Forensic Case Files: The Exhumation of H.H. Holmes


We’re ramping up toward the release of Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries #5, LAMENT THE COMMON BONES, so I thought it would be fun to do a forensic anthropology story this week. There was a big story last month that I didn’t review because we were busy with the launch of BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE, but it’s worth covering—the exhumation and the analysis of the body buried in the grave belonging to H.H. Holmes.

For anyone unfamiliar with Dr. Henry Howard (H.H) Holmes, he was a serial killer and con artist who operated against the backdrop of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Holmes, an alias of Herman Webster Mudgett, was born in New Hampshire in 1861, graduated from the University of Michigan’s Department of Medicine and Surgery in 1884, and was a bigamist, at one point being married to three women simultaneously while being engaged to several others.

Holmes settled in Chicago in 1886 and purchased a drug store on a busy intersection in the Englewood neighbourhood. He purchased a lot on the opposite corner from the drug store, designed, and then started construction of a multi-use, three-story building—a drug store on the ground floor with apartments and hotel rooms above that he claimed were part of the World’s Fair Hotel (though there is no evidence they were ever used for this purpose, or even fully completed). His own rooms were located on the third floor.


The upper floors of the building were a nightmarish design of soundproofed rooms, labyrinthine corridors, doors that locked only from the outside, air-tight spaces with installed gas vents, and chutes that transported room occupants to the basement for incineration or to be dissolved in vats of acid. Holmes was ingenious in his methods, even ensuring that no single builder understood the depravity of the building’s design—he would fire workers after short contacts, ensuring that no one ever fully understood the full horror of his plans.

Following the discovery of the building’s real purpose, it was christened ‘The Murder Castle’—a place where people went in, but never came out. Holmes himself admitted to killing twenty-seven individuals, though only nine deaths were confirmed. However, his legend has grown, and some accounts report over two hundred deaths at his hands. What is certain is that several of his paramours/fiancées lost their lives inside the Castle, as well as a number of women who responded to advertisements for employment.

Apart from the lives lost in 1893 during the World’s Fair, it was actually the death of a fellow con artist that finally convicted Holmes. The pair concocted a scheme to fake the death of an inventor in a laboratory explosion and fire. Benjamin Pitezel set up the fake persona and purchased a $10,000 insurance policy. Holmes was supposed to produce a body to be disfigured during the fire, but, instead, he killed Pitezel so he could make the insurance claim without having to split it with a partner. Holmes was eventually caught, tried for Pitezel’s murder, and sentenced to death. He was hanged in 1896.

Earlier this year, a request was made by the Mudgett family to exhume Holmes’s grave to ensure he was buried there. Family legend told that despite Holmes’s request to be buried in a coffin filled with cement and then interred under seven three-thousand-pound barrels of cement to deter grave robbers and infamy seekers, he had escaped execution. The exhumation order was granted and the body was recovered last spring.

Samantha Cox, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, completed the examination. Due to the method of burial within cement, the body had not fully decomposed. The man’s burial clothes were intact and he still sported a mustache, but the tissues were mostly putrefied but not fully liquefied. Due to the extent of decomposition, DNA could not be extracted from the remaining tissue slurry, but was instead extracted from tooth pulp for PCR and familial DNA profiling. Last month, the results were revealed: the body in the grave of H.H. Holmes was indeed Holmes himself. Despite his wily ways and life of crime, in the end, he was caught and punished. Holmes body was returned to his grave and buried once again.

As a side note, anyone who is interested in more on the life of H.H. Holmes would enjoy the narrative non-fiction novel ‘The Devil in the White City’ by Erik Larson. It’s a well-researched, fascinating account of both the 1893 World’s Fair ‘Columbian Exposition’ and the simultaneous, horrific career of H.H. Holmes.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Forensic Case Files: The Bard’s Missing Skull

There has been controversy for years about who Shakespeare really was. History tells us he was the son of a glove maker, born in Stratford-upon-Avon in England in 1564, who grew up to be an actor, poet and playwright. But doubts were raised that someone born in a small village and living so far outside royal life would be able to write about it so eloquently, and some have proposed that Sir Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe were actually ‘The Bard’. But the man most recognize as the ‘greatest writer in the English language’ is known to have died four hundred years ago on April 23, 1616. He was laid to rest two days later in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in his beloved Stratford-upon-Avon. Later, his wife, daughter and son-in-law were buried beside him.

Two stories of a strange grave robbing surfaced roughly 250 years later, in 1879 and 1884. They describe a doctor digging up Shakespeare’s head in 1769, possibly to sell to an art dealer. There is a theory from the time that a person’s genius could be discerned from their skull alone, so Shakespeare’s skull would have had significant worth.

Recently, that tale was put to the test as researchers from Staffordshire University were allowed to come into Holy Trinity Church with ground penetrating radar equipment to scan the grave under an etched stone slab. And what they found supports those stories—the results show a disturbance at the head end of the grave showing where dirt was removed and replaced, and the skull does not appear to be present. The scans also show that Shakespeare and his family were not buried in coffins, but simply wrapped in cloth shrouds and entombed in shallow graves, which would have certainly made grave robbing an easier task.

Researchers realize their results ask more questions than they answer, but they are determined to go back to the records of the time to try and solve the mystery of Shakespeare’s missing skull. Was it truly stolen, or could it reside in another church or in a family member’s tomb instead?

An interesting side note to the theft is the epitaph chiseled on Shakespeare’s tomb, one the robbers most certainly ignored:

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blessed be the man that spares these stones,

And cursed be he that moves my bones.


Photo credit:  Steve

The Women of Stonehenge

Stonehenge—the ancient Neolithic monument in Wiltshire, England—was built approximately 4,000 – 5,000 years ago. The modern configuration of the henge was built over a span of nearly 2,000 years—from the initial shaping of the land, to construction of a timber structure, the transition to the first stone structure, and finally to the transport and configuration of the massive twenty-five ton sandstone blocks and their associated blue stones that remain on-site today.

Stonehenge was built and used during a time before history was documented in written records. While word of mouth passed down stories for generations, this many millennia after its creation, some of the purposes of Stonehenge have been lost to the ages. However, modern research proposes a number of uses for the site, including that it may be one of the oldest recorded organized burial grounds of both human and animal remains. It also served as an astronomical calendar, arranged to align with sunset at the winter solstice and sunrise at the summer solstice with a precision that is almost unbelievable considering the knowledge and tools of the time. It was used for religious ceremonies, and it has also been suggested Stonehenge was used as a place of healing based on the condition and associated traumas of the remains discovered on site.

Computer rendering of the completed Stonehenge

Computer rendering of the completed Stonehenge

Stone Age human remains were recovered from Stonehenge in 2008 and have been studied by researchers at University College London. The original find revealed over two hundred cremated individuals in a chalk pit. From this, fourteen females and nine males were definitively identified using CT scans and radiocarbon dating to determine not only the sex but the age and date of burial of the remains.

It was the proportion of females to males that most impacted researchers. In today’s society where North American women still experience the resistance of the glass ceiling and many women internationally are simply fighting for autonomy and the right to vote, researchers were impressed by the clear acceptance of women in positions of power. Only the most influential members of society would be buried in such an important spiritual place, so this is a clear indication of a gender-equal society a full five thousand years ago.

In many modern depictions of Stonehenge’s history, ritual and rite are only conducted for men and by men, but science shows that Stone Age society was perhaps more advanced than we previously believed. Sometimes it’s good to look to the past to inform our modern lives, and this might be a good example of when lessons can be learned from those who have gone before us.

