See the face of a man from the last gasps of the Roman Empire

Adelasius Ebalchus lived in Switzerland 1,300 years ago—and his expression sports a very unusual feature not seen in most facial reconstructions.

By Kristin Romey
Published 16 May 2019, 17:53 BST
Adelasius Ebalchus, who lived in northern Switzerland 1,300 years ago. He was in his late teens ...
Adelasius Ebalchus, who lived in northern Switzerland 1,300 years ago. He was in his late teens or early twenties when he died.
Photograph by Oscar Nilsson

Adelasius Ebalchus has a decidedly Latin name for a man who lived in Switzerland around 700 A.D., centuries after the western Roman Empire fell apart. That choice of name was deliberate, explains Mirjam Wullschleger of the Solothurn state archaeology department. It was at this time that Germanic peoples were moving into the Swiss Plateau in the country’s north, changing the language and culture of the remnant Roman empire to that of the German-speaking Alemanni tribe.

Adelasius’ name, and most of what we think we know about him, however, is speculation. His face was reconstructed from a skeleton discovered in 2014, recovered from one of 47 early medieval graves excavated ahead of building construction in the town of Grenchen in northern Switzerland. He was interred in a Roman-style burial, in a grave lined and covered with rocks and his feet pointing north.

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Based on his remains, researchers determined Adelasius was between 19 and 22 years old and about 5 feet, 6 inches tall. He suffered from chronic osteomyelitis, a bone infection, and vitamin deficiencies—the combination of which likely led to his early death. His rock-lined grave may indicate a higher social status than other people living in Grenchen at the time.

Adelasius was buried in a grave lined with rocks, which may indicate he was of high social status.
Photograph by Department of Archaeology of the Canton Solothurn, Switzerland

When Oscar Nilsson, an archaeological facial reconstructor, was commissioned to recreate the face of Adelasius Ebalchus, he was struck not only by the quality of the 3D-printed skull he had to work with, but also the state of his historical model’s dental work.

“I’ve never seen more even or perfect teeth,” says Nilsson, who has worked on facial reconstructions from remains going back to the Paleolithic. “It’s not the typical case for me. Quite often, I have to start reconstructing the teeth by looking at what’s around them.”

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Nilsson knew that he wanted to highlight Adelasius’ teeth and decided that the reconstructed face would smile—a decision he doesn’t take lightly.

A 3D-printed copy of the skull was used as the base of the facial reonstruction. Adelasius had unusually good teeth for the time.
Photograph by Department of Archaeology of the Canton Solothurn, Switzerland

When doing facial reconstructions—especially for law enforcement work—it’s not advisable to give your subject a smile, says Nilsson. It distracts from the overall physical impact of the reconstruction, he explains, while creating “an unconscious assumption that it’s a happy person.”

“I don’t want to describe a personality I know nothing about,” he says. “At the same time, though, I need to create a face that gives the impression that this person was once alive and has a soul.”

Nilsson has worked on individuals from many regions and time periods, but early medieval Switzerland was a first for him. “It’s quite exciting and quite under explored. I hope I can put some light into this period of history.”

Adelasius will be exhibited at Grenchen’s Kultur-Historischen Museum through early June, and then in November be put on permanent display at Solothurn’s state museum of archaeology in Olten.

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