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


Puzzles in the Pattern of Plague

This past weekend, my husband and I attended a lecture at my university on ‘Puzzles in the Pattern of Plague’. Being an infectious diseases specialist in my day job, and having talked about plague a number of times on the blog, the topic really caught my attention. As my husband is also a science geek, he good naturedly tagged along.

The talk was about using mathematical modeling of historic plagues to be able to predict future epidemics. And before you starting thinking Ugh, math… it was a very down to earth talk without a smidge of calculus (though you know for a fact that this kind of modelling overflows with calculus in the background), so it was fascinating from both a historical and scientific viewpoint. We’ll come back to a modern standpoint at the end as we touch on SARS and what the outbreak in 2003 might have meant for humanity.

Dr. David Earn, a mathematician at McMaster University, was the evening’s speaker. He focused on plague—bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic—with an emphasis on the Great Plague of London from 1665.

There have been multiple waves of plague over the past two millennia:

  • Justinian, starting in 541CE and lasting 200 years.
  • Black Death (which includes the Great Plague of London), originating in China in 1334 and lasting more than 350 years, finally ending in the late 1600’s after killing over 60% of Europeans.
  • Modern plague, which started in China in 1860 before spreading to kill 2–10 million worldwide, but which finally enabled scientists of the day to isolate the responsible bacterial agent, Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis).

There are three main forms of plague known to modern man:

  • Bubonic plague—an infection of the lymphatic system by Y. pestis leading to swollen lymph nodes, or buboes. If untreated (as it was historically), the death rate is approximately 66%. Treated with modern antibiotics, the death rate is approximately 11%.
  • Pneumonic plague—a Y. pestis infection that spreads to the lungs resulting in pneumonia. Untreated, the death rate approximates 100%. Surprisingly, even with modern antibiotics, the death rate is still nearly 100%. This is the kind of plague that defense experts worry about as a bioterrorism threat. There is a vaccine, but it is extremely inefficient.
  • Septicemic plague—a Y. pestis infection which enters and spreads via the circulatory system leading to blackened and gangrenous extremities. The death rate from septicemic plague falls between that of bubonic and pneumonic plagues, but tends to approximate that of pneumonic plague even with modern treatment.

When it comes to identifying the type of plague through the ages, historians have no choice but to fall back on records of the time, which are often vague, and mostly date after the Justinian plague. However, it is clear that at least part of the second wave of plague was likely partially septicemic since it was known at the time as the Black Death, a reference to the black fingers and toes resulting from the systemic infection.

Considering the differences in plague properties, how can we be sure that the Justinian, Black Death, and modern plagues were caused by the same modern Y. pestis agent? Another McMaster researcher, Dr. Hendrik Poinar, has sequenced ancient DNA found in plague victims from both of these epidemics and has confirmed that Y. pestis was responsible for both.

So how does mathematical modelling help us use plagues of the past to possibly save us during a plague of the future? Information is power, and, in this case, knowledge of previous pandemics can help us design better control strategies for the next pandemic. This paradigm could instruct future scientists and healthcare professionals how to interrupt an epidemic just as it starts, possibly saving millions of lives in the process.

Toward this end, Dr. Earn and his students examined the Great Plague of London of 1665. They went back to the weekly bills of mortality published during that time period to collect large scale data. This is a written record of not only all the deaths broken down by cause, but also where within the 130 parishes the deaths occurred, and exactly how many were caused by plague. Based on this data, they were able to show in great detail how the plague ripped through London during the summer of 1665 and then simmered for the next year before finally disappearing at the end of 1666 following the Great Fire of London. The plague was mostly gone by the time of the fire, but actually continued for several more months, so the fire didn’t contribute to its disappearance.

London weekly mortality register, September 12 – 17, 1665 (click for a larger version)

Mathematicians use the susceptible/infectious/removed (SIR) model to infer transmission and recovery rates during an epidemic. In the SIR model

  • S = susceptible, the number of people who could be infected.
  • I = infectious, those who are infected and are capable of passing on the pathogen.
  • R = removed, those who have either recovered and are now immune, or who have died. In either case, these are the people who are now taken out of the susceptible population.

