Poetic Archaeology A.5 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology

approaching the site

dew-laden leaves underfoot

discov’ry awaits

(Catch up with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4)

When Meghan returns to the park the next morning, Tom Sandberg is waiting. She follows his car to the burial site and leaves her truck in the narrow grass strip along the jogging trail, avoiding a patch of purple flowers.

As Sandberg joins her, Meghan thinks he didn’t sleep much last night. He has dark circles under his brown eyes, and his black hair is disheveled. Sandberg seems to read her thoughts again as he raises a large cup of steaming coffee in salute.

“Five hours of crappy sleep. This is my third cup, but who’s counting.”

“Oh,” she says, wondering how many trips he’ll make to the nearby restroom. “One is all I can handle.”

And you’ve just announced you’re a total wimp, she thinks. What a great way to start the day.

“Then what’s in the thermos?” Sandberg asks.

“Hot chocolate.”

“Strong enough in a pinch. So where do we start today?”

Meghan takes in the early morning gloom. “We can get the equipment set out, but I’ll wait to do any work until we have more light. I need it to check for variation in soil colors.”

She and Sandberg unload her truck, carrying assorted tools and paperwork into the woods. Reaching the burial, Meghan’s work shoes are wet from the heavy dew. A good sign, she thinks. The moist earth might reveal the burial pit around the skeleton.

When they finish their drinks and setting out the equipment, the sun has risen enough to brighten the woods and ground around the burial. Meghan takes her trowel and gently skims the area around the exposed radius and ulna, where she estimates the body to be. She steps back and examines the soil carefully. In the soft morning light, she thinks she sees a slightly darker, roughly oval pattern. She marks the boundary with some nails and returns to her troweling, placing the excavated soil in a bucket.

“What can I do?” Sandberg asks. “I don’t like standing around and watching other people work.”

“You can screen the soil when I get more cleared off. It’s a bit clayey and balls up. I might miss some small artifacts, even with a trowel. Here, I’ll show you what to do.”

Since Meghan is working with a trowel and not a shovel, Sandberg’s inexperience with a shaker screen doesn’t slow her down. She also bags small samples of soil from different parts of her excavation area.

Not ten minutes pass before she uncovers more bones. As often happens, part of the skull appears first. In typical extended burials, its rounded bones usually rest higher in the ground than those of the body. Meghan pulls several forms from her clipboard and begins writing notes and plotting location measurements.

As the morning progresses, Meghan’s methodical work reveals more of the skeleton. It lies facing upward, as if in a coffin. But there’s no evidence for such a respectful gesture. When the full skeleton is revealed, but still partially encased in underlying earth, she pauses for a preliminary evaluation.

“What can you tell me?” Sandberg asks, setting down the screen and brushing sifted dirt off his pants and shoes.

“The body must have been buried soon after death. All the bones look to be here. If the body was lying on the ground surface for any length of time, animals would have gotten to it. The bones would be scattered, and some would show bites and gnaw marks. Others would have been dragged off. The only clothing I see is a decaying pair of jeans. There’s no shirt or shoes.”

“Not a bad start. Is there anything else?”

“It’s been here a while. Long enough for some smaller tree roots to grow over and through it.”

Sandberg seems to perk up. “So it’s really old?”

“I don’t know. I have no idea how long it took these roots to grow. Five years? Fifty? We’ll take good photos and figure out which tree they belong to.”

She hesitates, refusing to mention crime scene units again. “Maybe someone in the biology department on campus can help us with the time frame.”

“Good. Any ideas on how old the victim was? Sex?”

“It’s a teenager, maybe male.”

“How can you tell?”

“There’s some epiphyseal fusion around the elbows, hands, and feet. The ends of human bones don’t start fusing to the main elements until late childhood. See the left humerus and the two femurs? The separation between the shafts and the ends? That suggests someone around sixteen or seventeen. Sex is trickier to determine at that age, but what I see of the pelvis suggests a male shape. The skull features will tell me more.”

Meghan doesn’t yet know how much more.

To be continued next Tuesday

48 thoughts on “Poetic Archaeology A.5 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology

  1. JM, I love all of the details you include about body identification. I always wonder exactly what makes them decide male 15-year-old or female 17-year-old… your specifics are so helpful. Can’t wait to read more!

