Faculty Forum

January, 2007

Tales Told by the Dead

by David R. Starbuck

Faculty forum

A PSU anthropologist introduces his students to the field of forensic anthropology.

Bones, Bodies and Disease” is an overview course covering the exciting field of forensic anthropology. This relatively new field uses the human skeleton to help in legal and medical investigations, and complements forensic pathology, which studies changes in soft tissues caused by disease or injury; forensic entomology, which uses insects (especially blowflies) to aid in legal investigations; and forensic psychiatry, which applies psychiatric knowledge to legal problems (especially investigations of serial killers, stalkers, cannibals and others).

In class my students learn how to identify and measure the bones of the skeleton, watch films of human rights cases that involve the excavation of mass graves, and discuss innovative programs such as the famous Body Farm at the University of Tennessee, where bodies left outdoors become food for bugs, birds, insects and microscopic organisms as scientists seek to understand the process of decomposition.

Courses on forensic anthropology confront death objectively as we examine skeletons and determine sex, age, race, height, physique, and handedness, and look for evidence of trauma, disease, cause of death, and manner of death.

It is often controversial when forensic anthropologists and pathologists study the remains of famous individuals. But important discoveries have been made by studying the bodies of the Romanovs, the family of Tsar Nicholas II in Russia; Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi, in Brazil; President Zachary Taylor; Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador, in Peru; gunfighters Jesse James and William Preston Longley; and the Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1963.

Our ancestors were forced to cope with death much more frequently than we, the result of high mortality rates in infancy and of diseases that have been largely overcome today through advances in medical science. Until recent times, family members were expected to wash and prepare the bodies of their loved ones prior to burial; and the use of funeral homes—which effectively distance the living from the dead—is a very recent phenomenon.

Through the 19th century, human bones were frequently collected as souvenirs, and the desks of doctors typically held a skull or two. Ironically, in our own sanitized culture we are still so fascinated by death that we now bombard ourselves with simulated, death-related images on television in shows such as CSI, Six Feet Under, Bones, New Detectives, and Forensic Files. We avoid the reality of death even as we seek it out in fantasy form.

We are able to read, watch and gasp over a seemingly endless parade of stories about death because it is without question one of the most profound and disturbing parts of the human experience. How we respond to death is a very clear reflection of the values, beliefs, and fears of our culture.

Anthropologists (especially archaeologists) were once known for systematically exhuming skeletons as a regular part of our research. However, modern sensitivities toward the dead, and passage in 1990 of The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (which requires the return of the remains of Native Americans and other cultural items to their lineal descendants and culturally affiliated tribes), has markedly reduced our opportunities and desire for this type of research.

Instead, modern studies of human skeletal remains more often focus on moving historic cemeteries that are in the way of highways and housing developments; of assisting groups like Physicians for Human Rights and international criminal tribunals to bring to trial those who have committed human rights abuses in Guatemala, Argentina, Bosnia, Croatia, Rwanda and elsewhere; and assisting authorities in identifying fragmentary remains presented to local police departments. I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with skeletons from graves in Mexico, Peru, and New York State.

Most of us who teach courses on forensic anthropology approach it a bit differently. In my case, I augment my “Bones, Bodies and Disease” course by taking my students, three or four at a time, to attend autopsies conducted in the morgue at Concord Hospital. This is not a course requirement, but I do encourage students to attend at least one autopsy. Understanding the placement of the organs and tissues that surround the skeleton, and observing how they have become diseased or injured, leads to a much more complete learning experience.

There is nothing pleasant about attending an autopsy, but there is the opportunity to learn more about the human body in a few hours than is possible by reading many books or listening to a semester-full of classroom lectures. To me, this is the most intense, the most focused, learning experience that my students will undergo in their lives.

It’s true that even students who have never taken my classes sometimes refer to me as “the professor who takes students to autopsies.” This ghoulish-sounding label sometimes makes me wonder how I ever got into this line of work.

