

  20. 20
    Nick Gotts

    A similar, and similarly bizarre, archeological story from England: Richard III dig: MP calls for state funeral. Perhaps not quite so pointless, as if the skeleton can be shown to belong to Richard III, it will confirm or refute supposed facts about his life and death.

  21. 21
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    Maybe, once they identify the skull, they can send it off to the Louvre and mount it on the wall next to the painting.

    So it can get stolen too?

  22. 22
    Olav

    Menyambal:

    If it really is THE Mona Lisa, they should put the body/bones into a nice coffin/grave and leave it to rest in peace. Or can we dig up George Washington next, just to mess with his skeleton?

    Well, why not, exactly? They are just bones, nothing more. The persons that the Mona Lisa or George Washington once were, are long gone.

  23. 23
    blf

    A possibly-interesting thing about the Richard III dig (I hadn’t heard about the proposal for a state funeral, which does seem excessively silly…) is that — this is all from memory — (a) That was the point of the dig; (b) They got permission mostly because no-one thought they’d find anything; and (c) The skeleton (which does has some intriguing resemblances to what the stories say) was found exactly where the stories said the dictator was buried. Part of “(c)” was locating the ancient church, which has some interest (despite England being full of moldering heaps of stone already).

  24. 24
    simeamirans

    Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that.

  25. 25
    roland

    The one on the right does not look like the Mona Lisa at all.

  26. 26
    richardelguru

    @blf

    ‘…dictator…’? He was a king (who only occasionally gave dictation).

  27. 27
    McC2lhu doesn't want to know what you did there.

    I’ve got it! Let’s let the Rhesus Christ lady have a go at it. Her 3-D rendition of Mona Lisa will be in instant classic!

  28. 28
    Nick Gotts

    ‘…dictator…’? He was a king – richardelguru

    Ah, but he was a Bad King (although chiefly memorable for having tried to give his kingdom to a horse), so calling him a “dictator” is quite fair.

  29. 29
    lindamccann

    Comment 21, Audley (Forgotten how to blockquote!)

    ”Maybe, once they identify the skull, they can send it off to the Louvre and mount it on the wall next to the painting.”

    ”So it can get stolen too?”

    By the nightwatchman’s dug.

  30. 30
    slowdjinn

    Nick Gotts – 1066 And All That?

  31. 31
    ChasCPeterson

    once they identify the skull, they can send it off to the Louvre and mount it on the wall next to the painting. That’ll be informative.

    Naw, of course it wouldn’t be “informative.”

    But it would be fuckin cool.
    As Art.

    imo

  32. 32
    Holms

    Is anyone else just a tad tired of the fuss made over this painting in particular? It’s a good portrait, but there is so much more art out there to enjoy.

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