The three skulls transfixed him. The first, the original that had been unearthed after seventy thousand years, was not quite complete. Beside it stood a reconstruction, an exact copy artificially filled in with the missing parts of the jaw and cranium. Behind them, glowing eerily in the museum’s carefully crafted lighting, was a copy or perhaps a casting of the same skull made from an almost transparent blue plastic. Maybe it was a trick of the light that made it seem larger than the others. Reluctantly, Bruno Courrèges shifted his glance back to the original, whose caption said it was the closest to a perfect Neanderthal skull ever found. It came from the rock shelter of La Ferrassie, a place he passed each day as he drove from his home to his office at the mairie of St. Denis, where for the past decade he had carried out his duties as the local chief of police in the Périgord region of France. The region boasted an extraordinary wealth of prehistoric remains, including painted caves and carvings from stone, deer antlers and the tusks of mammoths. Bruno had become an enthusiast who had now visited all the known caves and was a regular visitor to the museum of prehistory in Les Eyzies, close to his home. This skull, however, made him think of the curious obsession of his friend J-J, chief detective for the département of the Dordogne, with another and more recent skull. Bruno knew this skull well, since its enlarged photograph had for three decades accompanied J-J to every office he had occupied. These days it was fixed to the back of J-J’s door, where he could see the skull from his place at the imposing desk that was standard issue for such a senior official. His visitors could not miss it as they left his room. His fellow cops often speculated why J-J submitted himself willingly to this constant reminder of his first big case, the one he had failed to solve as a young detective some three decades earlier.
J-J claimed not to remember why he had called the skull Oscar, but every policeman in southwestern France knew the story. A truffle hunter out with his dog in the woods near St. Denis had found a tree downed by a storm. The fallen trunk blocked a small stream tumbling down the slope and forced it into a new channel. The rushing water had then eroded a small bank and exposed something that had attracted the hunter’s dog: a human foot, partly decomposed and partly nibbled by woodland creatures. The hunter had called Joe, Bruno’s predecessor as the municipal policeman in St. Denis. Joe had visited the site and in turn had informed the Police Nationale in Périgueux, and they had sent J-J, their newest young detective, to investigate.
Determined to make his name with this unexpected case, J-J had rushed to the scene, established a security cordon, demanded spades from the mairie and help from the local gendarmes. With their support he had carefully unearthed the remains of a healthy young male in his twenties with long blond hair and perfect teeth, dressed in a T-shirt which still bore the faded logo of some longforgotten rock band. The body’s own bacteria and the insect life and soil microbes had done their work in the year or so since the death, as estimated by the medical examiner. Too little flesh remained for any cause of death to be evident. The fact that the corpse had been deliberately buried persuaded J-J that he had been murdered.
To the horror of the watching gendarmes, J-J had donned medical gloves and carefully removed the remaining earth that still covered much of the body. He then commandeered a steel sheet about a meter wide and two meters long, along with a forklift truck from a nearby builders’ depot, and had the body moved out of the woods. He had been careful to dig far under the body. Using staves of wood beneath the steel sheet, he ordered eight gendarmes to carry it like some heavy military stretcher, down to the flat land adjoining the campsite below. It was then taken by truck to the morgue in Périgueux for a forensic autopsy
J-J had then spent an hour foraging in the soil beneath where the body had been for any sign of a bullet. Nothing useful had been found, even when the gendarmes with metal detectors and volunteers from the local hunting club had made a careful fingertip search of the vicinity. They had found the sites of two small fires, remnants of charred wood ringed with stones, and some disturbed soil which, on examination, turned out to be a latrine. The burial site was but a short walk from a popular commercial campsite. It seemed to have been a regular place for what the French called le camping sauvage, where people squatted on a temporary and unofficial campsite in the woods without paying the fees required for a formal campground that offered showers, toilets, a bar and a shop.
In those days before DNA had transformed the forensic profession, J-J challenged himself to discover how the man had been killed. In the morgue, when the remaining flesh and organs had been painstakingly removed in the hope of finding a bullet or perhaps some evidence of poisoning, J-J had peered at every rib in search of a scratch that could have been made by a knife. Finally, he persuaded the investigating magistrate assigned to the case to let him try one last, desperate measure. He used his own money to buy a large metal pot, removed the body’s head and went to the kitchens in police headquarters to demand the use of a mobile cooking stove. He moved it into the courtyard and proceeded to boil the head until all the flesh had fallen away.
