Forensic Anthropology Skeletal Biology

Sheridan McKitrick, Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State

Introduction

I conducted an internship with the Forensic Anthropology department in the spring of 2017 at their facility called GEFARL. This report will describe the organization; explain what activities I did daily, and all special projects I was a part of. I will also be discussing the importance of this department and how their work has made a difference not only in the academic world but also the criminal justice one as well. Also I will be discussing how this internship has helped develop my skills to be a successful forensic anthropologist in this ever-growing field.

 

Internship Organization

The organization that I am interning for is called the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State or FACTS. The mission of the organization is to help further the field of forensic anthropology as well as related fields through scientific research, educational opportunities, and reaching out to the civilian sector to educate about the field. There are three different facilities under the organizations umbrella, FARF or Forensic Anthropology research facility, ORPL or Osteological research and processing laboratory, and finally GEFARL or Grady Early forensic anthropology research laboratory. All of the buildings are located in San Marcos Texas nearby the main Texas State Campus. FARF was the first building to open in 2008 with ORPL following. Even though research had been done before the opening the facilities the organization was really on the rise. The building I work in is GEFARL; it’s a medium sized building with five rooms and lots of complicated scientific equipment.  It is also the same building that has the very large and impressive collection of human remains that have been curated by the organization. When you first walk into the building you see that Sophia Mavadorous and Dr. Wescott’s offices are directly across from one another. After that there is a little kitchen nook and two more offices across from one another, one that is always locked I have no idea who it belongs to and another for the graduate students. There is a large bookshelf with remains of many different animals separating the large garage like room that is next. Next there is a tiny office to the right past the book shelf and next to that is a large machine used for scans. In front of the machine is Dr. Cunningham’s desk. I usually never see her there, but sometimes the graduate students use her desk. Then right next to the desk there is another small locked room which has some sort of scanner in it that is very special. Across from all of that  located in the large garage room are tables for laying out remains and working in groups. There are also three rows of large metal shelves where we place the remains in the very back of the building with minimal light creating the best environment for storage. A lot of the people who work around me are usually graduate students or Dr. Wescott, and they all are super busy with their projects so I don’t get much time to discuss things with them.

 

Duty Overview

Since I have started the internship I have had many different duties from all different aspects of the field. My first duty was to inventory the skeletal remains so they can be stored properly. This was accomplished by taking the remains recently processed at ORPAL, delivering them to GEFARL, and putting the skeletal remains in anatomical order on a black sheet while documenting. Once I put all the bones on the correct sides and anatomical positions I would fill out a sheet of paper which allowed me to inventory them into a document. When I filled these out I would give details about the remains that could identify them on a very specific level. Once I was done with the bones I would move on to the dental inventory doing the same task including an image to depict their condition. After all of the documentation, I would prepare the bones to take an image of the remains in their entirety. This means straightening out the bones, making sure the cranium is in the correct position so the craniofacial portion is directly facing the camera, and spacing out the bones to be photoshopped on to an entirely black background. I would print out a paper with the remains’ official numbering and place it next to the cranium, usually in the top left corner along with a scale to give correct dimensions. Then I would climb up a very tall staircase ladder and point the camera down parallel to the remains. I would take an image that was clear enough to zoom in and identify all the remains in order to be photo-shopped. Afterwards I was able to put the remains back in their designated box via the standard operating procedure in order for it to shut; giving emphasis on the order needed for this process to be done properly. Then I would go back into the area where we stored the boxes to find the correct location to place it. While simultaneously making sure to organize the boxes so they are in order based on the date they were received. After all of that I would give my internship advisor the original inventory documents and file away the documents I filled out.

Another duty I had which was not daily but a side project that my internship advisor allowed me to be a part of was to take pathology photos for a site called FOROST.org. This site is a collection of images on skeletal pathology and trauma from all sorts of scientific institutions around the world. On this site you can see which of the institutions posted, what they posted, what kind of image it is (pathology or trauma), the type of bone affected, the affliction, and how it occurred. It is an amazing site that allows academic and criminal justice professionals the opportunity to have a better online source to compare to their work or the work of others. I decided I wanted to take images of high intensity cranial trauma, specifically blunt force and sharp force trauma. When I took on this task I was asked to find certain individuals who I wanted to take images of, I chose 3 different remains to study. I was then tasked with setting up a professional photography session and taking images of the traumas. I would set up two shadow boxes on either side of the front of the table I was taking images on, followed by putting a very bright light behind where the object I would photograph would be. I would lay down a black sheet in order to give a basic background and put a box underneath it that would be an impromptu heightened background for the object. Then I would use lego’s or bean bags placed underneath the black sheet to put the bone in correct anatomical position in the middle of this set up. I would then use the camera adjusting its settings for the correct lighting and clarity to take the images. I would probably take up to hundred photos from many different angles and positions to get the best image. After all of those taskers were done I would put away the equipment and remains. Following that  I would transfer the images to the computer to begin photo-shopping.  Once I had them uploaded to the computer I would open them up with photo shop and begin blacking out the entire background surrounding the bone. After successfully doing so I would add in the Texas State logo and a scale to officiate the image. I would create a file to make sure that each image was correctly organized and not mixed in with other remains photos. I wouldn’t do anything else since it is up to another graduate student on if the photos are of quality and if they want to post them.

