George Washington never trekked anywhere near the Valley, yet it’s in Tempe that researchers are building the most accurate approximation of the nation’s first president and leading Revolutionary War hero.
Arizona State University researchers are using the latest forensics, computer and laser technology to create 3-D images of Washington based on the best modern science can do to determine his actual physical features.
ASU’s Partnership for Research in Spatial Modeling, or PRISM, is at the forefront of a project to fashion meticulously detailed lifesized and historically authentic statues of Washington. The figures are for a new museum and education center opening next year at Washington’s estate in Mount Vernon, Va.
The spatial modeling center’s work is pioneering, said University of Pittsburgh forensic anthropologist Jeffery Schwartz, who heads the project.
"It’s pushing us beyond the kinds of things we’ve done up until now," said Anshuman Razdan, director of the 8-year-old center.
It’s requiring the center’s computer experts to work with historians, sculptors and anthropologists in an "exciting collaboration of science and art," Razdan said.
The project is especially challenging because the Mount Vernon estate wants three Washington statues — wax sculptures with hair, lifelike skin tones, realistic eyes and other features — representing how he looked at various times in his life.
They will depict Washington at 19, when he fought for the British in the French and Indian War; at 45, when he took charge of the Colonial Army; and at 57, when he became president.
"There’s never been a reconstruction of this magnitude, where all the evidence we have to work with are representations" and no actual remains, Schwartz said.
The job demands rigorous detective work.
Beyond studying old documents, along with portraits and statues for which Washington posed, the project team is painstakingly examining some of his spectacles, dentures, clothing and other personal effects.
Using photographs and laser scans of such items, ASU researchers are producing what Razdan describes as computerized "digital maps" and "geometric modeling" to approximate Washington’s physical characteristics down to exact measurements.
"We are translating the mathematics into visual images," he said.
The process is so intricate that researchers are confident they’ll be able to closely estimate such specific things as the changing curve of Washington’s jawline as he aged and lost teeth.
"There will be benefits beyond this project," Razdan said. "The kinds of new data we are archiving will help scientists to explore more things down the road."
The project also should invigorate Washington’s public image.
The new forensic evidence is revealing that the foremost Founding Father wasn’t quite the stodgy figure known from the $1 bill and other traditional portraits, Schwartz said.
It’s confirming that Washington, known as a skilled horseman, had a robust, athletic side.
"He definitely was a commanding presence," Schwartz said.