The skull without a face

Student Faye Olsgard is at the center of a formidable MSU Denver network that is helping Costa Ricans to “look in the mirror.”

By Janalee Card Chmel

Publish Date: October 23, 2015

Faye Olsgard with skulls

Faye Olsgard with the original and 3-D-printed skulls at Museo Nacional de Costa Rica. Photo: Courtesy of Faye Olsgard

This is the story of a badly damaged, 2,500-year-old skull; her modern-day, perfect twin sister; an MSU Denver student with insatiable curiosity and a knack for sparking excitement in others, and a slew of scientists who sought to put a face on the ancient skull.

It’s also the story of the power of collaboration: What can happen when MSU Denver’s programs and people come together across disciplines – and across the globe – to advance science will blow your mind.

But first, the skull.

The Skull

In 1989, a scientist from the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica (National Museum of Costa Rica) excavated an extremely rare discovery: beautifully preserved human skeletal remains. This kind of find is rare in Costa Rica due to its high rainfall and humidity, which cause rapid deterioration.

According to Ricardo Vázquez-Leiva, research archaeologist at the MNCR, the remains were found in what the team calls “The Regla Site,” which sits in the tidal strip of the Nicoya Gulf on the country’s southwestern coast.

“The Regla site is outstanding,” said Vázquez-Leiva. “The Regla bones are the earliest and best preserved found in the country. This collection is in an excellent state of preservation due to the anaerobic conditions of the soil.”

Until this discovery, Costa Ricans had very little evidence of their own ancestry. What did their great, great, great, great (and beyond) grandfathers and grandmothers look like? The country’s best clues came from ancient ceramics and other findings, but these bones brought them the opportunity to look in the mirror at themselves 2,500 years ago.

The findings were exciting, but scientists lacked a way to help the average Costa Rican understand their importance. Yes, the bones were well-preserved but they were also badly damaged. The skulls were impacted with mud and fossilized sea creatures. Because of the way they were ceremoniously buried 2,500 years ago (bundled in large batches), some bones were permanently stuck together in odd ways (i.e., a clavicle through a mandible).

It’s hard for the average person to get excited about skulls and bones covered in mud and sea worms, looking like something out of a horror movie.

But recently, four MNCR archaeology sites were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The scientists decided that it was their duty to create an exceptional display of their own country’s heritage going as far back as possible using the collections they had. They began exploring ways to display the Regla collection in a manner that captured their people’s imagination.

Instead of simply displaying the bones and other artifacts found at Regla, the scientists wondered: could they put faces on the skulls? Could they provide a way for Costa Ricans to look into the past and see their ancestors in scientifically accurate, culturally truthful ways?

They needed a forensic artist.

Enter: The MSU Denver Student

In many ways, Faye Olsgard is a typical MSU Denver student. She is the first in her family to attend college, she is working on her second career, she has overcome tremendous personal hardships to pursue her dreams and she is driven to succeed.

Olsgard’s path to MSU Denver and the Costa Rican skull began 15 years ago with a 3 a.m. epiphany.

She was earning a successful living as a freelance graphic designer and was in the middle of an overnight deadline when the “Forensic Files” came on the television.

“There was a woman who had a photograph of a skull and she put tissue paper over the top of the photo and started drawing a face on the tissue paper,” said Olsgard. “I stood up screaming and yelled, ‘I’m going to do that!’”

Olsgard had no idea what the technique was called but she decided to find the woman.

“I discovered that the woman is renowned forensic artist Karen T. Taylor. Working with the FBI, she restored faces on skeletal remains to create leads for identifying missing persons,” said Olsgard. “And I learned that it’s called forensic art.”

For the next eight years, Olsgard attended forensic conferences, introduced herself to the biggest names in the field, and ultimately completed the prestigious Master of Forensic Art program with FBI instructors. Then, recognizing that Olsgard also possessed a keen eye for patterns, the FBI put her through training as a fingerprint examiner – something that led to her joining the International Association for Identification.