Photo credit: Peter Trimming and Wikimedia Commons

Forensic Case Files: 74 Years Later, the Dead of Pearl Harbor Come Home

Between June 8th and November 9th, 2015, the United States Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) exhumed sixty-one caskets from forty-five grave sites at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. This action is part of a current effort to identify the hundreds of lost sailors from the USS Oklahoma, sunk on December 7, 1941, during the surprise Japanese raid that catapulted the U.S. into the Second World War. Four hundred and twenty-nine men from the Oklahoma were lost that day, but only thirty-five were identified in the years following the attack. The DPAA hopes to use modern forensic methods to identify the lost and return them to their families.

The Oklahoma boasted a crew of 1,300 on that sunny Sunday morning when planes appeared high above at 7:55 a.m. As the air raid siren screamed, men ran for the anti-aircraft batteries. But before they could make an attempt to bring down any of the incoming planes, the Oklahoma was hit by three torpedoes on the port side. The ship immediately started to list, but was then struck by another five torpedoes at 8:00 a.m. Due to the shifting position of the ship, several of the five torpedoes struck above the armor line, creating significant damage. A final torpedo hit at 8:06 a.m. as the ship continued to roll. The vessel completely capsized within twelve minutes of the first torpedo strike. Due to the speed of the attack and the considerable damage, hundreds of men were trapped inside the ship. Up top, many jumped overboard as the ship went down, while, inside, others attempted to escape through tiny portholes. However, the majority of the men trapped within the hull drowned.

Following their recovery in 1943, these men were buried in various cemeteries around Hawaii.  Later, in 1949, following the first laboratory attempt at identification, the dead sailors were moved to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Today, many of their remains have been exhumed and lie in the DPAA lab awaiting identification through modern means. Some may be identified by dental records, still more by DNA analysis, a tool unavailable decades ago. The bones are weathered, both by months or years in oil-saturated seawater before recovery from the Oklahoma, followed by burial in Hawaiian graves. Years-long interment in Pearl Harbor reduced the bodies to mere bones, and the remains of men who died in close quarters became co-mingled. However, worse, due to an assumption in the lab during the initial unsuccessful attempts at identification that re-internment would be in a mass grave, individuals were separated and their skeletal elements grouped by type (all the skulls in one area, etc.). When the lab workers were informed that the sailors were to be buried individually and were told to reassemble the remains, they were unable to do so. As a result, a single exhumed casket can contain the remains of up to ninety-five individuals. So the task of identification will now be a considerable challenge. Modern day forensic anthropologists hope to reassemble as many sets of remains as possible; DNA will accomplish the rest.

The DPAA hopes to bring home the missing and to bring closure to families, some of who lost two or even three sons who all served on the Oklahoma. So far, seven positive identifications have been made, but family notification is still forthcoming, so no names have been released yet. It is expected the project will take five years to complete, but the agency is hopeful that a minimum of 80% of the sailors will be successfully identified.

Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration

Forensic Case Files: West Port Murders

It’s been a while since we did a Forensic Case Files post, so I thought it was time to delve back into history to look at a fascinating case, one that I was unfamiliar with until one of our amazing street team readers made a comment in a blog post a few months back. When she read the blurb for LAMENT THE COMMON BONES, she commented that it was like shades of Burke and Hare, to which I said Who? I have no idea why I’d never heard this story because it’s a doozy.

Back in the early nineteenth century, medical science was advancing in leaps and bounds. But one aspect that held this burgeoning science back was the lack of autopsy specimens to use for dissections, both to explore the human body and to teach new medical students. Edinburgh, Scotland was a European hotbed of medical advances. Doctors were using cadavers from convict executions, but due to changes in the legal system of the time, fewer executions were occurring, leaving doctors shorthanded. One particular doctor, Robert Knox, took to paying for cadavers that were acquired for him outside the usual system. Many of these cadavers came from grave robbing, giving rise to the name for these body snatchers as ‘resurrectionists’. It got so bad in the 1820s that loved ones of the recently deceased took to hiring guards to watch over the newly buried dead until they had decomposed to an extent that they would not be useful in a dissection.

William Burke and William Hare found another way around this problem. Burke and Hare met as labourers working at the Union Canal. However, the lynchpin in what would become a significant killing spree was that Hare’s wife, Margaret, ran a lodging house for beggars in Edinburgh. It was owned by Margaret and her first husband, Logue, but when Logue died, and she married Hare, Margaret continued as landlady.

Burke and Hare’s life of crime started innocently enough. One of the lodgers died of natural causes while living at the house and still owning rent to Margaret. So Burke and Hare sold his body to Dr. Knox to recoup some of the lost monies. Dr. Knox, a surgeon from the Battle of Waterloo, gave public lectures, charging each of the up to four hundred attendees to attend. So Dr. Knox had a vested interest in ensuring he had sufficient cadavers to sustain his lecture series and his livelihood. It was well worth his seven pounds, ten shillings for a fresh cadaver. At a current value of approximately $1300, Burke and Hare were hooked.

At first they started murdering ill tenants in the boarding house by intoxicating and then suffocating them, a tactic later termed ‘burking’. When they ran out of tenants, they moved onto the homeless, the destitute and prostitutes, luring them into the lodging house, killing them and removing them from the premises in a tea chest. If it was not immediately convenient to move the body to the tea chest, they would often leave the victim under a bed in the room in which the murder took place. In the end, it was this practice that was their undoing.

A couple returned to the lodging house, the wife claiming to have left a pair of stockings behind. When she returned to her old room, she found the body of Mary Docherty, the final victim, under the bed. A ten pound bribe was offered to silence the couple, but they refused and reported the incident to the police. In all, sixteen victims died at the hands of Burke and Hare before they were caught.

Burke and Hare were imprisoned and the case went to trial on shaky grounds. For starters, only one body was recovered, the rest were all lost to medical dissections. And examiners could not definitively determine the cause of Mary Docherty’s cause of death. But Burke had made a fatal mistake—while they usually discarded the victims’ clothes into the Union Canal, Burke took the clothes of a young male victim and passed them onto his nephews, leaving later evidence for the prosecution. But the trial turned when Hare gave evidence against Burke in exchange for immunity from prosecution, leading to Burke’s conviction and eventual execution.

William Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829, and then his body was publically dissected. His skeleton still hangs today in the Anatomy Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School, and a book cover, a number of wallets, and a calling card case were made from his tanned skin. The book now resides in the Surgeon’s Museum, along with Burke’s death mask and a live cast of Hare’s face.

William Hare was released from prison in February of 1829 and made his way to Dumfries where he was instantly recognized, which started a riot. He was removed from town and left on a major road with instructions to strike out for the English border. He was seen two days later two miles south of Carlisle. There is no dependable record of his existence after that.

Dr. Knox, the medical doctor whose need for cadavers started Burke and Hare down the road to murder, was found guilty in the public eye of inciting the murders. This resulted in a Scottish mob throwing stones at his house, and then hanging and burning him in effigy. Knox remained in Edinburgh, giving his lecture series until the 1840s, before moving to London to finish out his life’s working as an anatomist at Brompton Hospital.

Forensic Case Files: The Oldest Known Murder

There’s a lot we’ve learned about our distant ancestors, the many species that dead-ended or contributed to the evolution of Homo sapiens. But there’s a lot that skeletal remains and fossil records don’t contain—direct evidence of interpersonal relationships, for example. This past week, a team of Spanish, American, French and Chinese scientists was able to shine a light on our long past ancestors when they revealed the oldest murder victim yet on record dating from 430,000 years ago (the original open access paper can be found here).