Using this SIR model, R0, the reproduction number (how contagious a pathogen is) is calculated. R0 essentially describes how many secondary cases can arise from a single primary disease case. If one sick person can spread disease to only one other person, then R0 = 1. If, on average, the disease spreads to 2 people, then R0 = 2 etc. For disease to spread through a population, R0 must be greater than zero, or there is not enough transmission to maintain the epidemic. To put this in perspective, influenza R0 = 1.5–3 and measles R0 = 17 (so get your kids vaccinated, parents! With an R0 like that, herd vaccination will only take you so far…).

Dr. Earn was able to calculate the difference between Black Death plague as it spread from Asia and through Europe in the following years: 1348, 1361, 1375, 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, and 1665. What they found was that the R0 for plague actually rose over the centuries with an R0 = 1.1 in 1348 and an R0 = 1.5 in 1665. That translated to only 20% infection in the 14th century, but 50% infection in 1665 by the numbers. But they had to make one major assumption for this calculation: that the transmission rate in the second plague pandemic was similar to modern plague and the modern bacteria that scientists have studied. And knowing the historic death rates, Dr. Earn knew that assumption had to be incorrect since over 60% of the population was infected.

So what could account for this difference? And why did the plague spread nearly twice as fast in the 16th century, compared to the 14th century? We’ll never know for sure, but several possibilities exist:

  • The pathogen itself may have changed and become stronger through mutations that were later lost when they no longer conveyed a survival advantage.
  • Population density likely played a role as people started to live in dense clusters with close contact inside city walls.
  • Climate change of the time also played a role, as the Little Ice Age occurred between 1300–1850 in Europe.
  • What form of plague dominated at the time since bubonic had a much higher survival rate than either the septicemic or pneumonic variants.

So how does this information serve us in modern times? Dr. Earn cited the SARS pandemic of 2003 as an example. In Canada, we had 250 infections, from which 50 patients died, so a 20% mortality rate (which is quite severe in modern times with modern drugs). Worldwide, over 8,000 people were infected with 774 eventual deaths. However this pandemic could have been much worse but for a number of factors. China, the original location of the outbreak, reacted very quickly, and used extreme isolation of anyone diagnosed with SARS or who had come into contact with it. It spread through air travel to limited locations, with Canada being the next worst hit. I remember the SARS pandemic very clearly as our lab was located in the university hospital and coming to work every day included extremely long lines, written questionnaires, one-on-one health screening, and a single monitored entrance through the parking garage. But it was procedures like patient isolation and absolute dedication to stopping spread that halted the pandemic in its tracks and no infection has been seen since 2004. However, Dr. Earn calculated the SARS R0 = 2, which would have led to a 50% infection rate. In his estimation, had we not been able to control the outbreak, it would have quickly gone worldwide with over one billion dead. Simply stated, it would have changed the course of human history just as the 14th centuryplague changed the course of history after killing 50 million, just over half the population.

So this research is critically important. Mathematical models show that even if there had been a plague vaccine during the Great Plague of London that only protected 5% of the population, it would have made a significant change to the transmission curve and millions would have been saved. Using these tools, mathematicians will be able to assist during pathogen outbreaks as healthcare professionals are making decisions around treatment and vaccination and how to best protect the population and save the most lives. I’ve said for years that the bugs are going to win someday, but tools like this could stave off that fate.

Interested in more of what Dr. Earn and his team do? He gave a TEDx talk a few years ago, and this clip shows some of the fascinating animations he showed us last night about the spread of the Great Plague through the burrows of London:

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

The Strange, Grim Tale of Colma, Califorinia

Colma, a tiny incorporated town of less than two square miles, is located on the San Francisco peninsula, just south of the city of San Francisco proper. It has the strange distinction of its living residents being outnumbered by the dead by over 1,110 to 1. A 2010 census placed the town’s population at 1,270, while its cemeteries hold more than 2,000,000 bodies. It's known as the City of the Silent, and has the humorous slogan 'It's great to be alive in Colma!' But how on earth did this city of the dead come to be?