This took some time, and the aroma at first intrigued and then horrified the other policemen in the building, along with those members of the public with business there, and the two local news reporters who had a small office near the entrance. The stench itself was unforgettable and unavoidable, and soon local shopkeepers began to complain. The mayor and the prefect arrived to demand an explanation, each of them wearing a mask that had been soaked in some mentholated liquid. By the time they arrived, the local radio reporter had already broadcast the news that the local police were cooking a corpse.
When the policemen began to grumble, J-J had been summoned to the commissioner’s office, where he showed his letter of authorization to boil the skull. It had been signed by the magistrate who had by then departed on a long-planned weekend trip to visit his parents in Brittany. In those days before mobile phones, there was no immediate way to reach him. The commissioner then announced that he had some urgent business at the Bergerac police station, almost an hour away, that required his personal attention. The mayor and prefect found themselves met by the deputy commissioner, who had been told of the magistrate’s authorization and pleaded to his visitors that there was nothing he could do. His youngest detective was leaving no stone unturned in his pursuit of a murder case.
“You might at least have insisted that this unpleasant procedure take place in some remote location rather than in the center of the city,” the mayor said, the force of his protest somewhat diminished by the mask, which made the deputy commissioner ask for every statement to be repeated. Finally, he led the two distinguished visitors, one representing the city of Périgueux and the other the Republic of France, to the small courtyard where they found J-J, oblivious to the stench, stirring the steaming pot amid clouds of pungent steam.
The mayor strode forward and turned off the bottle of gas beneath the mobile stove. At the same moment, J-J hauled the now fleshless skull from the pot with a pair of heavy tongs and waved it at his visitors in a manner that made them back away nervously. He then announced, his face beaming with pride, “It worked. See for yourselves, messieurs. He was bludgeoned to death!”
The mayor, prefect and deputy commissioner each looked at the telltale cracks between the eye and ear sockets of the gleaming white skull as the two local news reporters entered the courtyard, notebooks at the ready.
“We are looking for a left-handed killer, messieurs,” went on J-J, who had become a policeman after a boyhood devotion to the detective skills of Sherlock Holmes. “You will see the wound is on the right side of the victim’s head.”
“Could this not have been established more simply, perhaps by an X-ray of the skull?” asked the prefect.
“Indeed,” replied the deputy commissioner. “But you will doubtless recall that you refused to endorse our proposed budget for modernizing our police laboratory and installing an X-ray facility.”
J-J, intent only on the skull and the clues it offered, did not notice the reporters scribbling in their notebooks. The mayor, who had an eye for such things, and who vaguely recalled having told the local hospital to refuse police requests to use their X-ray machine on the grounds that the public health came first, was already regretting his decision to demand an explanation from the police. He regretted even more his suggestion that the prefect should accompany him to put a stop to the foul stink that was spreading through the historic city of Périgueux. Now the mayor thought it best to retreat.
“Well, the cooking is now over, the smell will soon disperse and a vital clue has been found,” the mayor said. “It only remains to congratulate the police on their ingenuity in difficult circumstances. I think we can now adjourn, my dear deputy commissioner, and leave this enterprising young detective to his duties.”
It was the event that made J-J’s reputation with the press, the public and above all with his colleagues in the police. Even the commissioner forgave him when the prefect reconsidered his earlier verdict and approved the budget for a state-of-the-art facility, including an X-ray machine, for the new police scientific laboratory. This was little compensation for J-J, who then embarked on a long and fruitless attempt to identify his corpse, even though the mayor had persuaded the local hospital to let him use the X-ray machine to document an unusual double break in the body’s left leg, made some years before death. J-J had been confident that medical records would eventually enable him to confirm the name of the most celebrated corpus delicti in the history of the Périgord police.
There had been no local report of a missing young male person with fair hair and no such missing person reported in France in the twelve months that the medical examiner estimated had been the maximum time since death. J-J went through Interpol to ask other European countries whether they had any candidates on their lists of missing persons, and even tried the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all without success. As the Berlin Wall came down and relationships improved with the police of Russia and Eastern Europe, J-J widened his search. Through French embassies, he made contact with the medical associations and the health ministries across Europe, seeking a doctor who might recall treating the unusual leg break. He turned his attention to the T-shirt on the body and researched the rock bands of the last decade. He tracked down the members of the Austrian band featured on the T-shirt; they had enjoyed a brief success and sold several thousand T-shirts in Germany and Switzerland on the strength of it. But that was a dead end, too. Months passed and then years, but J-J’s labors, to which he devoted much of his spare time, were all in vain.