If you’re like me, that’s such a long time ago that it’s almost impossible to wrap your head around it. 430,000 years ago, we didn’t exist as a species. That was during the Pleistocene epoch, a geological age that lasted from 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago and included the last of our recent ice ages. The particular species in question, Homo heidelbergensis, is from the same genus as us (Homo) but differs at the species level (heidelbergensis vs. sapiens; although to be more exact, modern man is considered a more specific subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens). Scientific opinion on our relatedness to Homo heidelbergensis differs, with some scientists considering us to have evolved from them, while other theories place them on another branch of the evolutionary tree altogether. Either way, these were people who roamed northern Spain approximately 230,000 years before we first appeared on the African savanna.

Researchers discovered a mass grave when they were excavating a cave named Sima de los Huesos, Spanish for the ‘Pit of the Bones’, in the Atapuerca mountains in the north of Spain. This mass grave represents the earliest known funerary rights of early man.

The cave is located at the bottom of a 43-foot vertical shaft and contained a mixture of animal bones and the remains of 28 individuals. At first scientists questioned if some of the remains in the cave were the result of a catastrophic fall; some may have been, but overall antemortem vs. post-mortem bone damage of the remains contradicts this theory. However, the presence of one individual leads them to believe that many of them were deposited there after death by their fellow hominins.

Cranium 17 (pictured above), belonging to a young adult, was found within that cavern. Exhibiting two distinctive penetrating and fatal wounds above the left eye, it is clear that this individual did not die of natural causes. Due to the placement and pairing of the wounds, researchers theorize that a face-to-face encounter of ‘interpersonal violence’ occurred leading to the death of one of the two combatants. They also theorize that due to duplicate weapon strikes, either of which would have been fatal, the intention was clearly to kill and the second strike was simply a safeguard in case the first was insufficient to cause death.

Researchers have studied the wounds both microscopically and via CT scan. Measuring nearly an inch across, both wounds appear to have come from the same weapon as a similar notch appears in both defects (the black arrow marking T1 and T2 below). One aspect of the CT scan that struck me is that the weapon created a similar oblique fracture angle on the underside of the skull (see the red box in the scan below) that forensic anthropologists note when describing bullet injuries to the skull.

It is possible that the injury may have been accidental, but the mechanics of such a front-facing injury imply that it was likely intentional. The theory is supported by the presence of two identical weapon strikes. You might accidentally hit a person or be hit by something once, but twice is likely an intentional act. Furthermore, a wound on the left side of the body in a front-facing attack implies a right-handed attacker using a standard tool. In fact, the authors suggest a wooden or stone-tipped spear or a stone axe handle might have been the weapon of choice.

While interpersonal violence has been well documented since Neolithic times (10,200 to 2,000 B.C.), it has always been assumed to exist in earlier man’s interpersonal relationships. However, this is the first documented case of direct trauma responsible for an intentional death in one of modern man’s earliest ancestors.

Photo credit: Javier Trueba

Forensic Case Files: Medieval Cemetery Discovered Under a Parisian Supermarket

Recently, a surprising discovery was made in the basement of one of Paris’ Monoprix supermarkets. During some renovation work to lower the level of the basement (two full floors underground) to create additional storage space, a number of human remains were discovered beneath the floor, previously undisturbed since medieval times. Inrap, the French Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques Préventives, was called in to examine the find and then to do a full excavation before any renovation work would continue.

But how did so many human remains come to be found under an ordinary supermarket? In the end the answer was a simple one of land usage: the supermarket was built on the site of the cemetery of Hôpital de la Trinité. Trinité was established in the 12th century, but was destroyed at the end of the 18th century, allowing the land to be repurposed following the hospital’s demolition.

As the excavation space was cleared, eight separate graves spread over three parallel rows were discovered. Seven of the graves held two to five bodies, and one grave held over one hundred and fifty. Each grave was layered in five or six levels and part of the excavation disappears under the existing building wall, out of reach of archeologists.

The remains comprise a diverse group of male and female, children and adults of all ages. The skeletons are laid very closely together, arranged in alternating head to toe pattern to maximize the number buried in a small space. From this arrangement, Inrap archeologists propose that a ‘mass mortality crisis’ occurred, requiring a rapid and common burial. There are no injuries on any of the bones to explain any kind of violent death, implying that disease is responsible. The Bubonic plague epidemic of the late 1340s is one of the suggested causes; large-scale famine is another. Scientists are conducting DNA tests on the remains as well as carbon dating to obtain a more complete picture of catastrophe.

Inrap archeologists excavated the more than 1,000 square-foot site for two and a half months to remove all the remains. They hope to continue their study of the dead following the excavation with the hope of learning more about past burial practices―how the dead were added to the grave, the spatial and chronological organization, and sanitary criteria during an epidemic.

Much of Paris has been occupied since the Middle Ages, but due to dense population and building within the city, it is only when construction or renovation work reveals the city’s hidden dead that archeologists can shed light on Paris’ distant past. As a result, the Monoprix site is a wonderful opportunity for French archeologists, having only had twelve previous sites with which to study early funereal practices. Archeologists feel that work on this site could shed much light on not only how the Medieval French lived, but also how they died.

Photo credit: Denis Gliksman, Inrap

Forensic Case Files: The Final Journey of Richard III

We’ve been covering the fascinating story of England’s King Richard III for two and a half years now here on Skeleton Keys, so it only seems fitting to cover the last stage in his journey as well. The modern portion of Richard’s story started in August of 2012, when it was announced that the combined forces of the Richard III Society, and the University of Leicester Archeology Department had discovered very old remains under a parking lot in the City of Leicester. The remains were discovered under the posited historic location of Greyfriars church, where King Richard was supposedly buried in 1485 following his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The church was demolished in 1536, and its exact location lost to time in the following centuries, but meticulous research and many man hours led the combined team to this location.

Archeologists were hopeful that they had indeed discovered the remains of Richard III due to the conformation of the buried remains—the spine of the buried man had a significant curve or scoliosis. Over the centuries, the Tudor family, with the help of Shakespeare, had maligned Richard, turning the memory of a once-favoured king into that of a hunchbacked monster, and a man responsible for the death of his two nephews to ensure him the throne. But contemporary reports from Richard’s own time had simply reported him having one shoulder higher than the other, a common occurrence in those with scoliosis. Certainly, his curved spine didn’t prevent him from sitting a horse or fighting in battle. The skull also showed that the man had died a violent death, likely through battle.

In February of 2013, the University of Leicester released the news that the parking lot remains were indeed that of Richard III. Using mitochondrial DNA and tracing his line from his sister down through all the female relatives, as well as carbon dating, age and sex estimation of the remains, and analysis of the wounds to match with the account of Richard III’s death, it was determined they had a positive identification beyond any reasonable doubt.

On March 22nd, 2015, Richard III’s coffin, topped by a wreath of white roses, was transferred by horse-drawn carriage from the University of Leicester to Leicester Cathedral. Hundreds of people lined the route which passed the site of the Blue Boar, the inn he possibly stayed at during his last night; the Guildhall, built in 1390 and one of the last remaining buildings in Leicester Richard III might have seen; and the Newarke Gateway, through which his body was likely carried on its way back into the city following the battle. His body lay in state at the cathedral for the next three days as thousands came to pay tribute to the fallen monarch.