Likely to no one’s surprise, it was a financial decision that drove the creation of Colma as we know it today—one all about skyrocketing land values in San Francisco. Even before the catastrophic earthquake of 1906, San Francisco had banned the construction of new cemeteries. But as the residents rebuilt following the devastation and land was in ever greater demand, the city passed a law in 1912 evicting all the dead from within the city limits. Needless to say, this decision wasn’t without controversy. The Catholic Church opposed the removed of remains from the Calvary Cemetery because the dead were interred on hallowed ground. Still others objected to the indignity of exhuming a number of the city’s pioneers and founders who were buried at the Lauren Hill Cemetery. Finally, the law was upheld. But where do you move nearly 160,000 bodies and how do you carry out this feat? The answer in the end was Colma, a tiny community just south of the city built along the El Camino Real, or the King’s Highway, and the associated railway line.

Digging up the dead at the Old Fellows Cemetery, San Francisco, Calfornia.

Digging up the dead at the Old Fellows Cemetery, San Francisco, Calfornia.

It was a task that took decades, from the 1920s to the 1940s. Odd Fellows Cemetery held 26,000 dead and it took more than 6 years to move them all to Greenlawn Memorial Park, as well as the 40,000 remains transferred from the Masonic Cemetery to Woodlawn Park. World War II interrupted the moving of 35,000 sets of remains from Lauren Hill Cemetery to Cypress Lawn in Colma. The remains had to be held in the Cypress Abbey Mausoleum since building the mausoleum meant as their final resting place was delayed by the war. But it was moving the remains of the 55,000 Catholic souls from Calvary Cemetery to Holy Cross that proved to be the most daunting as the Catholic Church would only support the transfer if each deceased was moved one at a time, properly screened for privacy, and with a priest in attendance. Only when this proposal was approved would the Archdiocese allow the removal of the remains starting in 1937.

 /* Style Definitions */
	{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
	mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
  Woodlawn Cemetery, Colma, California

Woodlawn Cemetery, Colma, California

However, due to incomplete buried records, some of the oldest interred inhabitants of San Francisco were missed when the previous cemetery grounds were utilized to build colleges, parks, businesses, and housing. The Golden Gate Cemetery, founded in 1868, was turned into the Lincoln Park Golf Course and the associated Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum. During a retrofit of the museum in 1993, over a thousand coffins and sets of remains were unearthed. None of the city’s death records survived the earthquake and the raging fire that followed, but it is estimated that potentially up to 16,000 dead are still interred on the Lincoln Park property. With time, they could be discovered, but who they are will forever be a mystery. Care was taken to bury the dead as best as could be deduced from the remains themselves: Those holding rosaries were transferred to the Catholic cemeteries, while those identified as Chinese were buried in the Green Street Mortuary.

 /* Style Definitions */
	{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
	mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
  Buena Vista Park gutter, created from an old gravestone

Buena Vista Park gutter, created from an old gravestone

It’s a strange tale of the power of greed balanced by the human need to respect those who have passed on before us. Sadly, following the removal of the remains, the original tombstones and much of the cemetery art—including Neoclassical, Gothic and Egyptian statuary—were either crushed as material for gutters or a breakwater near the St. Francis Yacht Club, or were simply disposed of by dropping them into the bay. In addition, during moving of the remains, many were buried unidentified in mass graves or were buried under the wrong name, their true identities lost forever. However, many notable persons are buried in Colma, including Wyatt Earp, William Randolph Hurst, Levi Strauss, and Joe Dimaggio.

Photo credit: San Francisco Public Library (Odd Fellow Cemetery and Woodlawn Cemetery) and Chinasaur

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

A Second Viking Settlement Discovered in North America

Newfoundland coastline

Newfoundland coastline

Last week, we talked about the science of space archeology, and how, with the help of high resolution satellite scans taken 400 miles above the earth, a well-trained and intuitive eye can discern archeological sites hidden on the earth’s surface. This week, we’re going to talk about Dr. Sarah Parcak’s latest amazing discovery based on this technology.

The Vikings were a group of Scandinavians, first known for their international trading, but later known universally for their violent raiding of other lands and cultures. They were groundbreaking nautical engineers for the time and their carefully crafted vessels allowed them to travel from present day Norway, Sweden, and Denmark to Britain and Scotland, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and even all the way to North America.

The Vikings used water to move between locations, be it rivers to move through Europe proper or the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea to go further. Starting in the 8th century, they set out to trade with peoples in other lands, but quickly learned that it was more successful and lucrative to simply raid those lands instead. They spread across the north Atlantic, moving from Scotland to Iceland, and then to Greenland.

But how did they so successfully set off into the unknown, and not be lost forever at sea? The Vikings were not only expert naval engineers, but were also expert navigators. They learned how to be able to detect land up to 50 or 60 miles away, simply by watching distant clouds, identifying sea birds out for a day of fishing, or by the smell of grass and other plants, carried by the strong sea breezes.

One of the great Viking explorers was Erik Thorvaldsson, better known as Erik the Red. Erik was part of an Icelandic settlement before he was exiled for three years in 982 A.D. after he murdered several members of the settlement. He and his men set sail, only to discover Greenland. It was Erik’s son, Leif Erikson, who is credited with the discovery of North America. He and his men sailed from Greenland, but were caught in a storm and driven due west, where they discovered a previously unknown coastline. Scholars studied the Viking texts of the time and believe Erikson found Baffin Island in Canada. From there he sailed south, down to Labrador, and then to Newfoundland.

In 1960, the only officially designated North American Viking settlement was discovered in northern Newfoundland. Archeologists called it L’Anse Aux Meadows, and found there the foundations of traditional Viking longhouses for approximately 90 people, and traces of metal works, a technology native Canadians did not have at the time. But archeologists also found something they could not explain—seeds from a plant that only grew hundreds of kilometers south of that site, leading them to believe that there must have been at least one other settlement south of L’Anse Aux Meadows.

Dr. Sarah Parcak, an archeologist at University of Alabama at Birmingham and the director of the Laboratory for Global Observation, took on the challenge of trying to find this new settlement. Using the Worldview satellite that resolves images down to 10”, she examined the Newfoundland coastline. To do this, she studied near infrared scans after processing them for false colour to pick up differences in the vegetation—indications of decreased health of plants visible in the near infrared frequency could indicate the presence of foundations or other man-made objects below the surface.

Dr. Parcak found a potential site at Point Rosee, Newfoundland. Located on the west-facing coast on the southern edge of Newfoundland, it lies 370 miles southwest from L’Anse Aux Meadows. Among other possible structures, she identified a rectilinear shape with the same dimensions as a longhouse found at L’Anse Aux Meadows. This was a very strong indication that Point Rosee could be a related archeological site.

The first step for Dr. Parcak’s team was to do a non-invasive survey of the area, which they accomplished using a magnetomer to detect subtle differences in magnetism of the scanned soil. The magnetomer will not only  indicate the presence of metals but it will also provide evidence of burning or soil disturbances. A number of ‘hot spots’ were discovered and compared to the satellite  scans. It was this successful comparison that earned the team a two week test excavation to see if the they could find any physical evidence of a Viking settlement.

After surveying and gridding off the area to match the terrain exactly to the satellite images, the team dug several test trenches. It was backbreaking, muddy work, but they discovered several items of interest: some seeds, possible fragments of metal work, some clumps of what the team thought might be slag (a byproduct of metal work and a significant indicator of Viking activity), and darkly striped soil seen before in other Viking sites from their use of slabs of turf to insulate buildings.

In the end, the seed was determined to be from the 17th century and archeologists had to admit it could have filtered down into the extremely moist soil hundreds of years later. But it was the suspected slag that ended up as the crucial evidence. While it wasn’t actually slag—it was fire roasted bog ore—it represents a step in preparing ore for metalwork and is indicative of the presence of a group of people with skills different from the resident aboriginals of the time.

It is this single piece of evidence that will now set the course for future excavations. It is a very strong possibility that a Viking settlement occupied Point Rosee over a millennia ago, a full 500 years before Columbus sailed west to ‘discover’ a land found and temporarily settled by other Europeans centuries before. Dr. Parcak and her team hope to shine a light on a time period that is still mostly a mystery, expanding on the history of a new land, as well as the saga of a lost people.

Photo credit: Kenny Louie

Forensics 101: Space Archeology?

A new term came to my attention last week, one that on first glance seems a bit of a misnomer. It came tied to a really neat story, so we’re going to look at the scientific field this week—what these scientists do and what their work tells them—and then we’ll explore their groundbreaking discovery next week.