He had a body, or at least a skeleton. He had a murder and had identified the murder weapon as a collapsible spade, produced in large numbers by the U.S. Army and widely available at army surplus and camping stores around the world. What he did not have was an identity, only the photograph of Oscar’s skull that covered the back of his office door.
And so Bruno, shifting his gaze from the three skulls in the museum display case to the even larger case alongside, which showed an artist’s reconstruction of a Neanderthal face from the original skull, had the first glimmerings of an idea. The face did not look primitive. It was almost entirely human but with elements of our primate ancestors, with the same heavy jaw and prominent bone ridges above the eyes. The reconstruction seemed more real because the artist had also produced not simply a face but the whole body from the ancient skeleton of La Ferrassie. The man was sitting, a thick and brawny arm outstretched as he made some point to a small child sitting rapt with attention before him. The child’s face had also been reconstructed from a Neanderthal skull, and the scene was to Bruno’s eyes wholly convincing.
He paused at the next display case, startled at the sight of an attractive young woman with a defiant or perhaps proud pose of her head. She was clad in furs with beads around her neck, her eyes looking sidelong at some scene that made her watchful, perhaps even suspicious. She had a high forehead, sensuous lips and prominent cheekbones. She had been reconstructed from a partial skeleton found at the Abri Pataud rock shelter in Les Eyzies, just along the long main street from the National Museum of Prehistory where Bruno now stood. The skeleton of the body, a young woman of sixteen or eighteen years, had been found with the skeleton of a newborn child, and her skull had been found four meters away, protected by some stones that appeared to have been deliberately placed. She was a Cro-Magnon, or early modern human, who had lived some twenty thousand years ago, nearly twenty thousand years after her people had replaced the Neanderthals.
Bruno shook his head in awe rather than in disbelief at the sight of this woman whose face moved him so deeply. There was a lively intelligence in her features and a self-reliance in her stance that made him realize with a start of surprise that this was a woman who attracted him. He could imagine seeing her in a crowd on the street outside, or gazing out from the window of a passing train, or sitting at another table in some outdoor café. He let the fantasy run on, imagining sharing glances with her across the crowded tables, perhaps arranging to meet. This was a woman who stirred thoughts of might-have-beens.
The next face surprised him again, since he recognized not the face but the headdress she wore, a skullcap of dozens of tiny shells, carefully pierced and then sewn together. He had seen it before at the famous rock shelter of Cap Blanc, just a few kilometers up the road toward Sarlat, where prehistoric people had crafted a massive bas-relief of horses, deer and bison. They were so lifelike that they might almost be emerging from the rock into which they had been carved.
In 1911, archaeologists had found an almost complete human skeleton buried beneath the hooves of the central horse of the sculpture, the bones protected by rocks at the feet and more rocks balanced above the head. It was presumed at first to be male. The local landowner sold it to the Field Museum in Chicago in 1926 for the equivalent of one thousand dollars. Henry Field, the curator, who collected the skeleton in New York and wrapped it in cotton wool to be taken back to Chicago, noted at once that the pelvic girdle was female. He arranged such a blaze of publicity in Chicago that on the first day it was shown to the public, more than twenty thousand people crowded into the museum to see the first prehistoric skeleton ever displayed in the United States.
Six years later, by which time it had been seen by more than a million visitors, the skull was withdrawn from exhibition to be fully reconstructed. A detailed examination found it to be a young woman of around twenty years, five feet one inch tall, and that she had lived between thirteen and fifteen thousand years earlier. She had been buried with an ivory point, perhaps a harpoon or spearhead, about three inches long, on or perhaps inside her abdomen. This led to speculation that this weapon might have been the cause of her death, a suggestion of long-ago murder that was astutely promoted by Henry Field to bring in more visitors. He also suggested that the location of her burial suggested that she might have been one of the sculptors of the unique great frieze.
The reconstruction of this woman’s face had delighted Bruno since he had first seen it at Cap Blanc, not only because she was lovely in a strikingly modern way with huge eyes, a graceful neck and high cheekbones, but because of the skullcap of shells that she wore. It made her look like some café society young beauty of the 1920s. Bruno could almost imagine her dancing the Charleston.
“What do you think of the exhibition, Bruno? You’ve been studying it long enough,” asked Clothilde Daumier, a short and red-haired powerhouse of a woman who was one of the museum’s curators and a leading expert on the prehistory of the region. She and her German archaeologist husband, Horst Vogelstern, were good friends and Bruno had been one of the witnesses at their recent wedding.