But, despite her training and experience, Olsgard said she “still had to check one box” in order to get her dream job: she needed a college education.

A resident of Colorado Springs, Olsgard started searching for a school with forensic connections. She discovered that MSU Denver is home to Colorado’s only “bone lab” – the Human Identification Laboratory in the Forensic Anthropology program.

As Olsgard said, “I wanted to go where there were skulls.”

Next Up: A Slew of Scientists

Fast forward to 2014. Olsgard was in her first year at MSU Denver when she headed to Costa Rica with a group of students and professors for a study abroad program. While there, Olsgard’s professor introduced her to Vázquez-Leiva, who was trying to put a face on a skull.

Within a week, Olsgard and Vázquez-Leiva agreed to collaborate on the project, but there were two hurdles to overcome. First, the skulls weren’t in a condition (impacted mud, sea creatures) that would allow for an accurate facial reconstruction. And second, the skulls were a national treasure. Olsgard couldn’t smear clay all over the bones to reconstruct a face.

Olsgard returned to MSU Denver with questions. And when Olsgard has questions, she finds answers.

Just Across Town …

Olsgard understood that the perfect solution would be to make a replica of one of the ancient skulls so she began studying the science behind 3-D printing, which led her to Ted Shin, associate professor and chair of MSU Denver’s Industrial Design Department.

As it turns out, Shin was also curious about 3-D printing and he knew just the place to learn more: 3D Systems Healthcare in Golden. The two booked a tour of the facility and, while there, made a fantastic discovery: Shaina Pauley, an MSU Denver alumna who would become an eager collaborator.

“I’ve always been proud to be a Roadrunner,” said Pauley (B.S. industrial design ’14). “My professors taught me to be the best team member I can be and this project brought together an amazing team. I didn’t think I’d ever work on an archeological project.  It’s incredible to have the opportunity to work on something for another country’s museum.”

What was supposed to be a brief tour turned into an agreement between the company and the University to partner on the reconstruction of one of the Regla skulls.

“This project is a wonderful example of how a new technology can help something that was impossible even 10 years ago,” said Shin. “It is an example of how technology can erase an actual physical distance and help people who share an interest to work together without any delay. It is not just about what kind of new technology we have but how we use it. This is a wonderful example of it.”

The next problem was how to get a CT scan of the skull in Costa Rica and then prepare the files in a way that would allow Pauley to use them at 3D Systems.

And who would pay for this international swap of medical files?

On the recommendation of yet another enthusiastic professor, David Hill, professor of anthropology, Olsgard applied for and won a grant from MSU Denver’s Undergraduate Research Program. She sent the funds to Costa Rica so that one particular skull could be scanned. The winning skull was from a female whose cranium was completely impacted with mud and she had a clavicle stuck through her mandible. The hope was that the scan would allow Pauley to differentiate bone from mud and to digitally “clean off” the bone in preparation for 3-D printing.

Just Across Campus …

The scans arrived but they still needed some “translating” before they could be sent to Pauley. Additionally, the University and 3D Systems collaborators needed a space to meet where they could visualize their work better. In typical form, Olsgard went on the hunt for help and was again rewarded with a perfect MSU Denver resource: the Center for Advanced Visualization and Experiential Analysis.

“As the project started to balloon and new collaborators were brought on with more specialized roles, CAVEA served as a facilitator for the project,” explained Chelsie Worth, CAVEA Analyst and Technician, who added, “Much of my work here at CAVEA involves GIS analysis and visualization. I don't get the opportunity to work on many projects like this. I've certainly learned much more about human anatomy, Costa Rican culture and 3-D printing than I had anticipated upon first meeting Faye.”

The CT DICOM data was then sent to 3D Systems for processing, it was exported into an STL file, which is the type of file used for 3-D printing.

“It was my job to take the CT scans, which consisted of hundreds of slices, and go slice by slice to remove any foreign objects,” said Pauley. “It became clear that the mandible was not in the right location due to the intrusion of the clavicle. Next, I digitally separated the mandible from the maxilla in order to realign them. After I cleaned up the skull in 2-D format, it needed more work so I brought in the rough STL created from the 2-D program into our 3-D workspace program and began perfecting the model.”

