A New Method to Determine Time Since Death?


There are two significant challenges in any criminal investigation involving badly decomposed or skeletonized remains: who is the victim and when did he or she die?

In the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, we’ve dealt with the time since death, or post mortem interval (PMI), issue a few times. In the very first book in the series, DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, Trooper Leigh Abbott and Dr. Matt Lowell nearly come to blows when Leigh needs a time since death estimate so she can start looking at missing persons reports, and Matt, a quintessential scientist, refuses to guess when he’s lacking sufficient data. In TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, when a skeleton is found immured behind a brick wall, it is Dr. Edward Rowe and his knowledge of history that dates the skeleton. But in LAMENT THE COMMON BONES (out two weeks today!), when a murder victim is found hanging in a forensic anthropology lab, it’s impossible for Matt to estimate the PMI because he’s missing the usual markers—tissue decomposition or bone weathering. The best he can do is to provide a minimum PMI based on the time required to prepare the bones. The maximum can be determined by the last time the victim was seen alive, but that only provides at best a detrimentally large window for a murder investigation. However, a small side storyline involves Dr. Trevor Sharpe, Matt’s scientific arch nemesis, and why Matt hates him so much. In the end, it all has to do with PMI estimates and the extent some researchers will go to in their search for scientific glory.

In the real world, a lack of understanding of PMI started the criminal investigative aspect of forensic anthropology as we currently know it when Dr. Bill Bass misjudged the age of a corpse by over a century (see the fascinating story of Colonel William Shy). As a result, he started the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (nicknamed the ‘Body Farm’) in 1981. Since then, research into decomposition in different locations and during different seasons, scavenging, the affect of trauma, entomology, and many, many other aspects of the process of death have elucidated scientific details that have greatly improved criminal investigations.

However, definitive estimates of PMI continue to elude scientists in certain cases, especially those involving skeletonized remains. Without definitive tissue markers, or obvious weathering clues, some estimates around PMI can span months or even years, greatly complicating any criminal investigation. Enter Lincoln Memorial University, Dr. Beatrix Dudzik, and her new project to study bone marrow, the protected inner contents of bones that produce both red and white blood cells. They hope to use the decomposition of lipids within the bone marrow to estimate the time elapsed since death. They are basing their research on a study by Paul Wood and Natalie Shirley where PMI was reliably determined based on skeletal muscle decomposition and the biochemical breakdown products produced up to a year after death. Knowing the difficulties involved in skeletal remains, Dudzik would like to translate a similar breakdown process to bone marrow.

The study will take place at the Body Farm, using twenty donor cadavers over a two-year time period, as well as samples already in the Body Farm’s bone collection with known PMI’s from one to thirty years. The study, which will start in January 2018, will study three types of bones specifically—the calcaneus from the ankle, the tibia from the lower leg, and a vertebrae—as well as teeth to test for lipid breakdown products.

The group hopes that the initial two-year study will produce data allowing for an extension and additional research to better understand this complicated process.


LAMENT THE COMMON BONES releases two weeks from today and we’ve got a couple of buy links already up for readers who like instant gratification and want their copy waiting for them when they wake up on November 21st. So for e-book readers, we have the following links:

Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B077721M4V/

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/ca/en/ebook/lament-the-common-bones

Newsletter readers are getting an advanced sneak peek at the first three chapters of the book today, but come back to the blog next week for a chance to see the exciting opening chapters early!

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

The Legacy of Mississippi Asylum Life… and Death

In 2013, while constructing a road on campus at the University of Mississippi in Jackson, workers uncovered sixty-six previously uncharted coffins. Work stopped to allow their removal to the university’s archeology center and the administration considered the matter closed. Then in 2014, during construction of a parking garage, approximately two thousand additional coffins were identified using ground penetrating radar; and the university realized it had a much larger issue on its hands. Now, three years later, the university administration believes it has finally discovered the scope of the bodies buried on campus after a larger radar investigation identified more than 7,000 coffins buried in twenty acres of land. Where did the bodies come from and how will the university deal with so many dead?

The source of the bodies is clearly based in the history of the area—the site was the location for the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, later called the Insane Hospital, which opened in 1855 and functioned until its closure in 1935. That hospital was later torn down to allow for the building of the current University of Mississippi Medical Center. People suffering from mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia were sent to live at the asylum where they could be treated as medical knowledge of the time dictated. Thousands died while still in the care of the state, and if their bodies were not claimed by family, they were buried in unmarked graves to the east of the asylum. The hospital kept records, and while some still remain, many are lost to history. While hand-drawn maps from the nineteenth century suggested the possible location of the cemetery, they did not indicate the scale—so the sheer size of the cemetery was a surprise to the university administration.

While the university is thrilled with the archeological and forensic treasure trove, practicalities must be considered. The cost of excavating over 7,000 coffins and reburying the remains is immense—an initial estimate placed it around $21,000,000 (approximately $3,000 per body). But the university plans to do the excavations in-house with their own Department of Anthropology, bringing the cost down to just over $3,000,000 over eight years. They intend to open a memorial and a new visitor center to highlight the history of the asylum, institutionalization, and healthcare in the pre-modern period. There are also plans to open a lab to study the remains.