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    • Thanks, Anne. :) Just so I don’t put anyone to sleep with too many specifics. That’s one of the writing areas I’m working on with these posts. Enough details to be accurate and provide some reference for readers but not so many as to make you start skimming or stop reading!

      Next Tuesday, more will be revealed. ;)

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  2. I’m with Anne (above). You have a good story to begin with and it’s really cool that you have the background archaeology knowledge to make it believable. I’ll be back for the next one!

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    • I’m glad to hear the story’s getting a good reception. :) It’s really a stretch for me to post this story on the fly. Normally a fear of falling flat on my face would send me running for cover!

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  3. This is fun…especially with all your archaeological facts interwoven into the story. Great job. The tree roots were a fascinating twist. I didn’t know those kinds of things came into play with identification, but it makes sense.

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    • Thanks, Char. :) Fortunately, last week Meghan told me how this short story goes. ;) Which may not be the way a novel based on it would end…. :) All those archaeology and physical anthropology courses are helping me in ways I never expected when I took them!

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  4. More great stuff. I can feel Sandberg’s anxiety and furtive hopes that the body will be old and thus not an urgent case for him.

    I’m curious. What percentage of your work time would you say is spent outdoors vs. indoors?

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    • Thanks, Carrie. :) Yeah, Tom really doesn’t want another case just now. He’s busy enough thanks to those cutbacks. ;)

      Field time varies by type of work (academic vs. “contract”) and seniority. Traditional academics might have a long-term research project where they spend summers in the field and the occasional semester.

      Contract archaeologists in an academic setting might have appointments that are 50 percent teaching and 50 percent contracts. They’d be in the field more often, maybe 25-40 percent of the time depending on the work load and how many people work for them.

      Contract archaeologists in the private sector (either archaeology firms or a division of an engineering/environmental firm) will spend more time in the field, especially at the junior levels. A junior level person might spend 50 percent or more of his time in the field. The senior archaeologists, much less.

      The contract side of archaeology also makes use of a wide network of field technicians, usually people with Bachelor’s degrees in anthropology (some with Master’s). They can spend all of their time in the field or some of it in the lab. Some of the field techs are taking time off before grad school. Others enjoy the nomadic lifestyle of moving from location to location.

      Me personally? I”m part-time and spend part of that time on non-archaeology projects. These days, 98 percent of my time is in the lab or libraries/archives doing historic research, writing, and artifact analysis.

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  5. I’m really enjoying the story, JM, especially the details…free me up to enjoy the story without having my mind wandering about saying “what was that?” Looking forward to the next installment! xoxoM

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    • Thanks, Margarita. :) I’m really happy to know I’m not putting everyone to sleep with those details. Of course, someone who has fallen asleep might not be commenting! ;) (There goes my Midwestern modesty and self-deprecation kicking in again!)

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  6. How interesting about the tree. So, now of course I’m curious about root growth. Do all trees grow at the same rate? If they learn that it’s the elm instead of the maple, for instance, how then are they able to determine the age of the roots? Probably more facts than you want to get into for the story, but you really have me thinking here. :)

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    • Isn’t it funny how readers will get caught up in different parts of a story? I put in the bit about the tree roots nearly at the last minute of the writing stage. Trees do grow at different rates, and have different rooting “habits.” But I don’t know the specifics :) If I was in Meghan’s place, I’d be making a mental note to check with someone too. Maybe the ecology or environmental sciences department if the university has one. :)

      I do know that trees don’t consider the presence of a human body in the ground to be a hindrance to growth. But the bodies I’ve dealt with have all been several hundred to a thousand years old. :)

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  7. I think you have stepped into a winner with these posts. Keep them coming.

    Actually I’ve been meaning to ask, have these posts become a much larger thing than expected, and are you enjoying the routine and writing exercise elements of it?

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    • Thanks, Elliot. :) These posts have definitely outgrown my original plans. When I decided to do a “few” Poetic Archaeology posts about the sub-specialty of forensic archaeology, I thought they would take the same form as my earlier posts. I was just going to describe some of what Meghan would do if she got asked to help law enforcement. And then as I thought I was wrapping up the first post, Meghan and Sandberg spoke. And I realized things wouldn’t go as planned.

      But the exercise part is great, even though I sometimes fret over what to write. Forcing myself to write creatively to a schedule is good, I think. And I hope to translate the discipline to my novels more regularly. What I’ll do when this short story wraps up is still a mystery to me, though…. ;)

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  8. Jeans? Button fly or zipper? How long have zippers been around? The tree root thing is fascinating. You can’t have too many details for me.

