skull says: bodies and bones


1. Story map

2. Something smells in Tennessee

3. Where the bodies are

4. How to get them to talk

5. The making of a forensic anthropologist



Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.


If you STILL want to be a forensic anthropologist
First, the good news. By all accounts, forensic anthropology is a rewarding profession that allows lifelong learning and a slew of good stories for your friends. bones on groundAnd despite the requisite toughness of the senses, there is more interest in forensic anthropology than ever before. The number of graduate programs is on the rise.

Partly because of this, however, it is a fiercely competitive field dominated by a handful of experts.

"The best advice I can give is be multidisciplinary," says Vass. "The more multidisciplinary you are, the better crime scene investigator you are."

As evidence, Vass told us a story that may as well have leapt off your TV screen:

A man kills his wife. His girlfriend watches as he places the body in a 55-gallon drum, douses it with kerosene and lights a match. He dumps the scorched contents onto the edge of an empty field. Three years later, the couple splits. The woman goes to the police and describes the murder. Investigators find no trace of a crime at the scene. They test the soil and find nothing. But one of the investigators has an idea: He saws off a limb from a tree on the edge of the field and traces the tree's annual growth rings back three years. In the lab, he is able to isolate kerosene within that ring. The suspect is convicted although a body is never found.

Artistic representation of fingerprints. "[The investigator] knew a lot about tree growth and the environment -- he knew that trees suck up contaminates," Vass explains. "That illustrates how multidisciplinary you have to be to solve a crime. Don't just take biology. Take chemistry. Take physics. Take geology. Forensics is in every branch of science."

Galloway agrees. But, she adds, be warned: "It's a lot less glamorous than people think. I watched five minutes of one episode of CSI and got so annoyed I turned it off. Most of us consult from outside and are not part of prosecution team -- we're independent expert witnesses, there to represent the victim, not to get the person who committed the crime."

"I get to the courtroom and there's a whole bank of guys wearing suits, and it takes some time for me to figure out which one is the defendant. I have no connection with getting that person. In novels, we're always being chased by serial killers. I don't think so."

skeletal bones in the woods.
Forensic anthropologists often have a lot of work to do before a body looks like this one. But with time, nature does the most macabre job -- cleaning the bones. Courtesy Arpad Vass, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

And about the day job, Galloway admits her work is fascinating but not for everyone. "You have to be very good and have a lot of breadth. You spend a lot of time cleaning off yucky bodies." It helps, she adds, if you "have a strong stomach and an incredibly weak sense of smell."

We're sorry to be a wet blanket, but take heart. If the career isn't for you, at least one possibility remains: donation.

little skull--Sarah Goforth

Nothing smells in our bibliography.

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