Researchers hope to shed light on the institution itself and their methods of treating mental illness. Previous to the asylum, those suffering from mental illness were often jailed or kept prisoner in attics. Life in the asylum was likely not much easier, and the institution’s nineteenth century death rate averaged over twenty percent each year. Despite this, its population soared by 1900%—from approximately 300 patients in the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century when it housed 6000 patients at its zenith. When the hospital closed, the patients were relocated to the state hospital in Whitfield, which is still open today.

There is a lot of personal interest within this discovery as well. Mental illness was so stigmatized in the past that suffering relatives simply ‘disappeared’ when they were shipped off to facilities such as the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum. Within the local community there is a movement for possible descendants to donate DNA for comparison to the DNA of the remains in hopes of finding some of their own past.

Photo credit: University of Mississippi Medical Center


Excavating the Old North Church – Looking Back

Tomb 3 marker.

Tomb 3 marker.

Tomb 9, under the front door of the church.

Tomb 9, under the front door of the church.

Christ Church—better known as Boston’s Old North Church—has played a role in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, literally since the very first scene. When we were doing character planning, we needed a project for Dr. Matt Lowell to work on in his role as an active researcher within the field of forensic anthropology at Boston University. We knew about the Old North’s historic crypts and thought this would be a great place to set Matt’s project.

In September 2009, when I travelled to Boston for my first research trip, I met with Reverend Stephen Ayers who not only took me on a personal tour of the crypts (which at the time were closed to the public), but shared with me all current research on the site. It was then that I learned about the charnel house in the corner of the basement that contained approximately one thousand sets of the church’s oldest remains.

The first of the burials in the basement crypts of Christ Church took place in 1723. However, by 1836, the existing 34 crypts were insufficient to handle incoming burials. A small wing was constructed attached to the back corner of the church, and three new tombs—numbers 35, 36, and 37—were planned. However, it was decided concurrently to clear out the older crypts, allowing them to be reused. In 1845, they took advantage of the construction of tomb 37 to create a charnel house below it. It is the same dimensions as tomb 37, but is sunk eight feet beneath the current tomb floor. They transferred all the oldest remains into this pit, and then sealed the charnel house, later filling tomb 37 above it.

Plans for the Old North tombs – 1820.

Plans for the Old North tombs – 1820.

The church recognized the desire by Bostonians to be interred within the walls of the Old North, even though the crypts were closed in 1860 due to health concerns about burying the dead within the populated city limits of the north end. To meet this need, they constructed a modern columbarium in 1992 to accept the ashes of those wishing to be buried in the Old North crypts. However, so do so, they built around the three last tombs, enclosing tombs 35, 36, and 37, including the charnel house. In her paper, Of the Lonely Belfry and the Dead: An Historical and Archaeological Study of the Burial Crypts of Boston's Old North Church, Jane Lyden Rousseau outlines the history of the crypts and the sealing of the columbarium. Reverend Ayers discussed the possibility of obtaining the funds to excavate the charnel house, but this would have to be done around the existing columbarium and without disturbing the modern remains. Given the extra complexity of such an excavation now, whether this will be possible someday remains to be seen.

Prior to building the Old North columbarium in 1992. Tombs 35 and 36 are on the far left. Tomb 37 is on the far right.

Prior to building the Old North columbarium in 1992. Tombs 35 and 36 are on the far left. Tomb 37 is on the far right.

The Old North columbarium. Tomb 35 is located behind the niches on the far right side of the columbarium; tomb 37 is behind the niches in the foreground, right side.

The Old North columbarium. Tomb 35 is located behind the niches on the far right side of the columbarium; tomb 37 is behind the niches in the foreground, right side.

But we saw the charnel house as an opportunity to give Matt the perfect project in his field in the city he loves. So we changed the layout of the columbarium slightly, eliminating one wall of niches, allowing Matt and his team of grad students—Kiko, Paul and Juka—access to the remains. And when Trooper Leigh Abbott meets Matt for the first time, this is where she finds him.

Leigh stopped at the bottom of the stairs, the large area under the church sanctuary spreading before her. Through the doorway opposite, a long corridor stretched away into the gloom that shaded the far reaches of the space, dimly lit by the few exposed light bulbs that hung from the ceiling. There, long held safe in the quiet darkness and forgotten by all but a scarce few, were the oldest crypts in Boston.

Standing in the nearly silent basement, with only the creaks from the floorboards overhead betraying the presence of the funeral mourners, the centuries of history entombed in this building surrounded her, just like the dead sleeping inside the aged brick walls.

The vicar’s words rang in her head. You’ll find him if you go down the stairs and turn right into the columbarium.

The atmosphere changed the moment she stepped over the threshold. The basement and the crypts were cold and damp, but even surrounded by walls of modern burial niches, the columbarium seemed warm and inviting. A space where the living could feel closer to the dead who had gone before them.

Mournful music filtered through the floorboards into this quiet room of remembrance.

It felt . . . peaceful.

The peace was abruptly shattered by the clatter of something solid falling to the floor followed by a soft curse.

There he is.

On the far side of the room, a door opened into a small chamber. A doorway was cut into one of the whitewashed chamber walls, bright russet clay revealed at the entrance. Moving to stand in the gap, she looked into the tomb, staring in shock at the chaos within while breathing air musty with centuries of undisturbed stillness.

Rotting wooden boxes of different shapes and sizes were stacked haphazardly along the walls. Many of the boxes had collapsed, their lids loosened and their contents spilled out over other boxes and across the floor. Bones of every size and description lay in tangled piles, mixed with funeral ornaments and remnants of moldering cloth. A solitary skull grinned up at her from where it lay tipped against the cracked side of a crumpled box.