    I have to say, this is a really a brave thing to do – writing a story like this without knowing where it’s going or exactly how it’s going to get there – and with an audience, no less.

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    • Zippers were first patented in 1917 and became more common on clothing in the 1930s and 1940s…. I can’t say yet what we have in this story. ;)

      Honestly, I can’t believe I’m doing this. I would have thought I’d write the entire story and edit the heck out of it before I began posting! This is really an “out there” thing for me to do!

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  9. JM, you work in some great details without anything feeling info dumpy or extraneous. Excellent job. I’m learning but I don’t feel like I’m being taught. The dialogue is really good here! :)

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    • Wow, Kourtney, you just made my day. :) Maybe I’m getting the hang of this writing thing…. Kate/4amWriter could tell you about some major info dumps in an earlier draft of Death Out of Time! Meghan’s much better at talking with Sandberg than I would be. I tend to talk myself into circles when I’m nervous. :)

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    • That was part of the original intent when I started Poetic Archaeology. I wanted to provide some insight into the field without sounding like a professor. ;) Meghan’s really mixed it up a bit with this topic!

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  10. As others have commented, it’s really interesting learning some of the technical information around all this. You have the balance exactly right, the information is relevant and interesting, it doesn’t feel like you’re trying to prove your knowledge, and I don’t feel talked down to in any way, which can be a danger when someone has expert knowledge, even when they don’t mean it to come across that way! Oh and the story’s pretty good too! ;)

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    • Thanks, Vanessa. :) Nearly a year into blogging, and I’m still finding my way for subject matter. I work in a field that people find interesting, but I don’t want to drone on and on about it in too boring a fashion. I like Meghan’s twist on turning this topic into a short story, but what will I do to follow it?! Hopefully the Muse will help out when that time comes! :)

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  11. I love how more and more mysteries keep coming up with this. The story makes me wonder about the body, but also about Meghan and the effects that something like handling a skull would have on a person (especially if it turns out that the skull isn’t very old). Does she feel for the boy who might have been killed or is she used to disassociating? I guess it would be hard to get into that in a short story, but you never know, this just might turn into another novel.

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    • Meghan doesn’t normally deal with potentially recent burials, so I don’t think she can disassociate easily in this case. It’s a little easier when you have burials that are hundreds or thousands of years old. But I’ve always wondered about the person I’ve excavated. Who were they? What was their life like? And I know I couldn’t handle real forensic work. The horrors would be too much for me.

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      • Archaeology must be fascinating just for that reason – to find out more about those lives and what they were like. I’ve always been interested in it but never thought of it in terms of the forensic work until now. I don’t think I’d be able to do that either. :)

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  12. Can’t tell you how cool this is. Well paced and well written.
    (I love screening dirt – I don’t know why it’s fun (probably has to do with the rhythm and swishing noise?) and sometimes stuff actually appears – did some now and then with park rangers in Mesa Verde area and local farms as a kid… so memory jog, thanks)
    Did you know there is forensic study area (body farm) near Huntsville/ Sam Houston State U where donated bodies are placed/left in the woods so students learning detective/forensic work can study how they decompose and how the land/environment affects that? Dr. Bytheway is one of the people involved.
    Here’s a link in case you are interested (your roots in the story reminded me…knew about the pelvis, but didn’t think about the roots being important…cool, once again)

    http://abclocal.go.com/ktrk/story?section=news/local&id=8571213

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    • I knew the University of Tennessee has a “body farm,” but I didn’t know there was one in Texas, too. Forensic archaeology is a growing field, so it’s not surprising that more universities are offering degree specialties and training programs.

      Maybe it’s already been done—I haven’t read that many forensic thrillers—but I could see someone writing a novel where a murder victim was dumped onto a facility like that, or a student/faculty member was murdered and left there…. No, I don’t think I could write it. That would be too gruesome for me!

      There are so many things that provide clues to cause and time of death—maggot/fly growth cycles, fungal growth, insect activity, microbes, for example. It’s harder with older burials once the flesh is gone, but often we can still get some good information from what remains. Humans are fascinated with/fearful of death, so it’s not surprising this is a popular topic in books and television. I don’t think Meghan wants to get any closer than this, though!

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      • We’ll be glad to let Meghan go in a different direction (some body ought to grab that plot…bound to be a mystery writer out there).

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