Forensic Anthropology Research Showcase Skeletal Biology

Chrissy White, Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State

I chose to pursue an internship at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS).  The FACTS staff includes: Dr. Daniel Wescott, Director; Drs. Kate Spradley and Michelle Hamilton, Faculty; and Ms. Sophia Mavroudas, Coordinator. Interns typically work most directly with the lab coordinator, Ms. Mavroudas, who assigns tasks, performs all required training, and provides assistance, though Dr. Wescott is always willing to help if she is not available. Dr. Wescott, has previously worked as a bioarchaeologist and I have learned much working with him.

GEFARL is one of three labs that make up FACTS. There is also the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) and the Osteological Research and Processing Laboratory (ORPL). FARF is the location where donated human remains are placed for observed decomposition research, while ORPL is where forensic casework and processing of remains is performed. Lastly, GEFARL is where the Texas State Donated Skeletal Collection is curated. Both FARF and ORPL are located at Freeman Ranch, which is located about 15 minutes northwest of campus. GEFARL is located less than 5 minutes from campus on Old Ranch Road 12.

My primary internship project was to perform full biological profiles on the remains of fourteen historic individuals uncovered during emergency archaeological excavations following the “Great USA Flood of 1993” (Larson 1996). These remains came from a previously forgotten cemetery located in Callaway County, Missouri and are currently housed at the Grady Early Forensic Anthropology Research Laboratory (GEFARL), brought by Dr. Wescott when he joined Texas State University. To date, there is no background information on any of the individuals buried in the cemetery, but regardless, our ultimate aim is to identify the individuals in this collection and return them to their descendants.

With this goal in mind, background research had to be performed to find any information that would help with this. Due to the length of time since the excavations, much of the original documentation has been lost. The only items available from that excavation is a very short and uninformative survey report with missing pages, a number of pictures without a photo log or any other associated documentation other than an occasional photo board within the photograph itself, and a handful of local newspaper articles that covered the excavations.

The basic story that has been gathered from that meager supply of information is that the cemetery was associated with Shiloh Methodist Church (SMC1) and was used for burial from approximately 1838 (Walsh 1993a) to 1871, when the church was moved to within the limits of Cedar City. The church was then renamed to Cedar City Methodist Church (SMC2) and no longer utilized the cemetery (Gaarde 1993). Over time, knowledge of the cemetery and its remains was lost until the flood (Walsh 1993a), which destroyed Cedar City, including the church, exposed the remains near the banks of the Missouri River. The church was then rebuilt further north, in a small town called Holts Summit, and renamed Shiloh United Methodist Church (SMC3) (Walsh 1993b).

Given the limited details known about the cemetery remains noted at the beginning of this report, I was determined to find what I could about the individuals that were buried in Shiloh Cemetery. My initial hope was to contact someone at SMC3 and request their burial and membership records. I left several voicemails with the church, but did not receive a return call. I also had high hopes for several local historical societies that did not post their information on the web. I had already gone through a number of sites that did have such information available, but was not able to find anything of use.  Fortunately, I was able to procure a grant from the University and drove to Jefferson City, Missouri to see what I could find. This aspect of the project is difficult and time-consuming, but the trip to Missouri was definitely fruitful. Additionally, I was asked by three separate individuals for copies of my final report once it was complete. The research will continue long beyond the end of my internship and will definitely find a place among my graduate thesis work in a couple of years.

What I have learned just in the few months of working on the Shiloh project is going to help form my future research methods in a way that no regular academic paper has done yet. Though the Shiloh church and cemetery have proved to be a bit more elusive in history than I had hoped, working on a project that is based on a just a few grains of information and trying to turn those into large stores of information has helped show me how to dig deep and look at unexpected sources to find those hidden details. While the research aspect is definitely the largest piece of the entire project, I cannot leave out the bones themselves. Working on damaged, historic skeletons has increased my facility with fragmentary remains and understanding of taphonomy.  All of the profiling techniques I mentioned earlier and the ability to actually perform them in a real situation will give me a step-up on others when I finally leave the world of academia and start my career as a bioarchaeologist

For anyone who is interested in an internship with FACTS, there are a couple of items that would be beneficial to have. First, an osteology course such as ANTH 3381 offered at Texas State University. The information gained from this type of course is vital to being able to accurately lay out a skeleton. Texas State University has a teaching collection of real (not cast) skeletal remains both intact as well as fragmentary. The ability to learn on real bones is something that is not available to everyone, and makes a significant difference to what can be achieved later in your career. Even the most expensive and well-made casts cannot always accurately portray all the variation of different features on bone or the way they feel. Also, casts do not typically come in a fragmentary format and having that skill is of particular importance. Not all of the remains at GEFARL are intact and to perform an accurate inventory, each bone must be identified and correctly accounted for.

The second item is not particular to skeletal remains. Not all internships with FACTS are restricted to one particular lab or activity. Many will jump from one task to another, working in the various areas of FACTS. A desire to work with and learn from the dead in all aspects, from the recently deceased to their decomposed remains to processing those remains, is necessary.

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