A movement to her left drew her attention and her gaze shifted to the man kneeling with his back partially turned to her. He bent over the pile of debris, freeing a single bone before transferring it carefully in his gloved hands to a clear plastic tub on the floor beside him.

We wrote the charnel house based on similar ossuaries found in Britain and described by Ms. Rousseau in Of the Lonely Belfry and the Dead. Someday, if Reverend Ayers and interested archeologists get their wish, they may find out exactly what treasures are contained within the charnel house.

But, on the short term, a real-life excavation has just begun in the basement of the Old North, in the main block of crypts under the church sanctuary. Next week, we’ll be back to talk about the exciting dig Boston’s City Archeology Program recently launched.

Photo credit: Jane Rousseau and Jen Danna

Kennewick Man Goes Home

On July 28, 1996, two participants in an annual hydroplane race on the Columbia River found a skull in a local reservoir outside of Kennewick, Washington. After it was determined the remains were historical rather than a relatively fresh death, the skull was passed on to archeologist James Chatter, who instantly knew he had something interesting. In just under a dozen trips back to the reservoir, Chatters collected 350 pieces of bone—many of them fractured into several pieces—with only the sternum and several small hand and foot bones never recovered.

Chatters originally estimated the skeletal remains to have come from the 19th century based on damage and bone weathering. He also posited the remains were from a right-handed male of roughly 40–55 years of age, 5’7” to 5’9”, and of a slight build but with significant musculature—this was a man used to hard physical labour. He’d also had a hard life, having five broken ribs that had healed during his life, and two shallow depression fractures in his skull. A 3.1” cascade point—a Native American pointed projectile that was likely the piercing end of an arrow or spear—was found lodged deep in the man’s hip. The bone had partially remodeled over it, indicating it had been there for some time during his life. Radioisotope analysis of the bones revealed the man had consumed a diet of marine animals for several decades of his life. He had also consumed glacier melt water. Since at that time, the only glacier melt water to be found was in Alaska, this suggested the man was a coastal traveler. It was determined that he had been purposefully buried, lying on his back, his arms at his sides, palm down.

Most important for the unforeseen decades-long legal battle hidden just over the horizon, Chatters documented that he felt the skeleton portrayed Caucasoid traits and was lacking in Native American characteristics, marking the man as European in origin. So while interesting, the remains appeared to be that of a European explorer in the newly opened American West and beyond.

However, the story radically changed when a fragment of bone was sent for carbon-14 testing for a more accurate age determination. Shockingly, the results dated the skeletal remains to between 8,900–9,000 years old dating to nearly 7,000 B.C. This put an entirely new spin on the skull appraisal: Skulls older than 8,000 years do not have as much similarity to modern skull morphology, so a comparison to modern races using present day characteristic data points could not be made. The newly determined age of the skull, paired with the evidence of an ancient Native American weapon gave the local tribes everything they needed to declare the remains to be Native American in origin and to ask for their return. The ‘Ancient One’ deserved to be re-interred with his people as per the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), rather than be displayed under lights and glass in a museum.

Because the remains were found on federal land under the jurisdiction of the United States Army Corp of Engineers, they remained in their care while the legal aspects of the case were examined. A first attempt to run DNA analysis on the remains early in this century was unsuccessful due to insufficient technology of the time. However, as DNA technology improved by leaps and bounds in the following decade to the extent that we can now sequence the 14th century bubonic plague and the 16,000 year old woolly mammoth genome, a new attempt was made to sequence the genome of Kennewick Man. This time scientists were successful and it was determined that Kennewick Man was more closely related to Native American tribes than to any European lineages. In fact, researchers determined that both Kennewick Man and modern Native Americans evolved from a common ancestor who lived approximately 9,200 years ago.

Last month these DNA results were confirmed by researchers at the University of Chicago, and the Army Corps of Engineers recently announced that they would release the remains for burial. Now all that remains to be determined is who will welcome the Ancient One. Five separate local tribes—the Colville, Yakama, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Wanapum—have all laid claim to the remains. For the time being, the remains will remain in storage at the Burke Museum in Seattle, but there is hope that by 2017, repatriation will be determined and the bones will be released. Kennewick Man is coming home and will be finally laid to rest with the people who came from him and his people.

Photo credit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution

Forensics 101: First Archeological Evidence of Buckshot Injuries

Battlefield momument

Battlefield momument

This story is kind of a fun one for me. Not only is it research coming out of my university, but it’s a battlefield site that’s only about 20 minutes from home.

The Battle of Stoney Creek was one of the earlier battles of in the War of 1812 (1812 – 1815). Following the American victory in the Battle of Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake, 3,400 American troops camped for the night in Stoney Creek. Even through the British only had 1,600 men, reconnoitering showed them the Americans were badly organized and only thinly sentried with an elongated, broken line of encampment. This was true; in fact, when the battle started, only 1,328 American soldiers out of the total 3,400 were positioned to join the fighting.