Our PSU students often enter into this field in original and productive ways. This past year Caleb King ’06 was writing his senior paper on the remains of a female skeleton that had been loaned to PSU by a New Hampshire school. Part of his task was to trace its rather circuitous path from a cellar in Massachusetts to its current home in our laboratory. But partway into the study, the skeleton was confiscated and ordered burned by a consultant to the state of New Hampshire. She believed the skeleton exhibited signs of an advanced case of tuberculosis. We were told that our students needed to be tested for TB. Caleb’s topic was about to fly into an incinerator. Fortunately, old cases of tuberculosis are not dangerous to humans, and after several days the deputy state epidemiologist ruled that the skeleton be returned to us for educational purposes. Still, it was a good cautionary lesson and demonstrated to our students that this line of research does have some attendant dangers.

A very different type of study was conducted the previous year by another anthropology senior, Terri Crawford ’04, who staked out a pig carcass in Langdon Park, (see story in Summer 2004 issue of Plymouth Magazine) on the edge of the PSU campus, and observed its rate of decomposition over a number of months. She had heard that pigs decompose just like humans, and wanted to create her own mini-Body Farm. Unfortunately, once it was covered with maggots she was too squeamish to go near the remains. Her professor (me) was the one who eventually had to retrieve the bones, which now rest under my kitchen sink, awaiting a good scrubbing and bleaching. (Yes, forensic anthropologists are often known for rather peculiar habits and cast-iron stomachs.)

Plymouth State University is poised to make a difference in this fascinating and important field. Studying physical anthropology has certainly benefited my own work as an archaeologist. PSU’s students in anthropology and in criminal justice already profit from courses in forensic science, as well as from our new anthropology laboratory in Rounds Hall. I can foresee the day when PSU may be the institution to hire the first full-time forensic anthropologist in New Hampshire. This could have wide ranging benefits not only for our students, but for the region and the state.

David R. Starbuck is associate professor of anthropology in the Department of Social Science at Plymouth State University. His latest book is The Archaeology of New Hampshire (University Press of New England, 2006) and he is now working on The Archaeology of Forts and Battlefields (University Press of Florida).

A PSU anthropologist introduces his students to the field of forensic anthropology.

Bones, Bodies and Disease” is an overview course covering the exciting field of forensic anthropology. This relatively new field uses the human skeleton to help in legal and medical investigations, and complements forensic pathology, which studies changes in soft tissues caused by disease or injury; forensic entomology, which uses insects (especially blowflies) to aid in legal investigations; and forensic psychiatry, which applies psychiatric knowledge to legal problems (especially investigations of serial killers, stalkers, cannibals and others).

In class my students learn how to identify and measure the bones of the skeleton, watch films of human rights cases that involve the excavation of mass graves, and discuss innovative programs such as the famous Body Farm at the University of
Tennessee, where bodies left outdoors become food for bugs, birds, insects and microscopic organisms as scientists seek to understand the process of decomposition.

Courses on forensic anthropology confront death objectively as we examine skeletons and determine sex, age, race, height, physique, and handedness, and look for evidence of trauma, disease, cause of death, and manner of death.

It is often controversial when forensic anthropologists and pathologists study the remains of famous individuals. But important discoveries have been made by studying the bodies of the Romanovs, the family of Tsar Nicholas II in Russia; Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi, in Brazil; President Zachary Taylor; Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador, in Peru; gunfighters Jesse James and William Preston Longley; and the Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1963.

Our ancestors were forced to cope with death much more frequently than we, the result of high mortality rates in infancy and of diseases that have been largely overcome today through advances in medical science. Until recent times, family members were expected to wash and prepare the bodies of their loved ones prior to burial; and the use of funeral homes—which effectively distance the living from the dead—is a very recent phenomenon.

Through the 19th century, human bones were frequently collected as souvenirs, and the desks of doctors typically held a skull or two. Ironically, in our own sanitized culture we are still so fascinated by death that we now bombard ourselves with simulated, death-related images on television in shows such as CSI, Six Feet Under, Bones, New Detectives, and Forensic Files. We avoid the reality of death even as we seek it out in fantasy form.

