Facial reconstruction exhibit allows museum visitors to glimpse an early French colonist

A facial reconstruction of the Marquis de Sablonniére, an early French colonist in Texas

At Victoria College’s Museum of the Coastal Bend, a visage from the past now stands watch over the seven French cannons found at an early French colony in Texas.

That visage is a reconstructed face believed to be that of the Marquis de Sablonniére, a lieutenant in LaSalle’s Texas expedition in the 1680s. Sablonniére and other colonists were killed by the native Karankawas in late 1688 while at Fort St. Louis, along Garcitas Creek, and later buried by the Spanish. His remains and other artifacts were discovered in Victoria County and excavated in the early 2000s by the Texas Historical Commission.

“People who have seen it (Sablonniére’s facial reconstruction) have been taken aback and stopped short because it is so very human; it’s looking them in the face,” said Eric Ray, museum curator. “He’s not inside a case. It’s the height he would have been when living a few miles away and 326 years ago.”

In April, the remains were taken to Citizens Medical Center in Victoria, where they were X-rayed and underwent a Computer Tomography (CT) scan to determine how much could be reconstructed. Colorado-based 3D Systems – Medical Modeling used the scans to create 3D images, which were then printed on a 3D printer. The result was a complete skull, made of plastic resin, which comprised the foundation upon which forensic sculptor Amanda Danning overlaid clay musculature, connective tissue and finally skin.

The facial reconstruction process took six months. The facial sculpture has been installed at the museum as part of the permanent exhibit “Where Texas History Began.”

“I hope this exhibit will give visitors a humanization of the past,” Ray said. “So often, our past is reduced to names and numbers on a piece of paper, and it’s easy to forget that the past was populated by real people with similar aspirations. We hope museum visitors will see that face-to-face.”

Ray said he hopes the facial reconstruction exhibit will help people understand the story of very early European settling in Texas.

“The artifacts from Fort St. Louis as well as from the Spanish presidio that was built on top of the French colony are an extension of our permanent exhibit,” Ray said. “This colony spurred Spain on. They heard about Fort St. Louis and the LaSalle expedition. Spain was so afraid of France having a foothold in the Gulf of Mexico that it put a high priority on colonizing Texas.”

Museum officials are also working on doing a reconstruction of another individual who was buried in Bowie County near Texarkana. This person died in the Red River when the survivors of the LaSalle colony were trying to walk to Canada. He was buried with the Caddo Indians and excavated in the 1930s.

Ray said the museum plans to take the exhibit a step further by attempting to get DNA samples from the Fort St. Louis individuals to track down some descendants here in the U.S. or in France.

While it’s still in early stages, we are in the process of setting that project up with the University of North Texas and Dr. Gill-King,” the curator said.

The Museum of the Coastal Bend is located at 2200 E. Red River St. on VC’s Main Campus. Viewing hours are from 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday. Admission is “pay what you want.”

Published: Thursday, 16 October 2014

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