Scholars May Have Reconstructed the Face of a Controversial Biblical Figure

The same technique is used by crime scene investigators in the FBI.


In Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code, Mary Magdalene, who is only obliquely mentioned in the Bible, takes center stage. The novel, which drew heavily from the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, contends that the grail wasn’t actually a cup but rather Mary herself, who held the blood of Christ in her womb, as in, his children. She was the wife of Jesus in this view and carried on his bloodline after his death, in France.

Unfortunately, Holy Blood, Holy Grail doesn’t provide very strong evidence. The documents that its weak theory rested upon were debunked by a 1996 BBC documentary and several French books. But that hasn’t stopped the propagation of the hoax. And reports on this project may resurrect it.

A skull kept deep inside a French basilica house, said to be Mary Magdalene’s, has been brought to light so to speak, as an artist and scientist have teamed up and reconstructed her face, showing what she would have looked like when she was alive. Biological anthropologist Philippe Charlier of the University of Versailles, openly admits they can’t prove it was the biblical figure.

Mary Magdalene, 1854. By: Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912). Wikipedia Commons.

The skull and some bones are housed in a crypt below the basilica house. Forensic artist Philippe Froesch worked together with Charlier to reconstruct her visage. Froesch said the same technique is used by crime scene investigators at the FBI. The two Philippe’s didn’t actually get access to the skull itself. It was last studied in 1974. Since then, it’s been housed in a glass box inside the crypt.

They took photos of it from all different angles, and gained access to those which were taken during the last study. 500 photographs in total were used. From this, the artist constructed a 3D image. Froesch said it “was very emotional work for us.” The bone structure, cheek bones, and skull size all played a role. According to Froesch and Charlier, the remains indicated this was a 50-year-old woman of Mediterranean descent.

They got the shape of the nose using traits from her remains interpreted through trigonometric ratios. The hair was easy to reproduce: there was still some of it around. She had dark, brown hair. The skin tone was selected based on what’s typical for women of the region and other traits were subject to interpretation.

French computer graphics sculptor Philippe Froesch (L) and anthropologist, paleontologist, and forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier (R). Getty Images.

The only evidence we actually have of Mary of Magdalene is from the Bible. Magdalene is a small village on the Sea of Galilee. Most of the books of the New Testament that feature her show her as a devoted follower of Jesus.

Fifth century accounts besmirched her as a prostitute. Some speculate the smear campaign was in response to Magdalene’s stature as a key figure who helped shape early Christianity. Over the centuries Magdalene has been depicted in a variety of ways including as a nun, mystic, feminist, and as a symbol of repentance or devotion.

She is present in all major parts of the New Testament. Magdalene is even the first witness to the Resurrection. One perennial topic of exploration for scholars is whether or not she was the "apostle to the apostles." What’s for sure, Magdalene was even ordered to go forth and preach the gospel just as the others were, just before the Ascension.

Watch the reconstruction at National Geographic.

Though proud of their work, Charlier wishes he could study what’s known as the Saint Maximin skull, outside of its trappings. To see if it belonged to the biblical figure, a little piece would need to be removed in order to carbon date it. While genetic testing would allow us to see from which geographic region it originally hails. Up until now, the Catholic Church has disallowed such tests on the relic. Froesch and Charlier said they may try in the future to reconstruct her whole body, using the remaining bones found in the crypt.

This isn’t the only location in France rumored to be the resting place of Magdalene. Five others have been identified since the late 1200s. While in 2007, director James Cameron did a special for The Discovery Channel entitled, The Lost Tomb of Jesus. It claimed ossuaries of Jesus, Mary Magdalene—thought by some to be his wife, and their children, were found entombed in the East Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem. The tomb was discovered during a construction project in 1980. Thus far, no compelling scientific evidence to support any of these claims has been produced.

To learn more about this project, click here: 

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.

Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

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