The term is ‘space archeology’ or, alternatively, ‘remote sensing techniques in archaeology’ (though I think we’d all agree ‘space archeology’ is WAY cooler). At first glance, one would think this is simply archeology in space, except we’re nowhere near having the skills or technology to do that. So what is space archeology? In the end, the answer is quite clever: it’s using satellite scans of the earth taken from space to identify previously undiscovered archeological sites.

The way space archeologists do their work is quite ingenious. Visible light scans of the planet’s surface may show absolutely nothing. But when infrared scans are used after being processed using false colour, chemical changes to the landscape caused by building materials and the activities of ancient civilizations are revealed. NASA’s high resolution scans are used as the raw data for the analysis, allowing scientists to discern subtle variations in the earth’s topography. The key to this analysis is grounded in vegetation—plants that live on top of stone are simply less healthy and will have reduced levels of chlorophyll. Find the unhealthy plants, and you may be well on your way to finding the site of an ancient civilization.

Enter Dr. Sarah Parcak, an archeologist at University of Alabama at Birmingham. She is responsible for the discovery of several amazing archeological sites, many of them lost for centuries or even millennia. For instance, the picture above shows an infrared scan of what looks to the naked eye like a patch of desert. But move out of the frequency of visible light and into infrared, and suddenly a network of city streets and buildings are revealed. It’s an amazing look at what hides below the earth’s surface. Which city is this? Tanis, the historical city used in Raiders of the Lost Ark, lost for over three millennia to the sands of time. So far only a small trial area has been excavated, but mud-brick structures were discovered a foot below the modern surface.

Next week we’ll be back to talk about an amazing discovery that could rewrite the early history of North America. See you then…

Photo credit: University of Alabama at Birmingham

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

Queen Nefertiti’s Tomb Discovered?

We love interesting burials here at Skeleton Keys. Add in some fascinating history and we’re in heaven. We spent lots of time examining the process of finding and identifying Richard III. We covered the potential discovery of the remains of Joan of Arc and King Alfred. We looked at the plague burials of London, the Roman burials of York, and even those entombed at Pearl Harbor. But we’ve never tackled ancient Egypt.

This past week, there was a press conference in Cairo. The Egyptian minister of antiquities announced that new research being conducted in King Tut’s tomb revealed the possible presence of two hidden chambers off the room that held the royal sarcophagus. Seeing as almost everyone thought the tomb had been fully excavated by Howard Carter between 1922 and 1932, the announcement came as quite a surprise.

The one man who thought there was more to discover was Dr. Nicholas Reeves, an archeologist from the University of Arizona. Known as a scientist who often makes discoveries by fully analyzing the research of others, he published a paper in 2015 based on radar scans of the tomb done by a team of conservators from Factum Arte. Factum Arte’s scans were commissioned in order to produce a replica of the tomb for an Egyptian project to preserve tombs in the Valley of the Kings. After the scans were complete, they were uploaded to the Internet for all to see. When Dr. Reeves examined the highly detailed scans, he saw what everyone else had missed—the outline of two doorways in clear, straight lines beneath layers of plaster and paint. His analysis of the data prompted further scans to determine if there was any truth behind his theory.

Dr.  Hirokatsu Watanabe, a well-known Japanese radar expert, was brought in to run fresh scans of the north and west walls of the tomb. Immediately following the scans, Watanabe was “90% positive” of the presence of a hidden room behind the north wall. Six months later, the full analysis is complete and Watanabe reported finding empty space on the other side of both walls, with metal and organic material behind the north wall, and organic material behind the west wall. Organic material in this case could be anything from wooden items to human remains.

The quality of the plaster in those two areas is also different from the tomb walls themselves. It is composed of a softer, grittier material than the tomb walls proper. More specifically, this type of gritty plaster exactly matches the material sealing another door opened by Howard Carter in his initial excavation. Carter kept some of the material so Reeves was able to do a direct comparison.

Reeves has a theory about the reported organic materials. It is his opinion that the remains of Queen Nefertiti, stepmother to King Tut, are buried in the chamber behind the north wall. If so, KV62, the most important archeological find of the 20th century, may prove to also be the most important archeological find of the 21st century.

Howard Carter was an amazingly thorough archeologist and painstakingly took a decade to document and excavate King Tut’s tomb, a dedication that was considered unusual for the times. But imagine such an excavation with modern archeological and scientific tools at the researchers’ disposal. They would be able to do field testing radically unlike anything Carter could achieve and in-lab testing well beyond that. Not to mention that current conservation skills far outstrip any of a century ago, ensuring the safety of any objects inside the tomb, sealed away for the past 3,339 years.

So what are the next steps? National Geographic has been invited to send in a team of specialists to confirm the previous radar data as well as to determine the thickness of the walls. Once that is determined, Dr. Reeves would like to use a tiny fiber optic camera to breach the wall with as little damage as possible to visualize any open space beyond without defacing the beautiful painted murals that cover both the north and west walls. He would also like to talk to Japanese conservators with experience in removing wall paintings intact in case they have to fully breach the wall to excavate behind it.

It’s a very exciting prospect, but one that will take time and care to achieve. So patience will be the watchword as the Egyptian government carefully oversees the entire process. But they will not be the only ones to pay attention. To say the whole world will be watching is surely not an overstatement.

Photo credit: By Philip Pikart - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

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

Rewriting the History of the Black Plague

We’ve discussed the history and science behind the Black Death several times already on Skeleton Keys—from bubonic plague victims discovered in London, to a cemetery under a Parisian supermarket, to whether rats were truly responsible for spreading the epidemic, to the 15th century Bedlam hospital cemetery that was recently unearthed, and finally to sequencing Yersinia pestis, the bug that caused the disease. But the plague was back in the news again last week with the announcement of the discovery of Bronze Age skeletons containing DNA from Y. pestis, indicating the existence of the plague a full 3,000 years earlier than originally suspected.

While the most well-known instance of plague is the 14th century Black Death epidemic that ravaged Europe and killed more than half the population (approximately 50 million people), the earliest known epidemic was in 6th century Germany. And while theories hold that the ancient Greeks also experienced plague, there is no scientific proof of its existence in that population.

The Bronze Age is known as being a time of not only the development of much stronger bronze tools by smelting copper with tin and other metals, but also the development of early writing systems and the first structured (though early) civilizations. It is also known as the time of a sudden mass migration from Russia and modern day Ukraine into Europe. Scientists now think they can explain why.

DNA extracted from the teeth of 101 Bronze Age skeletons was sequenced in hopes of finding traces of Y. pestis as a method of explaining the mass exodus. To their surprise, a significant number of specimens (7%, which is high as a single cause of illness-based death in a normal general population) contained Y. pestis sequences, and two specimens contained sufficient DNA to encode the entire Y. pestis genome. The oldest strains dated back to 3,000 B.C., a full three millennia before previously theorized plague origins.

When scientists studied the stains of Bronze Age Y. pestis and compared it to the deadly 14th century version, they found an interesting evolutionary tale. The earliest versions of the plague bacteria lacked the gene that enables the bacteria to colonize the gut of fleas which enables them to be the vector between human hosts. Without that insect vector, Y. pestis could only be spread human-to-human directly through blood or saliva, and, as such, was much less transmissible. However, by 1,000 B.C., that gene was present in the bacteria allowing for zoonotic (animal/insect to human) transfer and increased rates of infection. These same early Bronze Age versions of the plague contained another gene, one that allowed the bacteria to infect the lungs of humans. As a result, Bronze Age Y. pestis likely caused pneumonic plague rather than bubonic plague (an infection of the lymphatic system). This was by no means a preferable version of the disease—while infections were less common, the death rate from pneumonic plague was 90 - 100%, as opposed to bubonic plague’s 30 – 90%.

Such a catastrophic death rate supports the theory that a mass migration occurred in an effort to escape the ravages of the disease. Without the advantage of transmission and transport via fleas—which would use other animals to move from place to place, often in the company of potential human hosts—Bronze Age people could successfully escape the disease by traveling into Europe. DNA studies of Europeans have previously confirmed a shift in genetic makeup from typical European hunter gatherers in 3,000 B.C. toward the Yamnaya phenotype typical of the Russian/Ukrainian area, around 2,000 B.C.

Photo credit: Nature

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.

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: 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