Conservation Research Laboratory Reports

Conserving the human skeleton found aboard La Belle

La Salle Shipwreck Project
Texas Historical Commission

The analysis of the skeletal remains of the individual found in the hold of the Belle is a very good example of the range and extent of the technologies used by archaeologists to flesh out the archaeological data and, in this case, literally put a face on history.  Reconstructing the faces of various historic figures has been in vogue for some years, but the process is not well understood by the public or even professional archaeologists. Making Faces: Using Forensic and Archaeological Evidence, by John Prag and Richard Neave, Anthropology Series, Number 1, Texas A&M University Press, 1997, is an excellent publication that describes the procedures in detail.  A number of case studies, including King Philip II of Macedon, are presented.

All facial reconstructions start with a cast of the skull, for the face is modeled in clay directly onto the cast.  This process requires a trained specialist, for it involves a thorough knowledge of the musculature of the face and the hands and eyes of a sculptor.  Professor Denis Lee, a medical and biological illustrator in the School of Medicine at the University of Michigan, volunteered his services for the Belle project.

Before any facial reconstruction can begin, everything possible must be known about the individual.  From a preliminary skeletal analysis, Dr. Gentry Steele of the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University determined that the sailor from the Belle was definitely a male of European stock, was at a minimum 5'3" and a maximum of 5'7" height, was approximately 35-45 years of age at death, suffered a break on the left side of his nose well before his death, and suffered from low-back pain.  He had lost a number of teeth prior to this death, and at the time of his death had a number of bad caries and abscesses that had eaten through the bone just above the upper left teeth.  All of these data were taken into consideration by Dr. Lee.

Professor Denis Lee puts the final touches onto the clay face molded directly onto the stereolithography cast.  The next step is to make a flexible mold of the clay model so that a more permanent plaster-of-Paris cast can be made. 

Professor Denis Lee



Unpainted plaster cast

An unpainted version of the plaster cast

Painted cast

A cast that Professor Lee painted for a more life-like appearance

It should be remembered that there is no way to determine the color of the eyes or hair or the exact shape of the ears. Also, most men of this era wore beards. Considering the fact that this individual was stranded in the wilds of coastal Texas in 1686, he probably had a rather unkempt beard and hair. These facial hair features were left off to show the features of the face.  In addition, he probably was more emaciated and weather-worn at the time of his death because of the endured hardships. This facial reconstruction shows him more as he might have looked on leaving France in 1685 and is a face that his mother and close acquaintances would probably recognize. 



Still pending is a DNA analysis of the samples of tissue and brain from the Belle sailor.  The DNA profile will be compared against the gene profile of Western Europeans, and it may provide researchers with a means to associate him with modern relatives. One area of interest to be investigated is the possible identification of this individual to the name 'C. Barange,' found engraved on a pewter porringer located near the skeleton.  Recent inquiries have found that there are Barange families living today in La Rochelle, France.  Is the individual found on the Belle a Barange and might he be related to the Barange families living in the same port city from which the Belle set sail some 314 years ago? DNA studies should be able to answer these and other questions. More will be reported here and on the Texas Historical Commission web pages as more data on this fascinating study gets underway.

Citation Information:

Donny L. Hamilton
1997, Conservation of the Skeleton from the Belle, Conservation Research Laboratory Research Report #4, World Wide Web, URL,, Nautical Archaeology Program, Texas A&M University; La Salle Shipwreck Project, Texas Historical Commission, Austin, Texas.


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