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Miasma and maggots: UAA forensics class digs up carcasses for science

  • Author: Rick Sinnott
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 29, 2015

After a couple of hours of exhuming a bear carcass from its muddy grave in Midtown Anchorage, the sickly sweet smell of mortified flesh pervaded the woodlot.

A graduate student helping supervise the dig, Danielle Ellis, summed up the olfactory experience: "When you inhale, you can taste it in your mouth."

But nobody complained. Anyone who enrolls in a forensic anthropology class expects to encounter dead bodies, with all the associated perks.

Out of the classroom

Forensic anthropology is the study of human remains, particularly bones. It's an exacting science because in digging up remains anthropologists destroy much of the context. This context must be recreated during and after the dig through precise examination of the bones and surrounding objects, many measurements, drawings and careful notations.

None of these skills are easily learned in a classroom.

The University of Alaska Anchorage class is being taught by Dr. Ryan Harrod, an assistant professor of bioarchaeology, with help from field anthropologist Margan Grover. Some 25 students were divided into four teams to exhume two dead black bears, a human skeleton made of polyurethane resin and a mold of a prehistoric human burial. One of the bears had its head, paws and most of its flesh and internal organs removed before burial. The other was buried intact.

Harrod hoped the realistic human skeleton, which was clothed and accessorized, would introduce students to the forensic examination of a crime scene. The bear carcasses had various bullet wounds, saw marks and other morbid features hard to replicate on a resin model. And the decomposing bears added realism.

Harrod obtained six bear carcasses last summer from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The bears, shot in defense of life or property, included a sow and two of the three cubs snatched by officials from Government Hill in April and shot in Hope only two months later. The bears and replica human remains were buried last summer in a plot of land owned by UAA.

The class spent three consecutive Saturdays finding and excavating promising locations. First they conducted surveys in the wooded area, searching for possible burial sites. One good clue was when a probe inserted into a depression was withdrawn covered in squirming maggots.

According to Grover, the students "found all of our burial sites and other sunken areas that might be burial sites." This was no small task. The woodlot is pockmarked like a potter's field with human-sized depressions.

On the second Saturday, Harrod and Grover taught the class how to lay out a 2-meter-square plot centered on each depression. They stretched string to mark the squares, positioned a "north" arrow and began digging.

As a rule, anthropologists don't dig with shovels. The students used small garden trowels with edges sharpened to cut through sod and small roots. They were told to excavate a uniform 5 centimeters (about 2 inches) at a time over the entire grid. All soil was sifted, one dustpan at a time, to look for bones and other human artifacts.

Inching their way toward the buried objects, the teams measured depth relative to the taut strings. As they uncovered bones or other artifacts, students were instructed to take photos and to locate and sketch each object in three dimensions. This necessitated so many measurements that the four-hour lab ended before any bones were exposed.

Hitting a soggy spot

Before wrapping up, the team assigned to the depression containing the whole bear had a premonition of future challenges when they unearthed a plume of maggots in the soggy soil.

On the third Saturday, when students began exposing bones and decomposing flesh, the smell from the intact bear grew exponentially. Everyone donned latex gloves, safety goggles, and face masks -- not to stifle the smell but to avoid splashing putrefied remains on their skin.

By then the excavated holes were deep enough, perhaps 2 feet below the surface, that it became easier to employ the scraping tools while lying on one's belly. A prone posture brought the diggers' faces within inches of the specimen.

This was hands-on education. The students switched to wooden utensils little bigger than a Popsicle stick to avoid damaging the bones. The flat sticks easily scraped hair off skin turned a ghastly white with a greenish tinge. After removing the matted black hairs, the students began scooping decomposed flesh off the bones to better understand the body's position.

Meagan Kincaid, another grad student, observed, "It slides right off, like butter."

Walking around, even standing next to the hole, the smell of decaying flesh merely tickled the nostrils. Grover thought it smelled like "mushy ripe fruit." But the miasma was stronger when the carcass was inches from your face. In the words of Lisa Sullivan, one of the students lying prone in the mud, it felt "like a punch to the face."

As they scraped and prodded deeper, the outline of the bear grew until its head extended outside the plot. "How BIG is this bear?" one student wondered. Harrod and Grover were puzzled until they realized the students were unearthing the wrong specimen.

Rather than excavating a partially defleshed specimen, as planned, the team had found a 120-pound bear killed last summer in the Eklutna Lake campground. That carcass was supposed to be saved until next year.

‘It looked like he was screaming’

Meanwhile, another team had uncovered the bear with no head and paws. Harrod was encouraging the teams to think of the bears as human remains -- easy enough when you ponder the superficial resemblance of human and bear carcasses -- and to consider possible reasons and circumstances for each burial.

Leaning over the hole, Grover suggested the possibility of a ritual murder where, for some reason, the victim's head and hands had been removed. Tom Brooks speculated it might be a "mob hit," because fingerprints and dental records couldn't be used to identify the victim. Brooks may have read too many Mickey Spillane novels. Nowadays, DNA analysis would rule out the serendipitous discovery of Jimmy Hoffa's remains.

When the team with the replica human skeleton arrived on the third Saturday, they had to bail at least 6 inches of water out of the pit, which was located closest to a boggy area. With no maggots to deal with, Harrod had stoked their imaginations by salting the plot with bullet casings. And the replica human skeleton was not only clothed, it was wearing boots, a belt with a distinctive buckle and a wallet with identification.

The crew painstakingly exposed the realistic skeleton, sodden clothes and all. With only a faint whiff of decomposition drifting from the bear nearby, this team coped with other unsettling experiences. Water continually seeped into the pit, and the skeleton was reposing in a pool of dirty water.

With its skull half-submerged and lower mandible gaping widely, one student murmured, "It looked like he was screaming."

New technology

Finding and mapping the specimens was aided by new technology. Dr. Paul White, a UAA anthropology professor, showed students how to expose buried bodies using only the heat generated by decomposition. A forward-looking infrared (FLIR) thermal camera the size of a smartphone located bear carcasses buried several feet below the surface.

Ted Parsons, a graduate student in anthropology, demonstrated another tool. Using an Xbox 360 Kinect with integrated infrared and color cameras and Skanect software, Parsons precisely mapped the exposed skeletons in three dimensions in seconds.

The students, many of whom wore face masks smudged by adjustments with muddy gloves, were nonplussed by the gore and seemed to appreciate the experience. Shelby Mattey-Doepke, a student who started the day wearing gloves emblazoned with glow-in-the-dark skeleton hands, said it was "cool and gross at the same time."

On a subsequent Saturday the students planned to boil the remaining flesh from the bones and examine the bones and other artifacts minutely in the laboratory, looking for any clues to explain the subjects' death or burial.

The instructors were also satisfied -- even though Grover called setting up on the second day "controlled chaos." Harrod said the experience was "challenging but rewarding because it provided students with an experience that you simply cannot get in the classroom." He says he'll definitely try it again.

Harrod and his students discussed their experience with Indie Alaska, part of a video series produced by Alaska Public Media in partnership with PBS Digital Studios.

After working four hours the last day, one student lingered, hovering over her plot long after other students had rounded up all the gear and headed home. I didn't ask her what she was thinking. The instructors were still around; maybe she was angling for an A. Or perhaps digging bones out of the mud was a dream come true.

Anchorage freelance writer Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist.

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