A saber split his face as he retreated with Napoleon from Moscow in 1812. He was buried in a mass grave, one of hundreds of thousands lost from France’s vanquished Grande Armée.
But not before military surgeons tried to save him, report archaeologists who now, two centuries later, have reconstructed the long-dead French cavalryman’s face.
“It is that of a young man who suffered a lot, died far from his family and never returned home,” paleoanthropologist Dany Coutinho Nogueira of PSL University in Paris told BuzzFeed News by email. Napoleon started out with an army of more than a half a million men and only 20,000 returned to France. “It is a sad story, but unfortunately it is also the story of hundreds of thousands of young soldiers of the Grande Armée and of other European armies.”
The reconstruction of the skull and jaw of the soldier is emblematic of recent advances in “forensic archaeology.” Investigations like this case, reported by Nogueira and colleagues in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, not only answer historical questions, but document atrocities.
In 2006, a French-Russian archaeology team discovered the man with a cleaved jaw in a mass grave in Kaliningrad, a Russian province that sits between Poland and Lithuania. It was once Königsberg, the capital of Eastern Prussia, an ally of Napoleon during his invasion. He was buried in one of a dozen mass graves found there, collectively containing the bones of more than 600 French soldiers from the War of 1812, identified by shreds of their uniforms, pins, and insignia. Among the bones was the skull of one soldier, his jaw horribly split, raising questions about how he died.
“The Russians have a very positive opinion of this 1812 conflict because at the end, they won this war,” Nogueira said. “They were therefore very happy to work in collaboration with our French team.”
From his skeleton, it was clear to the scientists that the soldier was male and most likely between the ages of 24 to 27 when he died, with thigh bones that indicated he rode a horse regularly. The blow that split his jaw had knocked out most of his teeth, aside from a few molars, and the team concluded he had probably been chopped by the middle of the blade, not stabbed by the tip, of a saber wielded by the right hand of someone else charging at him on horse.
In 1817, the French surgeon-in-chief of the Grande Armée, Dominique Larrey, had described a very similar injury to a Russian colonel cut down in a French cavalry charge, as well as the surgical procedure for cleaning such a wound, fixing it with dental braces, and sewing it shut. The French soldier in the study apparently went through the same surgery, hurriedly applied right after his injury, judging from healing marks on his jaw. He most likely died of typhus (perhaps one-third of French troops had the louse-borne infection) or trench fever in the French military hospital at Konigsberg, not the saber wound.
“The fact that the soldier survived for about two months despite this injury also shows that care, treatment, and attention to the wounded continued during the retreat despite the terrible conditions,” Nogueira said.
As part of the study, the team reconstructed what the soldier’s jaw looked like before he was sabered, with a 3-D technique now gaining wide use in archaeology. They used CT scans of a living Frenchman of roughly the same age to recreate the soldier’s original jawline. That began to give them a sense of what the man looked like when he was alive.
“The upper face is all quite intact, so it’s quite legitimate and pretty common to reconstruct the missing part of the skull by mirroring one side across to the other side,” Christopher Rynn of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification University of Dundee, who was not part of the study, told BuzzFeed News. “The skull reassembly looks fine to me.”
The inventor of the skull-reconstruction method used in the study, paleoanthropologist Pierre Guyomarc’h, now works at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. In November, he published a similar reconstruction effort for the skull of Tycho Brahe, the 16th century Danish astronomer whose observations formed the basis for modern orbital mechanics, and who famously wore a brass prosthetic nose after his original one was sliced off in a duel.
For the French soldier, after so many hours spent virtually “treating” his wound by recreating his original jaw, Nogueira said, “we created a personal relationship with the ‘patient’!”
So they decided to take the reconstruction a step farther and recreate what he likely looked like when alive. The facial reconstruction method relies on past CT scans of hundreds of living people that tie hundreds of points on their skull bones to the shapes of their faces, creating a way to reconstruct someone’s looks based on just their skull. That gave the scientists an approximation of the soldier’s looks when he was alive: a rather round-faced Frenchman in the blue regimental coat of the soldiers found in the mass grave.
It is still only an approximation, with brown hair and brown eyes that were most often noted in military registers of the Grande Armée, once the terror of Europe. The glimpse of the past reminds people of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in the Napoleonic wars.
“When you spend many hours studying an individual or even an object, you necessarily end up being attached,” Nogueira said. “This young man could also have had blue eyes and blond hair. But this facial reconstruction, even if it may not correspond entirely to reality, has allowed us to focus our empathy on a face.”