A face hidden from history – Swansea team and Swedish forensics reveal Henry VIII’s elite archer

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Researchers at Swansea, working with a Swedish expert, have revealed how they reconstructed the face of one of Henry VIII’s elite archers, who drowned aboard the warship Mary Rose in 1545. The reconstruction of the face is based on technology and expertise ranging from 3D scanning and printing to modern forensic and artistic techniques.

Mary Rose skull

3D image of Mary Rose skull

Facial reconstruction of Mary Rose archer






The pictures show one of the original skulls from the Mary Rose, along with a 3D image of one of the skulls and a facial reconstruction based on the image.

The team at Swansea University’s College of Engineering analysed several skulls from the Mary Rose.  They produced an exact 3D copy of one of them.  Swedish expert Oscar Nilsson, who works with the police on reconstructing the faces of unidentified bodies, then used the copy to build up the man’s face muscle by muscle.

3D print of Mary Rose skull

What do we know about the man whose face we can now see?  Evidence strongly suggests that:

•    He was an archer - his skeleton shows evidence of repetitive stress injury from pulling a longbow with a force of up to 90 kg

•    He was of high rank, possibly a captain. He was found with an ivory armguard, a silver ring, and a bag containing a pewter plate, all of which indicate he was of high status

•    He was over 6 feet tall, big for a man of the Tudor period

•    He was in his 20s or 30s


The work is part of a wider project involving Swansea University and the Mary Rose Trust.  When the warship was raised from the Solent in 1982, 92 fairly complete skeletons of the crew were recovered.  Ten skulls came to Swansea for analysis, including the skull of the man whose face has been reconstructed.

‌Nick Owen, a sport and exercise biomechanist from the A-STEM group at the College of Engineering, which has led the Swansea work on the project, said:

"Archers were the only professional soldiers of their day.  So it is very likely that this is the face of one of Henry VIII’s elite troops.  

What’s so exciting is that we can reveal the face of a man who has been hidden from history.  We wouldn’t have portraits of him, as we do for wealthy and powerful people from the past – for example we’d already seen the face of Richard III on paintings before his remains were discovered.

This is a face of an ordinary man, albeit in a crack regiment, and he hasn’t been seen for almost 500 years.  Thanks to 21st century technology and expertise, we can bring him vividly back to life, and understand more about his world." 

Nick Owen explained the steps involved in producing the reconstruction:

"The key objective was to produce a replica of the skull, but without damaging it.

  • First we scanned the original skull using a 3D laser scanner.   This gave us an exact three-dimensional virtual replica of the skull.  
  • Using a 3D printer, an exact copy of the skull was made.  Printing took 48 hours altogether.  
  • We then gave the 3D copy of the skull to Oscar Nilsson, an expert in facial reconstruction.  Using his expertise in forensics, his knowledge of anatomy and tissue depth, and his artistic abilities, he was able to build up the face muscle by muscle." 

The reconstructed face, along with many other artefacts from the Mary Rose, is on display in the new Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth.