SAN DIEGO — Shannon Collis reads the human skull like a topographical map, searching for bumps and ridges that help her bring life to long-dead bone.
From those clues, she gives identities to the anonymous, hoping to bring some peace to families unsure of the fate of missing relatives and to help authorities close stymied investigations.
"It's the last thing you can do for someone who's dead, whose family is grieving--to say 'to the best of my knowledge, this is your family member,' " said Collis, a 30-year-old graduate student in anthropology at San Diego State University. "I like being able to help in that process."
Collis' craft is facial reconstruction, a blend of science, art and detective work by which she re-creates the features worn off skulls by time and the elements. Relying on artistic training, a body of scientific knowledge and the directions that carefully trained eyes can find on bone surfaces, Collis and the country's few other facial reconstruction specialists create faces that are startlingly real.
"I've seen reconstructions that come close to being portraiture," she said. "It's frightening."
The field has a fine track record. Betty Pat Gatliff, who has done more facial reconstruction sculptures than anyone else in the world, has produced positive identifications in two-thirds of the 120 cases she has handled for law enforcement agencies in 25 states and Canada.
"Sometimes they look almost photographic," Gatliff said. "But you always see things in the soft tissue that the skull just doesn't indicate--freckles, warts.
"To me, if the family recognizes the face and says that has to be so-and-so, and then the dental X-rays prove it, that's the name of the game."
Founder of Skullpture Lab in Norman, Okla., Gatliff charges law enforcement agencies $500 for the "facial sculptures," as she calls them, plus $75 for photographs and negatives of her work.
She developed some of today's reconstruction techniques during the past 20 years, most of them while working for the Federal Aviation Administration's Civil Aeromedical Institute in Oklahoma City. She is passing on the techniques to Collis and others by teaching seminars around the country.
Collis is a comparative rookie, with six practice reconstructions to her credit. She is working on her first two cases, reconstructing faces for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and for the San Diego Police Department, without pay. She declined to discuss details of the cases.
Anyone who does facial reconstruction becomes part of a small group of about 30 or 40 people nationwide practicing a craft that dates at least to 19th-Century Vienna.
Collis, who has the distinct advantage of having training in fine arts, anthropology and osteology (the study of bone), is apparently the only person doing facial reconstruction in Southern California. Four others, including two from the Sheriff's Department and one from the Police Department, attended a seminar given by Gatliff in San Diego last week.
During a recent demonstration at the San Diego Museum of Man, Collis took special care to debunk some of the miracle-worker impressions that may have been created by facial reconstruction in the movie "Gorky Park" and episodes of "Quincy," for which Gatliff worked as a consultant.
Facial reconstruction "cannot be used for a positive identification," Collis said. Only fingerprints or dental X-rays can be considered by authorities to be conclusive evidence of identity.
Collis recalled a visitor to one of her demonstrations who nudged his wife and said: "See, they can reconstruct a whole body from a tiny bone fragment."
"He's been watching 'Quincy,' " Collis said.
Facial reconstruction is also a technique of last resort because it is complex and inexact. "It's a last ditch. It's used when you've run out of possibilities," Collis said.
To begin, Collis needs three essential pieces of information: the age, race and sex of the person she is trying to identify. Determining age is the toughest, for a skull yields few definitive clues.
Tooth wear and loss, deterioration of bones above the teeth, and the pattern by which a skull is knit together provide some general information, but to pinpoint age within a few years, Collis examines the pubic bone if it is available. The wear on facets of the bone can fix age within a few years.
"In determining age, the skull wouldn't be your first choice, unless it's a juvenile, because you can tell (from) tooth eruption," she said.
Sex and race are easier to ascertain. A male has a rougher "occipital protuberance," a small hook of bone to which heavy muscles are attached, on the back of his head. Female heads are smoother in the rear, but they have round knots of bone, called "cranial bossing" at both sides of the forehead, Collis said. Men also have heavier ridges above their eyebrows.
Sex is also easier to divine if other bones are available, Collis said. Women are generally smaller and lighter than men, and they have wider pelvic bones.