Armed with muskets and bayonets, 700 British troops left their camp at 11:30pm, killing the few sentries on duty before moving in to start the battle proper. However, the Americans held the high ground, firing a variation of the traditional ‘buck and ball’ down onto the British, having loaded their muskets with 12 buckshot balls, essentially turning them into shotguns. The Americans held their position and were well on their way to victory when a gap formed in their line, leaving their artillery unprotected and allowing their guns to be taken and their men killed by the British. In fact, the chaos from the lack of light and the uncharacteristic close-quarters fighting led to American officers coming to investigate what they assumed was a commotion produced by their own men. Instead they were taken prisoner by the British. Without direction from their generals, the American soldiers started to wander aimlessly in the dark and many were cut down by their own countrymen. In the confusion, the Americans pulled back to end the battle, unaware they still held both the superior position and number of men. They retreated back to 40 Mile Creek in Grimsby and then finally back across the Niagara River to U.S. soil, never venturing as far into Upper Canada again. The battle only lasted 45 minutes, but by the end, 39 men were dead, 174 were wounded and 152 were captured. Many of the soldiers were quickly buried on site in a mass grave.

In 1899, farmer Allan Smith unearthed human remains and pieces of cloth bearing both the British and American insignias while plowing his land. That area, now called Smith’s Knoll, was finally excavated in 1998 and examined. The excavation revealed 2701 co-mingled skeletal components from 24 individuals. Skeletal remains showed signs of sharp force and projectile trauma, as well as perimortem (at time of death) fractures. In the past, bone injury from musket balls has been well documented, but archeological buckshot injuries had yet to be verified. Whether the dearth of information of this type of injury comes from a lack of evidence (as the British did not use this type of ammunition; it was only used by the Americans) or because there is simply less bone damage and more associated soft tissue damage from buckshot is unknown.

We’ve shown the damage modern bullets can do to bone, but 0.65 caliber musket balls and 0.31 caliber buckshot of the early 19th century were very different: Made of soft lead, projectiles would often become misshapen upon striking the body. Buckshot especially would often become so misshapen, it could penetrate the body, but could not pass through it. As opposed to modern bullets, lead balls and buckshot would only glance off bone, or penetrate enough to become embedded. High-velocity, through-and-through, jacketed ammunition would not exist for another 50 years.

Smith’s Knoll Scapula with buckshot defect.

Smith’s Knoll Scapula with buckshot defect.

Researchers at McMaster University experimented with cloth-encased butchered pork as a substitute for a fleshed human hip in a soldier’s uniform, test firing both the traditional-for-the-time ‘buck and ball’ (a musket ball with 3 smaller buckshot) and buckshot only (with 12 buckshot per cartridge). Their results indicate that some injuries seen in the Smith’s Knoll remains came from buckshot injuries. Instead of the sharply angled, penetrating defects we’re familiar with today, many of the defects were no more than minor depressions, indicative of a low-velocity projectile that has spent most of its energy penetrating cloth, skin and muscle before striking bone. Some bones had multiple defects, clustered close together, indicating buckshot fire from close range, not allowing the buckshot to separate as it left the musket and flew through the air. Due to the known history of the battle, it is impossible to tell if the skeletal remains are those of British soldiers cut down by American militia, or militiamen felled by friendly fire.

The War of 1812 is a curious thing. It went on for nearly three years, and is considered to this day by Britain to be a minor part of the Napoleonic Wars. The British torched the White House in 1814 and kept the Americans at bay during a number of decisive battles in Southern Ontario (does anyone but a Canadian know the name ‘Laura Secord’?) avoiding being annexed to the United States, but didn’t fare well in fighting in New Orleans or Baltimore. By 1815, when the Treaty of Ghent was signed to bring an end to hostilities, nearly 20,000 men were dead, a military stalemate was called, and the borders remained exactly where they were. However, due to the lack of clear winners or losers, no bad feelings persisted and friendly trade immediately resumed.

Photo credit: Wikimedia commons by Nhl4hamilton and L. Lockau et al

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

Ancient York Cemetery Sheds Light on the Roman Empire

Located approximately 300km north of London, the city of York was a major Roman outpost close to the northern border of their British domain. The area had been populated since approximately 7000 B.C., but the city itself was founded as Eboracum in 71 A.D. when it became a Roman fortress and settlement. For hundreds of years, the city was presided over by a series of emperors. However, after the fall of Rome, the city was overrun by the Angles in the 5th Century.

An ancient Roman cemetery was discovered in 2004 in the gardens of Driffield Terrace as they prepared to develop the property. The York Archeological Trust excavated the site and was more than a little surprised to find 80 sets of remains from the Roman period dating from the early second century to the late fourth century A.D. The cemetery is located on what would have been the outskirts of Eboracum, across the river from the Roman fort.

The remains were determined to be those of Roman gladiators based on several details. The bone structure of the individuals indicated that they were all men of less than forty-five years old and of large stature with heavy muscle attachment points, indicating a muscular physique. Remodeled bone told the tale of significant battle trauma and one set of remains even showed signs of a large animal bite, likely a lion or bear from the gladiatorial ring.

In 2010 testing was done on some of the bones based on strontium isotope analysis and it was determined that the individuals studied likely came from diverse areas and were not all of British origin. Of the eighteen individuals tested, only five came from York. The remaining thirteen came from outlying areas of Britain, mainland Europe and the parts of the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Traces of carbon and nitrogen in the bones also led the team to the conclusion the gladiators ate a very different diet than the majority of the population of York, confirming the theory that they came from different geographical origins. A number of the skeletons had been decapitated and the skulls buried with them on their chest, between their legs, or at their feet.