 

Special Projects

As I mentioned before I was partially focused on a special side project where I took photos of trauma  for the website FOROST.org. I chose three different individuals who had suffered from high intensity trauma, 2 suffered from gunshot wounds and the third was someone who was injured during a fight where a gun was used along with some sort of blunt force trauma. My goal while focusing on these individuals was to take pictures emphasizing their injuries and showing the depth of the trauma. None of the individuals survived their injuries due to the fact that there was no healing along the fractures. All three of the individuals craniums were so badly fractured I had to use clay to put them back together for the photo’s. It was an extremely complicated process to get the correct positioning with the craniums put together with clay but I was able to take many successful photos. Once I took photos of the remains capturing the extent of the injuries I would review them on the computer. I would make sure that the lighting was perfect, the image was clear, and the fractures/trauma was easily seen. After finding the perfect images I would then use photo-shop to completely make the background black adding in the Texas State Logo and a scale. This was the extent of my special project but I was extremely excited to help put these images out since they will assist in further studies over high velocity trauma.

Another special event I participated in was a 2 day recovery course hosted by Texas State. I was invited by the department to participate in helping the people who were there to take the course and also touch up on my own excavation skills. We started the first day off on a beautiful Saturday morning where Dr. Wescott ran us through a crash course on Forensic Anthropology and what this course along with others offered are truly about. After we did that we had another crash course on how to run a successful excavation by the graduate students. It was simple excavation techniques like sectioning off an excavation area, mapping via grid, and also mapping by association. Once we completed all those taskers we were given a hearty lunch and told that within an hour we would head out to the field. We were given groups based on the number of students and I was grouped with some really nice girls from California. We went out to the property where the bodies were kept, carpooling with anyone brave enough to traverse the dirt road. Once we arrived we were lead through large gates protecting the land and directed to grab gloves and booties for the walk out there. Many were awestruck by the vastness of the property and the amazing bodies laid out. After the amazement settled our group walked in a horizontal line where we were directed to look for any evidence and also our grave site. Our group didn’t find any evidence but once we came across our grave it was very apparent we were in the right spot. We flagged the area that was covered in fresh vegetation and outlined what we thought to be the grave. Once that was completed we made sure to document our findings in writing and also through photography. Then we set up a datum that would allow us to create a proper grid for the grave, we chose a pole about 20 yards away to be that datum. Following that we began to set up a rectangular grid which encompassed the vegetation entirely. We then began to clear the vegetation so we had a nice surface to begin digging, making sure to put any dirt brought up into buckets to be sifted. Unfortunately we did not get past this step before we were told the day was  coming to an end and we would have to continue the next day. The next morning we arrived quite early to have a short powwow and trek back out to our site. The girls and I were quite excited to begin digging immediately and rushed there as quickly as possible. When we arrived we began the slow process of troweling the surface making sure to not disturb any bone or evidence. Every 10 centimeters we took a break to sift through all our dirt, take images, and map the grave. It wasn’t till close to lunch when we finally uncovered our beautiful skeleton, after that our group dug even faster in excitement of what we would find. Since I was an intern who has already taken this course I chose to do most of the sifting of the dirt so they could have the fun of excavating. After we had a another hearty lunch we came back, full of vigor ready to get to the bottom, and inventory the remains. The ladies and I continued digging till about 2 in the afternoon and finally were able to completely view the remains in their entirety. We then stopped to take photos, map again, and document the graves contents. Once that was completed we were finally able to remove the remains while simultaneously filling out an inventory. With all that done we put the remains in a bio hazard bag and waited till we could put another body in our grave with backfilled dirt. The girls and I had enough time to look at the other students graves which was quite exciting. The other students had remains with a pacemaker that were still beeping and one female individual who still had her breast implants intact. Once our curiosity was satiated we were gifted with another mummified body to put into our grave. We lowered it down into the grave with grace and were given permission to maneuver the legs or arms into any position suiting a typical grave context. We filled the grave with all the dirt we had sifted that morning, cleaned up our area of our equipment, and headed back to the main building. Once we arrived we began putting all the images we took into an outlined PowerPoint and hustled to get ready to present our findings. Overall the ladies and I in my group learned a lot about the process of excavating remains correctly, as well as have a great time doing it.