“It’s wonderful,” Bruno replied. “Thank you for inviting me to this preview. I’m overwhelmed with the skill of these reconstructions.”
“In that case, you can tell the artist yourself,” Clothilde said, steering him toward an attractive, gray-haired woman who moved gracefully as she advanced toward Bruno. “Elisabeth Daynès, meet Bruno Courrèges, our chief of police and a good friend who has a great interest in archaeology. He even found a modern corpse in one of our ancient graves.”
“Clothilde’s archaeologists found it,” Bruno said, smiling. “I just helped find out who it was. I’m really moved by your work, bringing these people back to life in this way. You’re a great artist, madame.”
“You’re very kind, Monsieur Bruno,” Elisabeth replied. Her voice was soft and well modulated, with just a hint of an accent of the Midi. “How did you realize your body was not some prehistoric skeleton?”
“Because he was wearing a Swatch,” Bruno replied. “They had only been made since 1983. Tell me, madame, have you ever worked with the police in trying to reconstruct the faces of unidentified skeletons?”
“A little, but only informally. It’s a considerable investment in time and effort to do such a reconstruction, and since so much of our work is seen by the courts as inspired guesswork, the police are understandably reluctant to finance such projects.”
“I find it hard to understand why the courts are so hesitant when I see your work here, madame,” Bruno said.
“Please, call me Elisabeth,” she said, as Clothilde steered them toward a reception area where they were handed glasses of wine and Clothilde excused herself to welcome some other guests to the preview. “I understand the courts’ point of view. If you study the verbal descriptions that people give of strangers, they usually describe the hair, its style and color, the color of the eyes and whether the face is fleshy or lean. Those, however, are the three elements that we cannot discern from the skull itself. What we can do is use the contours of the individual skull, which vary much more than you might think—even among family members—to reconstruct each of the forty-three muscles in the human face. So in terms of form and structure, I think we can go a long way to reconstruct the features. But the hair, the eyes, the depth of flesh—these remain our challenges.”
“So the muscular structure of a face varies with the small differences in the shape of each individual skull?”
“Exactly,” she said, nodding with enthusiasm. “We use a laser measurement system to map the precise shape of each skull down to fractions of a millimeter, put them into a computer which creates a three-dimensional model, and then we use a high-precision 3D printer to give us the head. We then use the laser again to compare this printed skull with a cast we make of the original skull to check that they are absolutely identical. Developing and perfecting that system took a year of work, but now it’s almost automatic.”
“Why bother with the computer-printed version when you have a cast of the original skull?”
“Because we can do so much of the work on re-creating the musculature on the computer where it’s easy to make adjustments,” she replied. “And with the computer, we can share images of our progress with colleagues elsewhere in France or in other parts of the world. When we reconstructed the face of Tutankhamen, the computer allowed us to stay in constant touch with the National Geographic people in Washington and with the Cairo museum.”
“And if you knew the hair color, and that the body was that of a young man in his twenties, athletic and probably without much body fat, could you reconstruct something in which you would have confidence?”
“I always have confidence in my work, Monsieur Bruno, but should I assume that you have some particular skeleton in mind and that you’re hoping to enlist my help? I’m afraid that my schedule is already impossibly full. Perhaps Clothilde has told you of our project to re-create the entire family of hominids from the earliest times, Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, Flores and, of course, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. That takes all my time.”
“I understand. But do you have some young associate or student with such skills?”
“Most of what I learned in this area came from Jean-Noël Vignal, whom I met when he was at the forensic institute in Paris. You might consult him. But tell me about this body.”
Briefly, Bruno recounted the story of J-J and Oscar, and she suddenly interrupted him.
“But those dates, you say 1988 or 1989, that’s when I was here in the Périgord,” she said excitedly. “I was working at Le Thot, the park that’s attached to the Lascaux cave. They asked me to reconstruct a mammoth and a group of human hunters. That was part of my earliest work in this field. I’d been working in the theater on costumes and then on masks for the national theater in Lille, and I really became interested in ancient humans when I was making models for the prehistory museum at Tautavel in the Pyrenees. So I have a personal connection to this region at the time this young man died. Give me your card, and I’ll talk to some colleagues and see what might be possible. Now I really must circulate, but thank you for your interest and your kind words.”
They exchanged business cards, and she scribbled a personal mobile phone number onto the one she gave him.
“Au revoir, madame, and thank you for your exhibition and also for your help.”
Copyright © 2021 by Martin Walker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.