However, at the time, scientific techniques to identify the exact origins of the men didn’t exist. But current day cutting-edge genome wide analysis now allows for the level of precision and analysis required to identify genealogical locations. Researchers from Trinity College Dublin selected seven skeletons for testing. Of these seven, six were found to be of British origin and related to the modern Welsh people, suggesting a migration from the area with the arrival of the Angles in the fifth century. The remaining skeleton however was radically different, and researchers matched his DNA sequences to the Middle East, specifically to Palestine, Jordan or Syria.

This is the first definitive evidence of the scope of the Roman Empire and the movement of troops within it. In a time where mobility of troops was an enormous proposition, it is clear that some of the centurions were very well travelled. The study also confirms the multi-ethnic composition of the Roman Empire.

Photo credit: York Archeological Trust

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

Medieval Skeleton Discovered After Irish Tree Falls

Most weeks this story would be considered firmly based in the past, but compared to our last story concerning possibly three million year old skeletal remains, this archeological find is practically modern. Last week a story appeared on media outlets detailing a 215 year-old beech tree felled by a storm last May in the town of Collooney on the northwest coast of Ireland. Not such a remarkable story (although a shame to lose such an old tree), except for the fact that when the tree uprooted, it revealed a 1,000 year old skeleton beneath. Even stranger, when the tree fell, it ripped the skeleton in half, leaving the lower body still in ground, while the upper body and skull remained wrapped in the roots.

Ireland’s National Monument Service hired the newly formed Slig-Leitrim Archaeological Services to excavate and date the remains as their very first project. Archeologists from Slig-Leitrim determined the remains belonged to a young Gaelic man between the ages of 17 and 20 who died a violent death—sharp force kerf marks were found on the hands and ribs, likely from a sword or knife. While the hand wounds certainly indicate the young man attempted to defend himself, it’s unclear at this time whether he was murdered or died in battle. What is clear from the grave, however, is that it was a formal Christian burial. While there don’t appear to be any other remains in the vicinity, historical records of the area indicate there might have been a church and graveyard in that area long ago.

A human spine tangled in the roots of a felled beech tree.

Radiocarbon (C-14) dating places the bones between 1030 and 1200 A.D., so the young man was buried more than 800 years before the tree sprouted. As the tree grew, the remains of the man’s upper body were ensnared in the roots, so when the tree blew over centuries later, the bones of the upper body were raised into the air, leaving the legs below, still embedded in the ground.

The lower legs and feet still in the ground.

Further analyses of the remains are ongoing, but, once complete, the skeleton will be sent to the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin to be added to their collection.

Photo credit: Thorsten Kahlert

A New Ancestor for Homo sapiens

There’s a lot about human history that modern man doesn’t understand yet. When I was doing research for our story last spring on the oldest known murder, research on Homo heidelbergensis led to somewhat murky conclusions as to its place on the evolutionary timeline. H. heidelbergensis is related to us enough to share the same genus (Homo), but whether we evolved from them or on a completely separate, parallel branch of the ancestral tree is unclear. But last week, a new piece of our ancestral puzzle slid into place when a huge story broke about the discovery of yet another human relative.

Two recreational cavers, Steven Tucker and Rick Hunter, were exploring a cave called the Rising Star, located thirty miles northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa, in an area called the Cradle of Humankind because of the sheer number of fossils of early man discovered there during the early twentieth century. Chances of finding new fossils a century later were minimal, but they were willing to give it a try.

The Rising Star is known for its accessibility only to the most slender and wiry of cavers. It has several passages that narrow to a mere seven and a half inches in width, so exploration of the cave is somewhat restricted. But when these two men passed beyond these significant hurdles and found themselves in the final chamber, they discovered a scattering of ancient bones lying on the sedimentary surface of the cave.

Dr. Lee Burger, a paleoanthropologist working at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, had asked area cavers to watch for fossils since he lacked the skills for extreme caving. His work involved the mysteries surrounding the evolution of the genus Homo two to three million years ago. Our most distant known relative is Australopithecus afarensis, of which Lucy is the most well-known example. Homo erectus is our nearest relative, but it is within the span between these two species that much of the murkiness, including Homo heidelbergensis, exists. Dr. Berger was convinced that missing pieces to the puzzle were still out there, just still hidden from view. When Tucker and Hunter showed him pictures of the Rising Star cavern, Berger knew that he had to act quickly before any other amateur cavers discovered what he knew to be primitive bones.

Knowing that Tucker and Hunter didn’t have the skills for an excavation, and that he lacked the skills and physique to enter the cavern himself, Berger put out the call for scientists experienced in both excavation and caving, and with a body form that would allow them entrance into the cavern. He chose six young women from nearly ten times that number of applicants. Over the next four weeks, as Berger and a team of scientists looked on from above with the help of over two miles of data and power cables, the women worked in rotating teams to excavate and remove more than 1,550 bones from fifteen individuals ranging in age from infant to adult.

Dr. Berger called in established scientists from all over the world to help with the skeletal analysis. As an aside, the scientist in me was thrilled to see that he also invited newly minted Ph.D. graduates to participate in what will likely be the find of their lives. The skeletons were divided into ‘workstations’ for each speciality—skulls, teeth, peripheral bones etc. And what they found was remarkable. The specimens were a bizarre combination of humanoid and primitive structures. While the finger bones were curved, indicating tree climbing was a crucial part of their existence, the opposable thumb, palm and wrist bones looked nearly modern. The shoulders and hip bones of the pelvis resembled Australopithecus afarensis’s Lucy, but the bottom of the pelvis and the lower legs and feet resembled modern man. While this was a species with bodies meant for climbing, they also had the long limbs and appropriate muscle attachment points for a bipedal gait.