On March 26th, following more than a year of DNA testing, facial reconstruction, bone analysis and historical research, Richard III was finally laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral. Richard’s coffin, crafted by his decedent, carpenter Michael Ibsen, was carried into the cathedral by ten decorated Army soldiers and the service was presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury. His coffin was lowered into a tomb topped with a plinth of Kilkenny marble and will be closed with a massive block of Swaledale stone, incised across the top with a cross. Ironically, his final resting place is only forty yards from his original burial beneath Greyfriars church.

The service was attended by members of the royal family, including the Countess of Wessex, and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Queen Elizabeth II did not attend but sent a message that was read at the beginning of the service.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who will play Richard III in an upcoming BBC production, and who is a third cousin, sixteen times removed, of Richard III, read the poem Richard by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy (the video can be found here, for those of you who like me would listen to him read anything, including the dictionary).

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons  and The University of Leicester

Forensic Case Files: A Bad Rap for the Rats?

An interesting story broke a few weeks ago while we were on our run up to the release of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER. So I filed it away, with the intent of coming back to it. Last week’s story on the discovery of the Bedlam Cemetery—containing Black Plague victims, among others—reminded me about it.

We’ve covered the Black Plague on several occasions—in 2013 when victims were discovered during the Crossrail project, and in 2014, when my own university colleague, Dr. Hendrick Poinar, sequenced the genome of the 14th century pathogen responsible for that specific wave of the plague. The common belief held for centuries is that rodents, specifically black rats, were responsible for the spread of the disease through Europe. The rats carried diseased fleas from location to location, moving through cities on foot and across continents by stowing away in caravans and on boats. But authors of a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences propose that climate data from the time directly contradicts that explanation.

The optimum climate for rats includes warm summers with moderate precipitation. But looking at climate data for the time, there is no direct tie to European weather patterns. Instead, there is a direct correlation to Asian weather patterns, specifically wet springs followed by warm summers in central Asia. After each optimal Asian seasonal combination, Europe would experience a plague outbreak several weeks later. And while this is terrible weather for rats, it’s optimal for Asia’s gerbil population. These rodents could clandestinely travel the Silk Road, arriving several weeks later in Europe, bearing the plague where it then spread like wild fire. Finding a climate not to their liking, the gerbils would slowly die out and the epidemic would eventually abate. This would explain the way epidemics seemed to arrive in waves—each fresh wave was preceded by optimal Asian weather, prime gerbil breeding conditions, and a fresh arrival of disease-carrying gerbils in a vulnerable Europe.

Scientists will test this theory by examining DNA sequences from skeletons of European plague victims that died at various times. If the sequence of Y. pestis only slowly drifts over the decades and centuries, then that will support the previously held belief that there were local European reservoirs of disease from which each new epidemic sprung. But significant deviations in the DNA sequences will indicate that the disease arrived in fresh waves with each epidemic.

Maybe then, it will be time to apologize to the black rats for centuries of blame.

Photo credit: Shankar S. and S.J. Pyrotechnic

Forensic Case Files: Bedlam Cemetery Unearthed

We’ve talked about London’s Crossrail project before here on Skeleton Keys. Two years ago, this massive project to dig ­­21km of new underground tunnels in London uncovered a burial ground of Black Plague victims. Just last week, a new archeological treasure was unearthed—a cemetery of over 3,000 16th and 17th century skeletons, many of which came from London’s infamous Bedlam Hospital.

The word ‘bedlam’—a term associated with insanity or madness—comes from the real name of the first European hospital specializing in mental illness: the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, founded in 1247 as the priory of New Order of St. Mary of Bethlehem. ‘Bethlehem’ was often referred to as ‘Bethlem’, which in turn took on the nickname ‘Bedlam’. Never originally intended to be a hospital, Bedlam originated as a collection center for alms to support the Crusades. However, by the late 14th and early 15th centuries, it was being used to house and care for the insane, with patient records dating back to 1403. By 1460, the hospital had taken on this role as its specialization.

The Bedlam burial ground, London’s first municipal cemetery, was originally located just outside the city walls. It was not only used by Bedlam hospital, but by the city as a whole—it contains Black Death victims from the Great Plague of London in 1665, as well as victims on the Great Fire of London in 1666 (the 1660s really weren’t a great time to live in London!). The death toll from the Great Fire is unknown due to a lack of record keeping of the lower and middle classes—officially only six upper class individuals died in a fire where nearly 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 houses were lost; this seems like an unrealistically low number. But an estimated 100,000 or 25% of London’s population died in the Great Plague, many of whom were interred in the Bedlam burial ground.

I admire the Crossrail administrators for their involvement in their city’s history. On multiple occasions, the project has screeched to a sudden halt as important Roman or Renaissance artefacts or skeletons were discovered during the dig. Each time, the project has paused in that area for months while archeologists swooped in to recover their priceless pieces of history. In this case, a team of sixty archeologists working six days a week hope to excavate and remove all the skeletons in the next four weeks, after which, excavation will continue. After examination, the skeletons will be reinterred in Essex.

Photo credit: Crossrail

Forensic Case Files: Richard III’s Unexpected Surprise

We’ve been following the fascinating story of Richard III for over two years. From the discovery of remains in a parking lot suspected to be the long lost king, to the confirmation of the identity of the remains, to the legend of the Princes in the Tower, and to how Shakespeare coloured the way society regarded him, Richard has been a regular visitor to this blog. We thought the story was pretty much complete, but last week a new and surprising detail was announced by the scientists studying Richard III’s DNA: somewhere in his lineage there was an unrecognized illegitimate birth of a ‘royal’ son. Although we’ll likely never know where the break in legitimacy occurs, the implications could impact Britain’s history, right up to the present day.

When the remains were first discovered in Leicester, archeologists were cautiously optimistic that they’d discovered Richard III simply from the physical properties of the remains—the spine of the skeleton showed significant scoliosis and curvature. Shakespeare introduced the image of Richard as a hunchback (‘that foule hunch-backt toade’; Richard III, Act 4, scene iv), but back in Richard’s time, contemporary writings only make note that one of the Richard’s shoulders was higher than the other—a clinical symptom of scoliosis.

The group of scientists from the University of Leicester studying the remains wanted to confirm Richard’s identify in several ways:

  • Archeological: Richard’s remains were suggested to have been buried beneath the quire of Greyfriars Abbey. The abbey was destroyed in the 16th century, but its location was loosely known. The remains were found below where the quire would have been in the 15th century.
  • Osteological: The remains belonged to a man in his late 20s to early 30s, who suffered from scoliosis, showed signed of healed battle wounds, and had died from terrible fresh wounds presumably acquired in battle.
  • Radiological: the remains were dated to have come from 1456 – 1530, bracketing Richard’s death date of August 22, 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

The only method left at this point was to identify the remains by DNA, definitively connecting the long-dead monarch to modern living relatives. There were numerous challenges in this process however. First of all, it would be the oldest individual identification ever attempted on remains 527 years old. Also, Richard died with no living offspring, so all connections would have to be made through his sister Anne’s line.

The two types of DNA they wanted to examine were mitochondrial DNA—DNA passed down in near-exact copies through the female line— and the Y chromosome—the male sex chromosome. Two modern relatives, one a 16th cousin twice-removed, and one an 18th cousin twice-removed, were used for comparison. Scientists also analysed the sequences for both hair and eye colour to determine what the individual looked like.

