Forensic Anthropology Research Showcase

Megan Veltri, Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State

Read the full report here.

During the Fall 2014 semester I completed an internship with the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS). This internship included human rights work with Operation Identification (Operation ID) and work with a newly installed 3D Printer. Although these two aspects of my internship differed, both projects were sometimes used together. For example, CT scans of Operation ID individuals are currently being used to create 3D Prints.

Operation: Identification

In 2011, FACTS faculty member Dr. Kate Spradley began collaborating with other forensic anthropologists from universities throughout Texas. This project, called Operation ID, aims to identify the remains of migrants found in Brooks County, located close to the Texas-Mexico border. The majority of these remains are unidentified, with bodies buried in unmarked graves in border towns like Falfurrias. Brooks County receives no federal funding to assist with the identification of these individuals. Without funding, Brooks County is unable to properly archive the mass amount of remains they receive. Since the first exhumation of unmarked graves in Falfurrias in 2011, Brooks County now sends all immigrant remains directly to ORPL along with personal effects of the individuals. These remains are left at FARF until they can be processed at ORPL. After processing they are catalogued, inventoried, and uploaded to missing persons databases. It was my job under Dr. Spradley to hand wash the personal effects of these individuals, which included but was not limited to clothing, personal photographs, identification cards, money, prayer cards, medicine, and other personal items. The hopes of Operation ID are to identify immigrants and return the remains to their families.

Many individuals cross the border for different reasons. The main patterns in immigration are consequences of poverty and high unemployment rates (Datta 2004). With drug cartels in Mexico imposing fear or death on citizens, many travel to America in hopes of relief from this distress. Most immigrants do not plan on staying indefinitely (Castle 2002). For some, the main goal is to work, save their money, and return home. In recent years, immigration laws in the United States have become stricter, allowing less leeway for individuals who are crossing illegally. Current immigration laws in the United States affect immigration patterns and conversely the amount of immigrants crossing the border (Meyers 2000).

However, a person’s nationality does not determine whether they should receive basic human rights, including identification after death. With the amount of migrants currently at ORPL, it is our duty to bring closure to their families. These individuals prepare themselves for their journey and carry their most loved and prized possessions with them. It’s simply not right to let these individuals go unidentified in our legal systems.

When clothing and other personal effects are first received, they are completely covered in decomposition from the individual. Typically, the medical examiner’s office does not have the time or funds to remove every personal effect from the body, and they are usually left on the individual. My main focus was to hand wash personal effects of unidentified individuals, keep detailed notes about each garment or item washed, hang clothing to dry on a rack with associated notes attached, photograph cleaned clothing, write new extensive notes about the cleaned article, and label and store the effects for future use. Having multiple pictures of an item can further the chances of identification. Each step in washing clothing for an unidentified individual is important for the identification process. In my experience, washing personal effects is impactful. Something that was once dark brown now has patterns. It is a reminder that this individual was once living and breathing, with family members still searching for them.

3D Printing in Anthropology

The Grady Early Forensic Anthropology Research Laboratory (GEFARL) houses a micro-computed tomography (CT) scanner and the 3D Systems ProJet 660 Pro 3D Printer.


Micro-CT Scanner- Photo by author

The micro-CT scanner is a large piece of machinery that has the ability to take radiographic images of an item without destroying the inside of the object. At FACTS, bones are typically placed inside the scanner using acrylic containers with Styrofoam supports to hold the bone in place. The CT scanner then scans the bones inside and outside structures and sends the scan to a computer. After this process, FACTS faculty use specialized CT computers and programs to edit new scans.

The ProJet 660 Pro 3D Printer that FACTS utilizes is about seven feet long and five feet tall. The printer uses gypsum plaster powder, which is laid down in layers and heated to glue the layers together.


3DS ProJet 660 Pro 3D Printer- Photo by author

My duties involving the 3D Printer included the use of 3D Edit and 3D Print software to edit and apply color to scanned CT files, remove errors, adjust parts, apply labels to parts, clean and remove parts from the 3D Printer after printing, and apply color-bond to parts.