However, since this is a 2,500-year-old skull, realignment was tricky. Humans were not built the same 2,500 years ago as we are today. To achieve the proper alignment, Pauley brought in the company’s Virtual Surgical Planning® team of experts who help surgeons plan surgeries virtually via online meetings, which yield 3-D printed surgical guides and tools that can be used in the operating room.

The team leaned on Olsgard to provide them with historical, anatomical references that she was able to secure from the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica. With the perfect alignment achieved digitally, the company was able to print a 3-D replica of the original skull, and a twin sister was born.

The Perfect Twin Sister

Nicknamed “Nicky” because she is modeled after a skull found in the Gulf of Nicoya, this perfect twin sister is everything that Olsgard dreamed she would be. Olsgard could seemingly begin her forensic artwork to reconstruct this ancient Costa Rican face. But Olsgard faced another hurdle.

“As a forensic artist, I can’t just do whatever I want in creating a face,” she explained. “I have to have evidentiary material. I needed to research what people, especially women, looked like in that culture 2,500 years ago. How did they wear their hair? Did they carry baskets on their heads?”

Because very little survives the Costa Rican climate, the only reference materials that still exist from the time when this woman walked the earth are stonework and ceramics. Olsgard contacted the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica and made yet another astonishing discovery.

“Ricardo [Vázquez-Leiva] told me, ‘Go to the Denver Art Museum. They have the biggest collection of Costa Rican art.’ I was amazed. Everything I needed was right here in Denver.”

And Olsgard knew an MSU Denver alumna who could help.

Lisa Falconer (B.A. anthropology ’15) immediately went to the Denver Art Museum and met the curator of the Frederick and Jan Mayer Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Margaret Young-Sánchez. The two found many materials that Olsgard could use.

“Faye was seeking artistic representations of human beings from the same region to aid her, especially with regard to features like coiffure or body decoration that cannot be determined from the bones alone,” said Young-Sanchez. “I think she found it helpful to see features like hairstyles, ear ornaments, headgear and body painting, as represented on ancient ceramic figures.”

Falconer says she was honored to help her alma mater and her friend with this project and added, “What an awesome adventure this has been.”

Skull in a field

Olsgard and the sister skull in front of NMCR. Photo: Courtesy of Faye Olsgard


And Now … The Face

As of publication, Olsgard, Falconer, Young-Sanchez and Vázquez-Leiva are still working diligently on collecting materials to help Olsgard create the most accurate face that she can. And yes, Olsgard is still an undergraduate student, taking core courses and commuting from Colorado Springs where she lives with her mother.

“I’m not sure when I’ll graduate,” she said. “I haven’t even had time to figure out how many more courses I’ll need and I’m not sure what my degree will be in yet. Probably anthropology and something through the Individualized Degree Program.”

She is also using her MSU Denver friends and resources to help the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica create a state-of-the-art, interactive display for Nicky. She’s asked CAVEA to turn the reconstruction project into an interactive video display that allows museum patrons to “touch a screen and build the face themselves. Then the face could animate and speak in the ancient Chibcha language of the native peoples.”

Oh, and there’s the rather exciting discovery – thanks to the 3-D print of the skull – that there may be “pulp chambers above the upper maxilla teeth” in the original skull, offering the opportunity for DNA analysis.

Olsgard says that she can’t imagine this project being possible anywhere but MSU Denver.

“This school has opened up a world of possibility for me but also for everyone else involved in this project,” she says. “It has become this overarching multidisciplinary approach to science, taking the best of the disciplines taught at this school and rolling them into one project.”


Vázquez-Leiva says that the work is priceless to his country.

“Costa Ricans should see this ancient person engrained in themselves. We at the MNRC believe that it will be a striking encounter with the past; an experience that seeks to encourage a higher consciousness on the protection of the national heritage,” he said.