 

Conceptual Context

Forensic Anthropology as a whole is a very new field of study only starting in the mid 1800’s. Harvard anatomy professors Jeffries Wyman and Oliver Wendell were the first individuals in American history to use the method of skeletal identification to assist in a criminal investigation (Tersigni-Tarrant, 2013). There investigation surrounded the death of their fellow colleague Dr. George Parkman who was later found to be murdered by Harvard Chemistry professor John Webster (Tersigni-Tarrant, 2013). The two anatomy professors used the burned pieces of the skeletal remains found in a furnace on the Harvard property to conclude that they were looking at Dr. George Parkman (Tersigni-Tarrant, 2013). The key piece of evidence that put Webster behind bars was a set of dentures found in the furnace along with the remains that matched Dr. Parkman’s dental records (Tersigni-Tarrant, 2013). Following that the next individual in America to practice the methodology and  considered the father of Forensic Anthropology was Thomas Dwight (Tersigni-Tarrant, 2013). He was one of the first individuals to study and discuss the use of skeletal remains to identify persons. He identified that skeletal remains could be used to determine age, sex and stature, making a huge step towards what the field encompasses today (Tersigni-Tarrant, 2013). Many different academics followed after, leading to the man who led the modern revolution of the field today, William M. Bass. Starting off at the University of Kansas creating his own graduate program for the school he paved way for many physical anthropologist( Tersigni-Tarrant, 2013) . Following that he moved to Tennessee to start another important physical anthropology program and opening up the infamous Anthropological Research Facility which has given the field the credibility it always deserved. The Anthropological Research Facility was the first of its kind, allowing for education and research of human decomposition. Which is exactly what the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State accomplishes; allowing students and professionals the ability to learn in a constantly adapting facility. Dr. Daniel Wescott is currently the Director of FACTS who spearheads all new ideas for the facility. He has been a key player in the success of the facility and educating students on new age Forensic Anthropology methods.  Another person who has made waves at the facility is Dr. Kate Spradley who started her own project called Operation Identification, where she is visiting border towns with limited government assistance to deal with the mass of individuals dying on their way into America (Christensen, 2014). She along with many other academic groups go out to dig up mass graves created by the counties and uses forensic anthropology skills to identify the remains in hopes to repatriate them to worried families. Conceptually the work of Forensic Anthropologist are vital to helping society and the individuals who reside within it. Not only can the field lend itself to helping in criminal justice situations but it can guarantee that remains found can be identified via scientific evidence. These identifications can help put worried families minds to rest, solve crimes, and make sure that the person responsible is charged appropriately. Another facet of Forensic Anthropology is educating the masses; not only just the academics but also the police and medical force who support the criminal justice field. It is highly important that these groups have the proper training to identify remains and determine what procedural steps they should take to appropriately handle the situation. When I first took the 2 day human recovery course as an independent student I was honored to take it with San Antonio Police officers who were just doing it for their own edification. The importance of this is massive since for a long time most police or medical professionals have never had this kind of hands on top-notch training in the central Texas area. With this training under their belt they can understand the professionalism used by Forensic Anthropologists and how to conduct a proper excavation so that if they need to do it without an academics help they can do it successfully. Finally the importance of the field is that academically it allows endless learning of present and past humans. Even though there have been physical anthropologists in the field for over a hundred years the additions to the education system now is monumental. Having the ability to study human remains along with accurately depicting who a person was in their life via their bones is substantial. Many average citizens do not realize how much your lifestyle can inflict on your bones and how that can make unique markers of identification. Not only does lifestyle contribute but also the environment, which can create a dialogue on human development and the importance of understanding these makers in a larger concept. I think this field will continually uncover mysterious on humans for years to come, allowing anthropological discoveries scientist never knew existed. Since this field has recently gained momentum and interest across academic fields recently, there is no doubt in my mind that it will be a key component in anthropology departments across the world. Forensic Anthropology is one of the most interesting fields of study and its presence will always have a huge impact on society.

 

Conclusion

This internship was eye-opening, I came in thinking I knew what Forensic Anthropology was, but was pleasantly humbled by learning it true meaning. I gained skills that I thought I would never have honed at this time in my life, and it has made me into a better Forensic Anthropology student.  I have learned so much about the human body, how different every human being is, and how beautiful life after death can be for those scientifically minded individuals who donate their remains. I think that the department at Texas State is just getting started, and within a short amount of time they will be on par with the facility in Tennessee allowing for education of all those young forensic anthropologists out there. I could have stayed at UTSA getting a B.A. in Anthropology but I am happy that I came to this institution, because I don’t think I could have gotten a better education anywhere else. Also I don’t think I would’ve had the opportunity to work alongside such hard working and dedicated individuals at my internship. I am happy I could conclude my undergraduate academic career with the Forensic Anthropology department and I hope to continue learning as much as I can about the field.

 

References

Christensen, Angi M., Nicholas V. Passalacqua, and Eric J. Bartelink. 2014. Forensic Anthropology Current Methods and Practice. San Diego, CA: Elsevier Inc.

Tersigni-Tarrant, MariaTeresa A., and Natalie R. Shirley, ed. 2013. Forensic Anthropology An Introduction. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis Group

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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