The easiest and hardest part of 3D printing was the actual printing. To print a part, I would easily click a command in the 3D Print program labeled “Build Print”. The printer would then turn on and request for the build bed (the actual print box that holds the printed parts) to be elevated. After these tasks were complete, the printer would begin printing. The hard part was waiting for the print to complete. Typically, printing a decent sized object (e.g., a skull) would take up to eight or nine hours. The printer was left to print overnight during these instances. When printing was completed, the parts are left to sit and harden in the powder.

3D Printers have proven the importance of this detailed technology. At FACTS the 3DS 3D Printer could be used to print many different parts, including skeletons of donations in the Texas State Donated Skeletal Collection. In the osteology classroom, students are currently provided with a limited amount of actual skeletal specimens, most of which are casts. With 3D printing we can scan specific skeletal bones of interest, print them, and use them in the classroom. The same can be said for skeletal pathology classes. While casts of skeletal remains can offer an advantage to students, CT scans and 3D prints of skeletal material are much more accurate and therefore more useful to educate students. The accuracy of 3D prints can help produce mass quantities of artifacts and skeletal material that will be useful to educators and students (Wachowiak and Karas 2009).

Taung Child skulls and arrow point prints

Taung Child skulls and arrow point prints- Photo by author

A recent Operation ID individual was transported to ORPL who was identified as having achondroplastic dwarfism. The long bones of this individual have been CT scanned and it is my next job to print the items. With the 3D prints of these remains, professors can study and further their knowledge of this genetic mutation. 3D prints can also protect fragile skeletal material, such as the sphenoid bone. As stated earlier, these fragile parts can be scanned then printed without having to use the actual sensitive bones afterwards. In archaeology, 3D printing can be used to print fiber bundles or other artifacts for examination of the 3D part without harming the original artifact. Since 3D printing uses a digital template to print parts, the printer can create enlarged or small-scale prints of parts (Bushwick 2011).

3D printing has a great effect on Operation ID in the future as well. We are able to scan the skeletal remains of these individuals and use the 3D prints to study human variation. The social race of an unidentified person is found using FORDISC 2.0, a computer program that uses cranial and post-cranial measurements of an individual to relate that individual to a specific social race group. The pre-determined racial categories are taken from measurements of a population of individuals, whose measurements are then implemented into separate racial categories in FORDISC. When an individual’s measurements are placed in FORDISC, the program relates their measurements to the closest racial group. Doing so aids forensic anthropologists in narrowing down the possibilities for identification of an individual. According to some studies, FORDISC has incorrectly attributed Spanish crania to non-European or North African Samples (Williams et al. 2005). FORDISC has small populations of individuals in the Latin/Guatemalan racial groups. 3D prints of Operation ID individuals can be used to expand FORDISC’s Latin/Guatemalan groups even after the remains have been given back to families.

The 3D printer has many separate program manuals associated with it, which broadly cover the use of the programs. I used this material in conjunction with my own logic to create printable parts. Because of the dense material associated with the 3D printing programs, my work with the 3D printer was usually done through trial and error with the advice of my internship advisors. Overall, I enjoyed working on the 3D Printer. After finally being able to print the first batch of parts, I felt that all of my hard work had paid off. The 3D printer has many dense processes and programs that I am still learning. In spite of that, I will continue this project after my internship has ended.
Read the full report here.


  • Bushwick, Sophie. 2011. “3-D Printing Gets Ahead: Anthropologists Use Printing Technology to Model Fossils.” Scientific American Global RSS.
  • Castles, S. 2002. “Migration and Community Formation Under Conditions of Globalization.” International Migration Review 36 (4):1143-1168.
  • Datta, P. 2004. “Push-Pull Factors of Undocumented Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal: A Perception Study.” The Qualitative Report 9 (2):335-358.
  • Meyers, E. 2000. “Theories of International Immigration Policy-A Comparative Analysis.” International Migration Review 34 (4):1245-1282.
  • Wachiowack, M.J. and B. V. Karas. 2009. “3D Scanning and Replication for Museum and Cultural Heritage Applications.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 48 (2):141-158.
  • Williams, F.L., Belcher, R.L., Armelagos, G.J. 2005. “Forenisc Misclassification of Ancient Nubian Crania: Implications for Assumptions about Human Variation.” Current Anthropology 46 (2):340-346.

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