But, the skulls were significantly different. Four skulls were found—two males and two females. The most notable difference is the size of the braincase—only 51 – 62% of the size of the modern braincase—with an accompanying tiny brain. This alone marks them as non-human since the human brain in all its wonderful complexity is what makes us the species at the top of the food chain, not by sheer strength, where we would not win, but because of our reasoning skills. Dr. Berger dubbed the species Homo naledi as naledi means ‘star’ in Soltho (a local South African language), a reference for the discovery in the Rising Star cave.

The mixed soil composition at the site of the dig has made dating the bones difficult, but researchers have hope that more complex methods may still be used to determine their age. As a result, scientists propose three different niches where H. naledi might have existed:

  1. If the bones prove to be older than three million years, then H. naledi would have co-existed with Australopithecus afarensis’s Lucy, perhaps negating the current theory that Lucy is our oldest relative.
  2. If the bones are between two and three million years old, then H. naledi is likely to be a transitional species between Australopithecus and our own genus Homo.
  3. If the bones are shown to be less than one million years old, then H. naledi may have co-existed with H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis, and even possibly with the very first Homo sapiens.

Another interesting facet of the discovery of the bones was their location in such a difficult to reach site. The distribution of the bones suggested they were deposited there purposely, and over a long period of time. The lack of animal tooth scoring on the bones indicated that their deaths were not due to animal attack. There was also no trace of ocean sediment to suggest the bodies might have been washed there accidentally. In the end, researchers concluded the bodies were placed there on purpose as part of a primitive funeral ceremony, unexpectedly advanced behaviour for such a species, and possibly the oldest known example of that behaviour in the ancestral human record.

Dr. Lee Berger is a remarkable scientist, more interested in his own research than the celebrity it might bring him. He involved other scientists whose specific knowledge exceeded his own in the interest of the best possible analysis, and he included junior scientists so they learned from the best and could share new out-of-the-box ideas. He waits patiently for the dating results to coalesce instead of jumping to headline-worthy conclusions, and he doesn’t seem interested in overturning current paleoanthropology as we know it. Instead, he pursues science for science’s own sake, and lets the truth of the data lead the way. Among the astonishing data he has presented to us, he may be the most impressive part of this new discovery. As a scientist myself, I take my hat off to you, Dr. Berger. Well done, indeed.

Want more reading? See the original scientific publication here, or the excellent National Geographic article of the discovery here.

Photo credit: Berger et al. in eLIFE

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: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/05/14/arts/design/September-11-Memorial-Museum.html. It's well worth the time to read.

Photo credit: Peter Foley/European Pressphoto Agency

Forensics 101: Determining Age at Death Using Dentition

When it comes to unknown victim identification, there are three main pieces of information a forensic anthropologist can contribute to an investigation—sex, race, and age at the time of death. In some cases, time since death can also assist in narrowing victim identification based upon reports of the last time the victim was seen alive. Previously, we’ve covered various ways to determine the victim’s age at the time of death based on epiphyseal fusion or the adult pelvis, but several other methods exist and are also in use. One of the least sexy—but most useful—ways to determine age at the time of death is to use the victim’s teeth.

This method relies on the fact that, throughout childhood, baby teeth are lost and new teeth erupt according to fairly predictable developmental time points. Even more so than epiphyseal fusion, tooth loss and gain holds to a more rigorous chronological schedule.

There are four notable time periods of tooth development in growing children:

  • Deciduous baby teeth emerge during the first two years of life.
  • The first two permanent incisors and the first permanent molar emerge between 6 and 8 years of age.
  • The majority of the remaining permanent teeth erupt between the ages of 10 and 12 years of age.
  • Wisdom teeth tend to erupt around 18 years of age.

In addition, the development of permanent teeth within the skull before eruption occurs can help indicate age. This can be clearly seen in x-rays taken by a coroner or medical examiner.

Using dentition to age adults is a more challenging practice. Once the wisdom teeth have erupted, only morphological changes within the teeth indicate age differences. These changes can include:

  • Tooth root translucency increases with age, independent of periodontal damage.
  • Dental wear on the teeth; this tends to be a predictable variable within populations.
  • Ratio of the amino acids D-aspartic acid to L-aspartic acid in tooth dentin. The L form of any amino acid is the mirrored structural image of the D form. Amino acids begin in the L form and convert with age to the D form, so a preponderance of the D form indicates increasing age. 

Especially in children, the use of dentition can be very helpful in victim identification by minimizing the estimated age range. Used in conjunction with other methods, such as epiphyseal fusion, forensic anthropologists can be quite exact in providing age related information to investigators.

It’s giveaway time! I’m giving away a signed ARC of A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH, so be sure to enter for your chance to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

And watch Goodreads starting on Friday for another chance at a giveaway here! (Please note, this link won’t be active until Friday, but I’ll remind you again next week!)

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons (skull section) and Wikimedia Commons (developing teeth)

Forensic Case Files: The Black Death Revisited

We're thrilled here at Skeleton Keys to be named as one of the “Forensic Science 2.0 - Top 100 Websites to Bookmark”. ForensicScienceDegree.org has compiled a list of 100 forensic sites that each adds its own perspective to the field of forensics. We're thrilled to be included as #70 in this unranked list!

