Forensic Anthropology Skeletal Biology

Laci Frank, Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State

Me overlooking the bone grid

Me overlooking the bone grid

Introduction

I completed an internship with the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS) during the 2018 spring semester. During the course of my internship with FACTS I had two specific projects. The first project involved reassociating unassociated bones that had been misplaced over the years from their individual donation, and the second project was to create a time lapse photo series of facial decomposition.

Texas State is home to a forensic anthropology research facility (FACTS) that has a worldwide reputation for the opportunity it provides for observation and research at any of their three labs that make up this facility. Buried in the hills of San Marcos is a little known secret with a large reputation. The most famous of the FACTS counterparts is the 26-acre outdoor Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF). This facility at Freeman Ranch is where donations from individuals in the Willed Body Donation Program are placed and carefully observed through various stages of decomposition. At FARF there various types of research being performed including vulture scavenging, covered vs non-covered decomposition research, and burial research. The donations are out at FARF for anywhere between 1-3 years and are then disarticulated and sent to the Osteological Research and Processing Lab (ORPL). At ORPL the remains are processed, inventoried, labeled, and sent to the Grady Early Forensic Anthropology Research Lab (GEFARL) to be curated in to the Texas State Donated Skeletal Collection for future research.

With these various research projects and transport to the different labs, there poses a threat of loss of skeletal elements from the donated individual. Even with great diligence of the students and faculty at the facilities, some elements are scavenged away from their individual, not recovered from a burial, or misplaced during transport or processing and found later by students and faculty.

Reassociating Remains

When these misplaced elements are found, they are labeled and placed into an “unassociated bin” at the facility. My first project was to locate and associate the misplaced elements to their individual . Reassociating the misplaced elements is important so that FACTS may possess a skeletal collection that is a complete representation of the individuals that donate their bodies to the organization.

The process began with cataloguing the elements at ORPL. I began by sorting the bags based on how they were labeled and photographed them. Some of the bags had great detail on them including the date, location, element, and potential individuals whereas others were simply just a date.

Figure 2 5a Bag

Figure 2. 5a Bag

Figure 3 5a Bag

Figure 3. 5a Bag

Figure 4 5F Bag Front

Figure 4. 5F Bag Front

Figure 5. 5F Bag back

Figure 5. 5F Bag back

Once photographed and catalogued into a spreadsheet, I opened the bags and began processing the elements, laying them out on a labeled grid for drying. I then photographed the clean, dry elements on the where they lay on the grid, and placed them back in to the bags to be stored until reassociation.

Figure 6. Bone Grid Overview 5A-5B

Figure 6. Bone Grid Overview 5A-5B

Figure 7. Bone Grid Overview 5F

Figure 7. Bone Grid Overview 5F

Finding the individuals the elements may have belonged to started with the given information on the bag. Taking the date and any other information given, I gathered the FARF maps and traced back to the most relevant date to see when the element was found. Once I had the map I felt was most accurate, I searched the map to locate where it may have been found and what donations it may have been close to see if this may be the individual to which the element belongs. I then checked the skeletal inventories of the donations for the missing element. If the individual was indeed missing that specific element I made a note to check the collection and see if it was a match. If then individual was not missing the element I was looking for I headed back to the maps to continue searching.
Once I completed mapping the bags, I headed over to GEFARL to examine the remains for potential matches. I pulled the potential matches from the collection, and assessed the remains to see if the individual and the element belonged together. Using size, articulation patterns, and pathology, I made an educated guess of whether or not the element belonged to the individual, and noted it to be verified by faculty before being curated in with the collection. Of the 63 bags in total, we were able to reassociate 24 to their individuals.

Observing Decomposition

FACTS hosts many guests from both educational and professional settings, and often gives lectures on the work being done on the processes of decomposition. Although much research and observation is performed out at FARF, FACTS lacked a visual representation of the process of facial decomposition to provide during these lectures. My project was to observe and photograph facial decomposition of two individuals, and create a time lapse video for FACTS.

The project began with the placement of the individuals at FARF. A cage was placed over the individuals to prevent scavenging and predation of the individual that may have influenced the decomposition process. We then fastened an apparatus over the face hole of the cage so that the photos could be as consistent in angle and depth as possible. The first photo was taken the afternoon of placement, and the subsequent photos began the next morning.

Photos were taken of the individuals every morning for 14 days around the same time to get a correct interval and to help control for lighting. These photos were then edited for size, angle, and lighting, and composed into a video displaying the photos in sequence to show the process of facial decomposition. This project was important to FACTS so that an accurate visual representation of the facial decomposition process can be presented to guests at the facility.
During my collection of the photos for my internship I noticed some inconsistencies in the photos. I had trouble controlling for the angle of the camera and the lighting of the photo, and it posed a problem for the completeness of what I was looking for to present in the final video. I also noticed that although the 24hr photo interval provided for a visual aid and a representation of the decomposition, there were some stages of the decomposition process that occurred off camera. With this observation, I came up with a research design to help control for some of these factors using proper time lapse equipment and a longer timeline for the research. I applied for and received funding to perform this research and will begin my project Fall 2018. I am looking forward to conducting this research and providing FACTS with more complete research and up-to-date equipment.

Conclusion

Interning with FACTS has been a very rewarding experience and has expanded my knowledge of osteology and decomposition. With my reassociation project I was able to gain hands-on experience with individual variation and how specific skeletal elements articulate to one another. With my decomposition project I was able gain experience with how the decomposition process occurs and how to properly observe, document, and photograph a donated individual.

Working at these facilities within the various stages of my projects allowed me to gain a variety of knowledge and hands-on experience with decomposition, skeletal processing, inventory of skeletal elements, and articulation patterns. My involvement with FACTS via this internship has given me insight on the various research and application of research in forensic anthropology and has encouraged me to pursue graduate work at Texas State. I hope to become more familiar with skeletal variation and decomposition, and am looking forward to what new ideas my research in the fall may present me with.

About the author

The Internship Coordinator

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