Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures

Mastering the MOOC: Identifying the dead

It started with a bone.

Not just any old bone. This, as it happens, was a human bone. To be precise it was a left side, human ulna, found by a dog walker in the area of Dundee known as The Law.

Fortunately the good folk at the University of Dundee Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHId) were on hand with their team of experts led by Professor Sue Black. I first met Professor Black at the recent “Forensics” exhibition at the Wellcome Trust in London, where she spoke eloquently about her forensic anthropological work in Kosovo. I say met – she was on a video and I was listening intently to her incredibly compassionate description of how she painstakingly identified the individual remains of a family group, so that their father could finally bury his wife and children with dignity. I was incredibly moved by her words and it made me realise just how important it is for us to recognise the unrecognisable so we can name the un-named.

Back then to the bone. Slowly and carefully, guided by this expert team, I have been learning about the process of human identification. Six weeks ago we started “Operation Sweep”.

To begin we had to analyse the scene, and gather evidence alongside the forensic archaeologist. We were encouraged to raid kitchen cupboards so we could recreate layers of soil to investigate how burying something causes changes in the soil horizon, giving an insight into what happens to the layers when a body is buried. Curiously, in this age of digital technology, I learned it is still important to also draw the crime scene by hand – the small details and nuances can be lost when not under the gaze of the human eye.

Drawing of the skeleton in the grave - identifying the dead courseHaving ascertained that this was indeed a complete skeleton, it was time to undertake a skeletal inventory. Part of week two had me combing the nearby shops for modelling clay so I could examine at first hand the differences between blunt and sharp force trauma. Whacking a lump of clay with various kitchen implements is indeed fun way of finding out!! It quickly became apparent that there was evidence on our skeletal remains of ante mortem injury (healed bones) but more sinisterly, peri mortem (at or around the time of death). Transections of both the left and right humerus and femur made by a toothed saw were found. The added identification of a knife cut to the left-hand fifth rib confirmed one thing – this was seriously looking like foul play.

So that raised the key question – just who was the individual buried up on The Law and how would we find out? This involved a detailed review of the recovered bones to identify the probable sex, age, biological ethnicity and height of the deceased. I have to say this was the most compelling part of the course: I have since found myself sitting on trains and buses observing the shapes of fellow passengers heads, fascinated by their brow ridge or pointed chin. My own analysis of the pelvis, skull, fourth rib and tibia came up with the following: I was looking for a missing 5′ 7″, European female, aged approximately 17 – 29 yrs. On its own not enough to give a formal identification but a step along the way.

The great thing about having the skull though is that an expert can build it up using their knowledge of muscles and skin and how they work with the shape of the bones. Little indicators give clues about the shape of the eyes, or the size of your mouth. Even having sticking out ears can be determined by your mastoid process! Layer by layer, clue by clue the victim started to reveal herself.

(These images are screenshots from the activities I completed – courtesy of Futurelearn/University of Dundee)

I’ve now completed week 6. I now know who dunnit and how it was done. I’m not going to say more about the outcome of my investigation because, well you know – SPOILERS! What I will say is over the past few weeks, that bone has become a person with a past but sadly no future. That happens on a daily basis, all around the world. Thanks to the people who do this on a daily basis they can be identified and given back the dignity of a name. Those same people have shared their skills, knowledge and huge amounts of encouragement with over 21,000 people around the world in the most inventive and engaging way. If you only ever do one MOOC – do this one.

And don’t forget cake.

Update 16/10/15

The final “Hang’oot” with Professor Sue Black, Professor Niamh Nic Daeid and Val McDermid is now available – well worth a listen, particularly at 26.00″ when Prof. Black references MY COMMENT as a real mark of how succssful she feels this has been!!

©Chez l’abeille 2015

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