They determined the DNA from the remains would have shown the characteristics of a man with blue eyes and blond hair. Although Richard was always portrayed with blue eyes and brown hair, they proposed that he was blond as a child. As a result of this analysis, they feel the painting that best portrays the monarch is the oldest surviving portrait, displayed at the Society of Antiquaries (see above).

The mitochondrial DNA proved to be an exact match between Richard and the female relative, confirming the same mitochondrial DNA passed to Richard from his mother was also passed to his sister and then down through the intervening generations.

But when they looked at the Y chromosome, an interesting disconnect arose. Due to issues around partial Y chromosome recombination, scientists only considered the retained/non-recombining sections of the chromosome. But even within those segments, a match could not be made between Richard and the male relative. A ‘false paternity’ event had occurred, interrupting the true family line. Three additional modern male relatives were subsequently tested and none of them matched Richard.

Overall, a complete Bayesian analysis of the skeletal DNA sequences report a 99.999% chance that this is indeed Richard III. So scientists are confident without a doubt now that their identification is complete.

But the big question remaining concerns the false paternity event and, more importantly, when it happened. If it happened in the line following Richard III, the royal lines remain unaffected. However, if the line happened before Richard, the royal line as we know it might have been affected. If the illegitimacy goes back to Edward the III and his son John of Gaunt three generations before, then it actually disqualifies Henry IV, V, VI, VII and VIII, and from there the entire Tudor and subsequent lines from the throne. The final supposition of which is that Queen Elizabeth II should not be on the throne and the royal line should instead have gone through Lady Jane Grey.

It is almost a certainty that we’ll never know the truth of where this break in the royal line occurred, and English history will remain as we know it, but it certainly makes for some interesting speculation when you wonder what England would have been like without the powerhouse of the Tudor dynasty. The Tudors were responsible for dynamic changes in world exploration and colonization, they brought about cultural change during the Renaissance, and had a huge impact on world religion when Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. It makes one wonder how world history might have changed if they had never come to power.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons 

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Two Parts Bloody Murder by Jen J. Danna

Two Parts Bloody Murder

by Jen J. Danna

Giveaway ends December 11, 2014.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

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Forensic Case Files: A Look at Gladiator Diets, 2000 Years Later

In past Forensics 101 posts, we talked about the use of radioactive isotopes to establish the geographical origins of remains, the date of death post WWII, and the date of death for remains older than 100 years (i.e. Joan of Arc). Recently a journal article was published by PLOS One, an open source scientific journal that anyone can access (most scientific journals are paid content only). In the article, the authors used isotopes to look back at the gladiators of ancient Rome in an attempt to discern their diet.

Texts from the time derogatorily describe a ‘gladiator diet’ of beans and barley; a diet quite different than today’s protein-heavy regimens for muscle building. But using the tools of both stable isotopes (carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur) and inorganic bone components (calcium and strontium), the authors of the article tried to analyze gladiator remains to see if they could compare their diet to that of upper class Romans of the time.

Their research is partly based on the phenomenon of C3 carbon fixation in plants as opposed to C4 carbon fixation. Carbon fixation is a part of photosynthesis, leading to sugar metabolism, and the production of energy with oxygen as a waste by-product. C3 fixation is used by such plants as wheat and barley with carbon dioxide and a sugar as the starting materials. C4 fixation, a newer evolutionary pathway exploited by plants such as millet and corn, starts with the same sugar, but uses malate as the source of carbon dioxide, instead of the surrounding atmosphere.

Also in the authors’ research toolbox is the nitrogen found in bone collagen that indicates the amount of animal protein consumed. Sulfur, co-located in that same collagen, can indicate a living environment where higher sulfur levels correspond to a sea-side location, often tied to increased seafood as part of the daily diet. We have previously discussed how strontium levels are measured and how they indicate location. The ratio of strontium to calcium corresponds to the plant-to-meat ratio in the diet.

While some gladiators were voluntary Roman citizens, the majority of them were slaves, criminals, and prisoners of war. Through winning combat, even the lowly could be raised up to the equivalent of Roman rock star status, and the promise of gladiator school was reintegration into normal society. . . if you won.

It's rare to discover remains of actual gladiators—skeletons with the characteristic trauma patterns that match descriptions of combat. These kinds of remains tend to be very few and far between, but an entire gladiator graveyard was discovered in Turkey, on Panayirda Hill, in 1992. Gladiator remains were sampled from this location; normal Roman citizen remains were excavated from a number of nearby cemeteries. All the gladiators were male, while the Roman citizens were a mix of male and female. The researchers sampled a total of 88 individuals dating back to the 1st to 3rd century A.D.

So keeping all the possible isotopes in mind, what did the researchers actually discover when they compared the gladiators to the upper-class Romans?

Carbon: Both groups consumed wheat and barley as a staple part of their diet.

Nitrogen: This was where the researchers found the greatest deviation within the gladiator group itself, suggesting that some gladiators were meat eaters, contradicting the original hypothesis of a uniform gladiator diet. But between the two groups overall, there was no statistical difference.

Sulfur: Both groups were surprisingly low on average, indicating that even though the two groups lived near the Aegean Sea, as a population, they were not seafood eaters. Any outliers in both groups are postulated to be immigrants from other areas since they tended to sit outside the normal range for multiple isotopes.

Strontium/calcium ratio: This is where the largest difference occurred between the two groups with the gladiators having levels nearly twice as high as their Roman contemporaries (statistically highly significant). Overall, a high ratio indicates a plant and vegetable heavy diet, while a low ratio suggests a better balance between the green foods supplying the strontium and dairy products etc. supplying calcium. The higher gladiator ratio implies that contemporary upper class Romans had a more varied and dairy-rich diet. Another possible explanation for the high values in the gladiators is the post-combat consumption of a drink that included plant ash as an ingredient, commonly used as a spice in cooking and as a pain killer. Yet another suggestion is that due to their training, gladiators had increased calcium metabolism and turnover in their bones. This would lead to a more constant level of strontium and a decreasing level of calcium, resulting in a higher ratio value.

The overall conclusion drawn is that the gladiators did not overall have a greatly different diet than their Roman contemporaries. There is the possibility of a difference in dairy consumption, but it is just as likely that it was their physiological state that lead to any differences in the trace elements. Hats off to the authors for some interesting detective work almost two thousand years after the fact!

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Forensic Case Files: The Parisian Catacombs

Paris is often called The City of Light. But deep under the city, another world exists, a world of darkness and death—the great Catacombs of Paris. Holding the remains of more than six million dead, over two hundred miles of underground tunnels stretch under the city in a labyrinthine sepulchre.

For over a millennium, Parisians buried their dead in cemeteries inside the city walls. But even by the twelfth century, the cemeteries were already overflowing with no room to expand. Parisians attempted to manage the issue by exhuming the oldest of the remains and burying them packed together in mass graves. This helped for a period of time, but, by the eighteenth century, things were getting desperate once again. Finally, after the weight of the mass grave caved the contents into an adjoining residential basement, a radical plan was concocted and acted upon.

Paris was built on top of a series of limestone mines, many which were excavated to supply the city with stone for its rapid expansion. Coincidentally, as the cemeteries were being closed, those same mine tunnels were being renovated to ensure the stability of the streets and buildings above. It was the perfect, if somewhat creepy, solution to dual problems: the mine shafts could hold the remains, while the bones of the dead could help support the great city where they’d once travelled above ground. A number of cemetery headstones and sculptures were also moved underground and slowly, the mausoleum was formed. It took over two years to move the dead of Paris underground, and an additional four years to arrange the bones into their current arrangements. The ossuary opened to the public in 1814.