We are able to read, watch and gasp over a seemingly endless parade of stories about death because it is without question one of the most profound and disturbing parts of the human experience. How we respond to death is a very clear reflection of the values, beliefs, and fears of our culture.

Anthropologists (especially archaeologists) were once known for systematically exhuming skeletons as a regular part of our research. However, modern sensitivities toward the dead, and passage in 1990 of The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (which requires the return of the remains of Native Americans and other cultural items to their lineal descendants and culturally affiliated tribes), has markedly reduced our opportunities and desire for this type of research.

Instead, modern studies of human skeletal remains more often focus on moving historic cemeteries that are in the way of highways and housing developments; of assisting groups like Physicians for Human Rights and international criminal tribunals to bring to trial those who have committed human rights abuses in Guatemala, Argentina, Bosnia, Croatia, Rwanda and elsewhere; and assisting authorities in identifying fragmentary remains presented to local police departments. I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with skeletons from graves in Mexico, Peru, and New York State.

Most of us who teach courses on forensic anthropology approach it a bit differently. In my case, I augment my “Bones, Bodies and Disease” course by taking my students, three or four at a time, to attend autopsies conducted in the morgue at Concord Hospital. This is not a course requirement, but I do encourage students to attend at least one autopsy. Understanding the placement of the organs and tissues that surround the skeleton, and observing how they have become diseased or injured, leads to a much more complete learning experience.

There is nothing pleasant about attending an autopsy, but there is the opportunity to learn more about the human body in a few hours than is possible by reading many books or listening to a semester-full of classroom lectures. To me, this is the most intense, the most focused, learning experience that my students will undergo in their lives.

It’s true that even students who have never taken my classes sometimes refer to me as “the professor who takes students to autopsies.” This ghoulish-sounding label sometimes makes me wonder how I ever got into this line of work.

Our PSU students often enter into this field in original and productive ways. This past year Caleb King ’06 was writing his senior paper on the remains of a female skeleton that had been loaned to PSU by a New Hampshire school. Part of his task was to trace its rather circuitous path from a cellar in Massachusetts to its current home in our laboratory. But partway into the study, the skeleton was confiscated and ordered burned by a consultant to the state of New Hampshire. She believed the skeleton exhibited signs of an advanced case of tuberculosis. We were told that our students needed to be tested for TB. Caleb’s topic was about to fly into an incinerator. Fortunately, old cases of tuberculosis are not dangerous to humans, and after several days the deputy state epidemiologist ruled that the skeleton be returned to us for educational purposes. Still, it was a good cautionary lesson and demonstrated to our students that this line of research does have some attendant dangers.

A very different type of study was conducted the previous year by another anthropology senior, Terri Crawford ’04, who staked out a pig carcass in Langdon Park, (see story in Summer 2004 issue of Plymouth Magazine) on the edge of the PSU campus, and observed its rate of decomposition over a number of months. She had heard that pigs decompose just like humans, and wanted to create her own mini-Body Farm. Unfortunately, once it was covered with maggots she was too squeamish to go near the remains. Her professor (me) was the one who eventually had to retrieve the bones, which now rest under my kitchen sink, awaiting a good scrubbing and bleaching. (Yes, forensic anthropologists are often known for rather peculiar habits and cast-iron stomachs.)

Plymouth State University is poised to make a difference in this fascinating and important field. Studying physical anthropology has certainly benefited my own work as an archaeologist. PSU’s students in anthropology and in criminal justice already profit from courses in forensic science, as well as from our new anthropology laboratory in Rounds Hall. I can foresee the day when PSU may be the institution to hire the first full-time forensic anthropologist in New Hampshire. This could have wide ranging benefits not only for our students, but for the region and the state.

David R. Starbuck is associate professor of anthropology in the Department of Social Science at Plymouth State University. His latest book is The Archaeology of New Hampshire (University Press of New England, 2006) and he is now working on The Archaeology of Forts and Battlefields (University Press of Florida).


Comments are closed.