And now, on with this week’s post!

The Black Death devastated Europe in the mid-14th century when it wiped out more than 50 million people, over half the population of the time. It forever changed the face of monarchies, politics, commercial trade, and society.

But what caused this catastrophic disease? The long standing popular belief has been that it was the bubonic plague, caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis). One researcher claimed to have proof of the pathogen, but, for many years, no one was able to confirm these results. As a result, only anecdotal evidence supported the bubonic plague theory, and since many gravesites have been lost to time, there were no definitive remains to test.

Last year, we covered the discovery of Black Plague victims in London. At the time, we wrote that researchers at the Museum of London planned to extract tooth pulp from some of the Black Death victims in an attempt to sequence the genome of the fatal pathogen. As the plague pathogen only infects the soft tissues of the body, the dehydrated internal soft pulp of the teeth and any residual blood therein, protected over the centuries by calcified dentin and enamel, would be the only remaining soft tissue associated with the remains; the rest of the skin and muscle would have long since decomposed. It was these remains, as well as remains recovered from a burial ground in East Smithfield, originally located just outside of London’s walls, that would be used for testing.

Just this past week, I learned that one of the researchers involved in this project is a professor at my own workplace. Hendrik Poinar, an evolutionary biologist and the head of McMaster University’s Ancient DNA Centre, used his expertise dealing with ancient samples to assist the researchers at the University of London with their tooth samples. The Poinar lab notably recovered and sequenced DNA from wooly mammoths over 10,000 years old, so they had high hopes for only 700-year-old bacterial DNA.

The teeth were shipped to McMaster and members of the Poinar lab extracted DNA from the ancient tooth pulp. Amazingly, they found sequences that matched the DNA of modern Y. pestis. For the first time, science had definitive proof of the presence of Y. pestis in a Black Death victim.

Not content with mere confirmation, the team set out to reconstruct the entire Y. pestis genome. This wasn’t simply a scientific exercise. They were on the trail of a pathogen that annihilated half the population of Europe, something that the modern strain would be unable to do. Modern bubonic plague can be fatal, but if it is caught within the first two days, it is very treatable with something as basic as tetracycline, an early antibiotic in use since 1948. Also, modern plague is not easily transmissible between humans, whereas the Black Death of the 1340s spread like wild fire through the human population. So what were the differences between the ancient and modern strains?

With the help of Dr. Johannes Krause of the University of Tűbingen and using the modern Y. pestis genome as a template, they reconstructed the entire ancient genome. When the two strains were compared, they found 97 differences between them. Work is ongoing to determine how these changes could account for the variance in pathogenicity and spread.

Some alternate theories to explain the differences between the strains have also been proposed. In a second study where Italian remains were examined, genetic remnants of Clostridium tetani, the bacteria that causes tetanus, were found along with the plague pathogen. This raises the question that the rapid spread of the 14th-Century might be related to a co-infection of Y. pestis with another pathogen.

Another question raised from these studies, considering the huge death toll, is what conveyed protection to the 50% of the population that survived? Was it lucky avoidance, or was there a genetic component that allowed the survival of so many? If so, it would be interesting to compare the remains of plague victims versus survivors. Such results could have significant implications on modern plagues like HIV and small pox—and, as such, certainly deserve additional studies of their own.

LATE BREAKING NEWS! As I readied this post for publication, a breaking news story was brought to my attention. In recent experiments with 6th-century victim remains from the Plague of Justinian, Dr. Poinar identified that a separate but equally devastating strain of Y. pestis was responsible for that plague. In 541 A.D., the Plague of Justinian swept through Asia, Northern Africa, the Middle East and Europe, killing an estimated 30 – 50 million people. But the two plagues, separated by over 800 years, share the same type of pathogen as their cause. In creating the oldest known genome for Y. pestis, this team of scientists will now be able to compare Dark Age to Renaissance samples in an effort to discern the intricacies of their killing power. Only through study of these fatal pathogens will scientists discover how to avoid a similar catastrophe.

Photo credit: bionicteaching and Wikimedia Commons

Forensic Case Files: Roman Warriors in London

The London Cross Rail Project has previously brought historical remains to light, including the Black Death Plague victims we covered last spring. Recently, the oldest remains to date were unearthed nearly three metres below the surface—those of Roman warriors found in a drained riverbed under the Liverpool Street railway and underground station. The twenty skulls are believed to have been washed down the Walbrook River from a previously discovered Roman burial ground upstream.

The Walbrook—one of London’s 'lost rivers' that now runs completely underground— used to divide the city of London into the east and west sides, starting in the modern day district of Finsbury and running south before draining into the Thames River. A crucial water system during Roman Londinium times, the Walbrook was not only a transportation system; it also delivered fresh water to the city and carried away waste to the Thames. However, it was paved over in the fifteenth century to allow for better transportation through a growing metropolitan city with an ever increasing population.

Archeologists surmise that the Walbrook may have eroded the land around the old Roman cemetery under Eldon Street, washing the skulls downstream. The skulls were discovered at a bend in the old river, where they became lodged. Trapped in the soft mud of the riverbank, the skulls remained remarkably well-preserved. A number of Roman-era pottery shards in equally good condition were recovered with the skulls. The fact that only the skulls of the dead have been discovered could be due to several factors: Due to their shape, skulls tend to travel further in rivers as they can be rolled along by the downstream water flow. But these may have been decapitation victims, the act of severing the skulls from the body allowing for easier transportation to a new location.