A map showing the extensive catacomb plans:

Entry to the catacombs (translation: Stop! Here lies the Empire of Death):

Bone sculptures:

Cemetery sculptures and artefacts:

The first time I saw the cover for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, I knew they’d used the Paris catacombs for some of their material. Needless to say, it’s hard to get photos of skeletal remains at actual crime scenes as they are evidence and must be protected. So the cover designers had to go to accessible photos to include real bones. Even knowing where the material came from, I still thought it worked beautifully.

The catacombs hold a more varied history than simply the home of the dead. During World War II it was home to the French resistance, who used the system of tunnels to traverse the city in secret. At the same time, a section below a high school in the sixth arrondisement was used as a German bunker. But the catacombs’ impact on the city is lasting—due to the presence of the tunnels under the city, tall structures cannot be supported in Paris. As such, tall, modern skyscrapers will never grace the cityscape and Paris will forever retain its historical appearance.

Photo credit: Cesar I. Martins, Wikimedia Commons, Shadowgate, Adam Baker, Julian Fong, Americano, Will White, Sharat Ganapati, Fraser Mummery, Tommie Hansen, and Randy Connolly.

Forensic Case Files: Famine and Death at an Irish Workhouse

The Irish Potato Famine took place between 1845 and 1852 when a severe potato blight ravaged Northern Europe. It is believed that potatoes carrying the microorganism Phytophthora infestans carried the blight from North America’s eastern coast to Europe in 1844, where it then spread. In 1845, half of Ireland’s single strain potato crop was lost to the blight; three quarters was lost in 1846 and the first starvation deaths were recorded. A staple food for both the farmer and the poor, some families depended almost solely on the potato to stave off starvation. Paired with the vitamins and protein in milk, the twelve to fourteen pounds of potatoes consumed per person per day provided a relatively balanced, albeit uninteresting, diet. But with their crops dying by the acre, many families had no chance of survival. And even though the majority of Ireland’s lands produced enough grain to feed its starving people, this was considered a cash crop and Ireland continued to export thirty to fifty shiploads of food to Britain daily while their own people died by the thousands. By the time the famine finally ended, over one million Irish had succumbed to starvation and related diseases, while another million had emigrated, many coming to North America.

In 2005, a worker for a local archeology consulting firm, Kilkenny Archaeology, discovered human remains on the site of the old Kilkenny Union Workhouse. Excavations started the following year, and 63 mass graves were uncovered, each holding the remains of 6 to 27 deceased for a total of over 970 dead. Out of that 970, 545 were children under the age of 6.

The Kilkenny Union Workhouse opened in 1842, following the creation of the Poor Law Act. It became home to over 1,300 poor souls, providing food and shelter in exchange for backbreaking and brutal labour producing clothes and blankets by hand. But as the famine continued, the number of people seeking refuge at the workhouse skyrocketed, and by 1851 it housed over 4,300 inhabitants—more than three times its intended maximum population.

With so many residents housed inside its walls, the workhouse buildings were extremely overcrowded and became a prime incubator for diseases such as cholera, typhoid and consumption. The final stressor came when a typhus outbreak struck in 1847. Because of a recent ban from burying paupers in local cemeteries, the workhouse constructed an unconsecrated cemetery on their own property. Due to the number of inhabitants dying each day, there was no choice but to use a system of mass graves to manage the dead, creating and closing one grave per week.

Over half of the recovered remains show signs of scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C; for the Irish, this need would have usually been filled by the potatoes in their diet. Without that component, the bones showed a range of characteristic clues:

  • severely low mineral content
  • thinning of the cortex (the hard outer layer of bone that provides the majority of structural support)
  • epiphyseal separation in young victims (a reversal of the normal process of epiphyseal fusion)
  • holes in the skull at the temples and around the teeth.

The bones tell a heartbreaking story of starvation and suffering. But they also speak of redemption, as many of these osteological signs only come about during the recovery from scurvy. Clearly many of the dead had survived near starvation to begin their recovery at the workhouse, only to die from typhus in their still weakened state in the overcrowded ranks of the workhouse.

One thing to note about the mass graves—the dead were buried with care. Compared to mass graves in war zones like Srebrenica, where bodies were carelessly tossed on top of each other, the Irish remains were carefully shrouded and laid in simple pine coffins. The coffins were then neatly stacked in the mass graves before being finally filled in. Sometimes family were buried together, a parent and child or siblings interred together in a single coffin.

In May 2010, a reburial ceremony was held, consecrating the ground as part of the new Famine Memorial Garden.

Photo credit: Bioarchaeologist Dr Jonny Geber, University College Cork

Forensic Case Files: Jack the Ripper Finally Identified?

Apparently this is debunking science month here at Skeleton Keys. Last week, we looked at the bad science that led archeologists studying the Viking invasions of England to incorrectly identify the sex of buried remains. This week, I want to talk about the recent announcement that Jack the Ripper has been identified more than 125 years after the final murder took place. Several people asked my opinion on this case, and while I’m not an expert on Ripper mythology, I’m happy to tackle the scientific aspect of this announcement.

On September 6th, a story broke on the Daily Mail naming a Polish hairdresser, Aaron Kosminski, as Jack the Ripper (read the original story here). Russell Edwards, a self-appointed ‘armchair detective’ purchased a shawl supposedly found with the body of Catherine Eddowes, the fourth Ripper victim discovered on September 30, 1888. He approached Dr. Jari Louhelainen, a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, in hopes of recovering forensic evidence from the scarf to connect the killings to Kosminski. Kosminski had been one of the six main suspects at the time of the murders and Edwards ‘became convinced Kosminski was our man’. (Jen’s note—please keep in mind my opening explanation from last week’s article on the Viking shieldmaidens about how objective science proceeds. Convincing yourself of the end result before you begin is not a good start).

Upon examining the scarf. Louhelainen found traces of blood splatter and semen. Louhelainen extracted DNA from both using a supposedly novel technique called ‘vacuuming’, and, once again, mitochondrial DNA was used to determine the genetic line of the sample. A female descendant of Eddowes provided a DNA sample for comparison and was a perfect match to the blood spatter. A similar descendant of Kosminski (a mysterious, unnamed female whom Edwards claims to be protecting by leaving in anonymity) provided a sample which also resulted in a perfect match to the semen sample.

On this data alone, Edwards declares that Kosminski must be Jack the Ripper.

So where does this claim go off the rails for me?

