Sons of Saint Ludmila: faces of Prague Castle founder, father of Czech patron saint revealed

Spytihněv and Vratislav, photo: Naše historie, z.s.

A team of scientists has reconstructed in glorious detail the faces of two sons of Saint Ludmila who left an indelible mark on Czech history: Spytihněv I, founder of Prague Castle, and Vratislav I, father of “good king Wenceslas”. Using state-of-the-art technology, the team have even determined the eye and hair colour of the two dukes from the Přemyslid dynasty, more than a thousand years after their deaths.

Five years ago, Czech archaeologists began re-examining the remains of the Přemyslids at Prague Castle, to expand on research carried out in the 1980s by the noted anthropologist Emanuel Vlček. Since then, a specialised team has been working together to bring the faces of these royals, and other key figures in Czech history, back to life.

Jan Frolík,  photo: Hynek Bulíř / Czech Radio

The team includes archaeologist Jan Frolík, an expert on mediaeval finds, geophysicist Jiří Šindelář, who specialises on non-destructive archaeology in the survey of tombs, photographer Martin Frouz, and the Brazilian forensic facial reconstruction expert Cicero André da Costa Moraes.

Archaeological methods have advanced exponentially in the four decades since the Přemyslids’ remains were first examined by Prof. Emanuel Vlček, from the accuracy of radiocarbon dating, and ability to extract and analyse DNA to positively identify samples and studying isotopes to determine diet and mobility.

After that process, the skulls of the Přemyslid brothers Spytihněv I and Vratislav I were scanned using a technique called photogrammetry, with digital photos taken from every angle in minute detail, the geophysicist Jiří Šindelář told Czech Radio.

“So, we got a very detailed and quite accurate image of each individual’s skull in this way… and then it is no longer any problem to perform a digital scientific reconstruction of the face.”

Vratislav I.,  photo: Naše historie,  z.s.

“We’ve agreed with the Archbishopric of Prague to reconstruct the face of Saint Ludmila for the 1100-year anniversary of her death [in September], and will also start working on our patron saint, Wenceslas I.”

The scanned images of such skulls will become a virtual 3D model, to which their Brazilian colleague Cicero Moraes will add muscle structure and other defining characteristics, to reveal the ancient faces.

In an earlier interview with Radio Prague International, the forensic facial reconstruction expert explained that he never knows in advance whose skull he has been entrusted with.

Vratislav I.,  photo: Naše historie,  z.s.

“When I do the reconstruction, I don’t have any information about the skull. I do the reconstruction without knowing who the person was. And after I finish, I receive references for the clothing, for example. But in anthropology, we have to do the things in blindness – without any information about who we are reconstructing. It’s very important.”

And that’s important so that it doesn’t influence the objective results, is that it?

“Yes. Because, for example, if you like a historical figure, maybe – maybe – in the deepest part of your mind, you might try to create an interesting face. So, it’s important not to know who you are reconstructing.”

Badatelé na základě snímků lebek a testů DNA zrekonstruovali podobu Vratislava I. a Spytihněva I.

In recent years, the same team has shown the possible faces, among others, the patron saint of families, Zdislava of Lemberk, and the Czech queen Judita of Thuringia. They believe the faces they reconstruct are about 90 percent accurate.

Usually, the eye and hair colour are left to the imagination. But in the case of the Přemyslid brothers, the extensive DNA data meant the team employed only minimal artistic licence archaeologist Jan Frolík says.

“We could dress them in [authentic] clothes based on miniatures or manuscripts, since they are preserved. As for their hair and beards, we made educated guesses according to illustrations in the manuscripts. But we don’t really know.”

Authors: Brian Kenety , Lucie Hochmanová
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