Additional dating is yet to be completed, but archeologist estimate that the skulls are from the third and fourth century A.D. since this is when Roman burials were common, as opposed to cremation, which was the common practice before the second century A.D. Forensic anthropologists will study the remains to determine age and sex.

As the project continues, it is expected that additional Roman-era remains will be found, expanding on the current understanding of Roman life in early London.

 I’m off to Boston on Thursday for research for several books and to attend the New England Crime Bake, so I’ll be back with a report on that conference next week.

Photo credit: BBC News

Forensic Case Files: 16th Century Vampire Burials

Modern sensibilities and science tell us that there is no such thing as vampires (especially not sparkly ones!). But to people of the Middle and early Modern Ages, vampires were a real fear. The belief in vampires likely evolved because people of the time didn’t understand the natural process of decomposition, including corpse bloating and fluid purging. To protect themselves from the undead, communities adopted specific burial practices:

  • Four skeletons were recovered this past July in Poland during a road construction project. Each set of remains was found with the head buried between the legs. Since the bodies were buried without personal effects, dating of the remains is proving difficult, but, with further testing, scientists hope to confirm their estimate of a fifteenth or sixteenth century burial. During that period, suspected vampires would be ritually executed by decapitation, or they would be hung until decomposition naturally rotted the neck tissues and the weight of the body pulled it from the head. The belief was that a vampire would not be able to rise if it couldn’t locate its own head.
  • In Bulgaria, a number of skeletons have been discovered with an iron rod through the heart and their teeth removed. This ritual provided two-fold protection: The iron rod pinned the dead into the grave, preventing them from rising. But in case they did manage to escape, removal of the teeth ensured that the undead would not be able to feast on flesh of the living.



  • The Black Plague killed over 50,000 residents of Venice in the year 1576, including the medieval artist Titian. Four hundred and thirty-three years later, Italian researcher Matteo Borrini and his team were excavating a mass grave from the epidemic when they discovered a peculiar victim—a dead woman with a brick wedged between her teeth. Dr. Borrini hypothesized that the practice of opening up mass graves to add more victims, thereby exposing the decomposing bodies, led people to believe that vampires were spreading the plague by chewing on their death shrouds. Bricks were placed in the mouths of these ‘Shroud Eaters’ to stop them from spreading disease.

What appears as odd customs to modern people were reinforced to those early believers as the ‘vampires’ never rose from the grave. And looking at it from a modern perspective, it’s clear where some of the customs around current vampire traditions arose. So the next time you see a vampire movie, remember that some of those mythical aspects date back centuries to a time when society was looking for simple answers to explain complex biology.

Photo credit: Andrzej Grygiel/EPA, Nikolay Doychinov/ AFP and Matteo Borrini

Forensics 101: Mass Grave Methodology

The first hurdle to overcome in mass grave investigations is determining the location of the grave. As we discussed last week, mass graves are deliberately hidden to avoid detection, so simply finding the grave is the crucial first step. To further complicate the process, there are often one or more satellite sites associated with mass graves:

  • the execution site (either a surface execution site or a site within the grave itself)
  • temporary surface deposition sites used during the transfer of remains from primary to secondary and tertiary sites.

But once the final grave is discovered, how do investigators proceed with an excavation that has to unearth and account for all the evidence in the grave without losing any important information?

There are two main methods used to excavate a mass grave:

Pedestal method:

  • The soil around the body mass is removed to just below the lower boundary of the grave, allowing complete viewing from all angles and access to all bodies along the outer margins and top of the grave.
  • The original grave walls and ramp are destroyed, but investigators do not have to stand on bodies during the excavation process since workers start at the outer boundaries and work inward.
  • This formation allows for water drainage from the site and more complete in situ photography while bodies are still in place.
  • The main disadvantage to this method is the loss of stability conferred by the earth surrounding the grave. If the central mass erodes, bodies and body parts can become displaced.

Stratigraphic method:

  • The grave is treated as a single site: bodies and artifacts are excavated from top to bottom, removing evidence in reverse order to which it was deposited into the grave.
  • Grave walls and ramps are retained, leading to a better understanding of how the grave was constructed. Tool marks and tire tracks may also be recovered.
  • Due to the even lowering of the surface grave, rainwater can pool within the confines of the grave, damaging exposed remains or eroding the body mass, but tents or shelters can be constructed over the grave to protect it during inclement weather.
  • Only bodies on the top of the mass can be accessed or viewed.
  • The bodies must be walked on by the investigators during the course of the excavation.

So which method is better?

  • Bones are separated from the body during both methods, although larger bones tends to be dissociated in the pedestal method and smaller bones in the stratigraphic method. Thus the stratigraphic method results in more complete body recoveries.
  • Decomposition tends to progress faster in bodies on the outer edges of the grave. The pedestal method exposes those bodies, leading to erosion of the mass and possible mixing of the remains.
  • Secondary or tertiary graves tend to contain more skeletonized remains and increased dissociation. Use of the pedestal method seems to accelerate slumping of the grave mass.

As a result, current scientific opinion is that the stratigraphic method is preferable where possible.

Photo credit: Gilles Peress and Press Association

I’m going to take a break from blogging for the next few weeks to enjoy the summer holidays and visiting family, but we’ll be back on August 20th with all new content. See you then!