  • The DNA was identified by a novel technique, one that has never been vetted or peer-reviewed in any way (although Louhelainen’s layman’s description of the technique is so basic that there must be more to it than simply soaking the fabric in buffer and sucking it back out again; that hardly seems like a novel technique as it’s fairly close to how we extract cheek swab DNA from filter paper). So where is the proof to the scientific community that this protocol actually does what Edwards claims? Scientific data is rigorously examined through a the process of peer review—a paper is written for an established scientific publication, then that paper is reviewed by fellow scientists in the field who will either accept the paper with revisions (I have yet to see a paper that doesn’t have even a few small comments on aspects to be fixed) or reject the paper. When that paper is published, it has been written with a Materials and Methods section so detailed that anyone reading the paper should be able to exactly replicate the procedure to get the same results given identical starting materials and conditions. But instead of Louhelainen writing a peer-reviewed article on the technique and its results, Edwards has written a layman’s book with no oversight to the scientific process. I can’t believe results only viewed by a privileged few. The entire study cannot be published as ‘data not shown’.
  • Assuming this is a legitimate technique, it has tested the DNA found on the shawl of one of the five victims only. This only proves contact with one of the victims and doesn’t scientifically link him to any of the others.
  • While the victim’s DNA was extracted from blood, Kosminki’s DNA was extracted from semen. This proves sexual contact of some kind, but in no way actually puts the knife in his hand. For all we know, when Kosminski left Eddowes following that encounter, she was alive and well. The DNA evidence also provides no information about timelines—the sexual encounter could have been minutes, days, weeks, or months before or after Eddowes’ death.
  • At the time of Eddowes’ death, Kosminski lived with his two brothers, both of whom would have had identical mitochondrial DNA from their mother. So perhaps it was not Kosminski’s semen, but instead, that of one of his brothers?
  • Kosminski’s descendant seems to be shrouded in mystery and apparently Edwards (and the descendant?) wish it to remain that way. As a result, no one else could possibly double check the results of the testing since they have no sample with which to compare the DNA extracted from the semen sample.
  • Call me cynical, but I'm suspicious of any science that comes out as a ‘perfect match’. Science almost never works out that way. Yes, mitochondrial DNA only passes down through the female line, but, over time, DNA naturally mutates and drifts and it is unlikely that 125 year old DNA would be identical to a modern sample. Within a 97 – 99% match, absolutely. But a perfect match? And to have two perfect matches, one to Eddowes’ descendant and another to Kosminski’s? Well… you get my drift. Science is simply not that exact. And once again, we can’t see the results ourselves to have a real opinion on it.
  • The Daily Mail article shows the scientists at work in the lab. Now, I realize this is an inside baseball kind of point, but I work down the hall from the lab of Dr. Hendrik Poinar, a world famous ancient DNA specialist who not only sequenced the Woolly Mammoth genome, but is currently working on Black Plague deaths in an effort to identify Y. pestis as the causative agent. I know the conditions his people work under—an ultra-clean room under negative pressure and enhanced personal protection (to keep the samples clean vs. protecting the lab worker in this case). Yet Louhelainen and his people are shown unrolling the scarf in a typical biosafety level I wet lab, next to an unrelated specimen and other various pieces of lab equipment and anatomical models. Add to this the fact that the scarf was handled by many people over the years (and supposedly never washed) and I’m not convinced that any starting material they collected was uncontaminated.
  • The provenance of the shawl itself has been called into question. Supposedly found at the scene with Eddowes’ body, it was never reported or entered into evidence. Instead, one of the investigating officers removed the bloodstained shawl to give to his wife as a gift. The wife was so horrified by the gift that she put it away and it was then handed down through four or five family generations before being sold to Edwards. But there is no official record of it ever being part of the original murder scene.

My biggest problem with this whole announcement—besides actually naming Kosminski as the Ripper when there is zero proof that he killed even this one woman—is the lack of data. Science works as a transparent system. Show me the DNA gels and then I’ll maybe be on board, but only as far as a DNA match goes. As far as I’m concerned, the identity of Jack the Ripper remains undetermined.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


Forensic Case Files: Viking Shieldmaidens, or How Forensic Anthropology Changed Our View of History

Nineth century Viking burial with sword and knife from Memorial Park, Islandbridge; Dublin, Ireland.It’s not very often that I rant about science, but, oh boy, the story that caught my attention this past week totally set me off. As a career scientist, my day job is all about having a hypothesis and then setting out to prove (or disprove) it. Sometimes you don’t get the results you thought you’d get, but, as I tell my grad students, your results are your results. They’re not wrong, they just are. If you included all of the appropriate controls and conducted the experiment properly at least twice, then this is the truth of the science. You don’t convince yourself of something; instead, the data leads the way to the study’s end result. This is how objective science works. Period.

Recently, researchers at the University of Western Australia decided that previous research teams weren’t being specific enough in their study of Viking remains. The research concerned graves found in England dating back to Viking invasions prior to the 10th century. It was believed that the overwhelming proportion of Vikings migrating to England at the time was male, with only a very few females in the party, often identified as camp followers. But personal and place names from the area as well as modern mitochondrial DNA relating back to that time implied that there must have been more women present than originally thought. Shane McLeod (currently at the University of Sterling) decided to study that disconnect more closely.

Previously, when examining remains within Viking graves, archeologists sexed the occupants simply by their grave goods—the presence of buried weapons indicated male remains, while females were identified by a traditional oval brooch. Some of this research was done before the science of osteology became well-established, but some publications dating into the 21st century still use grave goods as the only method of sexing remains. Despite having the knowledge at their fingertips to sex the remains based on well-established osteological markers—sex determination from either the skull or the pelvis—they based their conclusions that Viking invaders/warriors were comprised only of males from a superficial examination of the graves.

However, when the University of Western Australia team went back to actually examine the bones themselves, they determined that a full fifty percent of Vikings buried with weapons were actually women. Surprise!

A hundred years ago, it was not possible to use forensic anthropology techniques to determine skeletal age because the science was in its infancy and wasn’t understood to any great extent. But today, there is absolutely no reason to make gender-biased assumptions instead of stating scientific fact because the research team is only looking at part of the picture. Now, to be fair, sometimes remains are degraded because of age and weathering, but for remains with clear osteological markers, there is no excuse for not completing a full examination. In this case, out of the 14 skeletons examined, 6 were determined to be female, 7 were determined to be male, and only 1 was indistinguishable due to degradation of the remains.

Many saw this result as the battle cry of the Viking shieldmaiden. While the fact that some of the women were buried with weapons isn’t conclusive evidence of those same women fighting on the battlefield, the lack of grave weapons is also not conclusive that a particular woman was not a shieldmaiden. That part of the story is yet to be resolved. However, what is clear is that the current overwhelming view of men as the only Viking invaders of England is not correct. Thanks, forensic anthropology, for clearing that up!

Photo credit: Carrie Morgan

Forensic Case Files: How Shakespeare Changed History (or The Continuing Story of Richard III)

A 3D approximation of the articulated skeleton of Richard IIIIt’s a story we’ve been following for a while. In October of 2012, we covered the discovery of historic human remains under a parking lot in Leicester. Because of the physical characteristics of those remains—primarily an extremely curved spinal column—it was suggested that they were the remains of King Richard III, killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, during the War of the Roses against Henry Tudor (later Henry VII and the beginning of the Tudor line that would include Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I). In February of 2013, it was confirmed that those remains were indeed those of Richard III when scientists successfully matched his mitochondrial DNA—DNA consistently passed only through the female line of a family—to the mitochondrial DNA of relatives through Richard’s sister’s line.

Just last week, the University of Leicester announced that it had completed its studies on Richard’s spinal column and determined that the king’s spine showed 65 to 85 degrees of scoliosis, curving the spine to his right. A modern day patient with that degree of scoliosis would be an excellent candidate for surgery; in the fifteenth century, this was not yet an option. However, with the skilled help of both a tailor and master armorer, the deformity could have been minimized or even completely camouflaged (minus one shoulder sitting slightly higher than the other). Richard’s skeletal remains also show no evidence of a withered arm or a limp, both part of the Richard III legend. In fact, one needs to keep in mind that Richard was a skilled soldier, able to fight on horseback with both sword and shield—an act someone with a major deformity might not be able accomplish.

It is clear now that Richard, while having a spinal deformity, was never a hunchback. So where did that picture of the king come from? No mention is made of Richard the hunchback until 1598 by Shakespeare: First in Henry VI: “an envious mountain on my back, / Where sits deformity to mock my body” (Act 3, scene ii) and later in Richard III, where Queen Elizabeth describes him as “that foule hunch-backt toade” (Act 4, scene iv). But considering that Shakespeare wasn’t a contemporary of Richard III, and was, in fact, born nearly 100 years after Richard’s death, where did this information come from? From the men who were writing the history of the time—the Tudors—who had a vested interest in showing Richard in the most negative light possible.

History is written by the victors. In this case, the Tudors used The Bard to smear a predecessor so successfully that over 400 years later, that unsupported history still lingers and, for many, the view of Richard as a hunchbacked monster responsible for the death of his two nephews, The Princes in the Tower, remains to this day.

Photo credit: The University of Leicester

Forensic Case Files: 13,000 Year Old Skeleton Shines Light on the Geographic Origins of North American Peoples

An article last week in the journal Science revealed the discovery of a 12,000 year old skeleton in Mexico, one of the oldest human remains discovered in North America. The article made a big splash on campus at McMaster University as one of the researchers, Ed Reinhardt, is a Geography and Earth Sciences professor here.

Twelve thousand years ago, much of North America was covered by glaciers. But Mexico was free of the glaciers’ icy hold, making it a suitable habitat for some of North America’s indigenous people. One particular group settled on the coast of what is now known as the Yucatan peninsula.

What happened that one day so many millennia is clear; CSI couldn’t have put it together better. A teenaged girl of 15 or 16 years of age was exploring a subterranean cave, perhaps with only the light of a torch, probably searching for fresh water. When the ground suddenly fell away beneath her feet, she fell more than 160 feet to her death. It was an all-too-common mistake—her remains were found mixed with those of a saber tooth tiger, a giant ground sloth, a bobcat, a coyote, and a gomphothere (an elephant-like creature, extinct for approximately 9,000 years).

As the glaciers receded, and the sea levels rose, the cave system filled with salt water, entombing those lost in the dark below. But science recently discovered the cave systems and experienced divers, Dr. Reinhardt among them, retrieved the girl’s remains. The girl, christened Naia by the team, was determined to have lived between 12,600 and 12,900 years ago not only by her own remains, but also by the rocks and sediment recovered around her.

The most fascinating data to come from the study of this young woman concerns her heritage. Researchers extracted ancient tooth pulp from one of her molars (in a similar method as used to identify the plague from Black Death victims) to profile her mitochondrial DNA. Researchers discovered that Naia was not only related to modern North American aboriginal peoples, but also to the Siberian-based population from which is it believed that all indigenous North Americans arose.

The shape of Naia’s skull is distinctly different from modern North American aboriginals, indicating that while the their common ancestors crossed the narrow land bridge to North America, traveling between North America’s dual glaciers to settled in Central America, genetically, the two peoples evolved different phenotypic characteristics afterward.

Scientists are now attempting to sequence Naia’s entire genome to discover what other genetic connections this long lost girl might reveal to modern man.

Photo credit: Roberto Chavez Arce and Science

Forensic Case Files: 9/11 Victims' Final Resting Place

Last year, we did a series of blog posts on 9/11—mass fatality accidents, identifying human remains, the challenges in naming the victims, and the ongoing evidence still being uncovered around the site. A little over a week ago, on May 10th, one of the final chapters of the 9/11 story was written as the final unidentified victims were moved back to Ground Zero to become part of the September 11th Memorial Museum, a permanent part of the Ground Zero site.

Thirteen years after the tragedy, 1,115 or 41% of the 2,753 lost souls have yet to be positively identified by DNA, despite the fact the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York held 7,930 fragmentary samples of unmatched human remains. Due to the condition of these samples—many were badly degraded by the heat of the fire or ground to less than a 1/16” in size during the building collapses—DNA testing was either impossible or inconclusive, despite the samples given by family members for comparison.

Enclosed in three caskets, these final unidentified remains were escorted in the early morning hours through the streets of New York City by an honour guard made up from members of the New York Fire Department, the New York Police Department, and the New York Port Authority. Upon arriving at Ground Zero, they were transferred to a repository at bedrock level in the museum, 70 feet below the street. Walled off from the exhibition space, only staff of the medical examiner’s office and family members will be allowed access to the facility.

The decision to make this the victims’ final resting place raises mixed emotions in family members of those lost. Many feel the final remains of their loved ones have become part of a ‘dog-and-pony show’ tourist attraction, and have also raised concerns about the possibilities of flooding in the subterranean location. But many others feel that Ground Zero is an appropriate resting place for the victims that lost their lives there, that the museum is a place of reflection, respect and education, and the victims are a crucial part of the 9/11 experience.

Forensic scientists remain hopeful that these remains may yet be identified. New scientific techniques are constantly being developed, and many samples that would have been impossible to identify in 2001 are now excellent candidates for matching. The hope is, given time and scientific advances, many more of the remaining fragments will be identified and the victims finally returned to their families.

As an aside, for those who are interested, The New York Times has an excellent interactive tour of the museum here: It's well worth the time to read.

Photo credit: Peter Foley/European Pressphoto Agency

Forensic Case Files: Hidden Bodies Discovered at the Dozier School for Boys

The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida was at one time the largest juvenile reform school in the United States, housing up to 564 boys in the 1960s. Founded in 1900, the school went through a number of identity changes over the years—first called the Florida State Reform School, then the Florida Industrial School for Boys (1914), later the Florida School for Boys (1957), and finally the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys (1967) named in honour of a past superintendent of the school.

Rumours of inhumane treatment of the inmates plagued the school from the very beginning. An inspection in 1903 reported some boys being kept in leg irons, and, in 1934, a boy sent to the school on a trespassing charge died a mere 38 days later. Hundreds of more recent allegations detailed years of beatings, forced labour, rape, and the murder of troublesome inmates. Many boys simply disappeared after arriving at the school, no trace of them alive or dead ever discovered. Amid a storm of unproven accusations and controversy, the state of Florida permanently closed the facility in 2011.

But public outcry persisted and families demanded answers about their missing relatives. Thirty-one white metal crosses marking the graves in the school cemetery didn’t account for all the missing children. Confusing and incomplete school records meant that investigators were not even sure of the exact number of bodies buried in the cemetery.

University of South Florida forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle became interested in the project, in part because of the inadequate record keeping at the school—very unusual for most state institutions. In 2012, Kimmerle and her team used ground penetrating radar and cadaver dogs to prove the existence of at least 50 sets of remains buried on school property, many located under current roads or overgrown trees, far distant from the marked cemetery. A full investigation of the property began in August 2013.

Excavations of the school grounds began in the fall of 2013. By the time the dig closed three months later in December, 55 bodies had already been recovered. Anthropologists estimate that the bodies date from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. All the remains were found in coffins or associated with coffin artifacts—nails or other hardware, and one with a brass plaque reading ‘At Rest’. Some small artifacts of life at the school were also recovered; one boy was even found with a stone marble still in his pocket.

Forensic scientists will attempt to determine cause of death from the skeletal remains, and DNA from the recovered remains will be sent to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. Investigators are asking for living family members of missing students to come forward and provide DNA samples for reference and comparison.

Although the first dig is complete, University of South Florida anthropologists are planning to resume work in the spring of 2014. They believe the site holds the remains of more missing boys, and maybe even a second unmarked cemetery. Their search will continue until investigators are satisfied that all the lost have been recovered. Although the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was unable to substantiate the multiple claims of abuse while the school was open, they are hoping that this time the dead will be able to speak for themselves.

Photo credit: Robert Straley