Poetic Archaeology A.7 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology

more clues appearing

new areas to research

what will be revealed

(Catch up with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6)

“If it’s not a dime, what is it?” Sandberg asks.

“A steel penny,” Meghan replies, handing him the coin. “They were only made for a year.”

“One year? When? Why?”

“1943. The mint discontinued them when people confused them with dimes and vending machines treated them like slugs.”

“Why make them at all?”

“The government needed copper for the war effort. And pennies used a lot of copper. So they tried steel. But the problems outweighed the benefits.”

“So we’ve got one penny from 1943 and another from the ’50s at latest. That doesn’t sound recent.”

“I don’t think it is,” Meghan says.

“So this boy died in the 1940s?”

Meghan hesitates. “Probably, but I would need more information. If the wheat penny’s from the ’50s, that would bring his death closer. Whatever the latest date is on the coins is the earliest he could’ve died. For now, we know it’s 1943 or later. It won’t take me long to finish up and see if there are other artifacts with him.”

By early afternoon, Meghan has completed the excavation, and the bones lie pedestaled on the subsoil. Other than the decaying denim and metal buttons and rivets from his jeans, there’s no evidence of clothing.  And the coins are the only other artifacts in the burial pit. There’s nothing to identify him—no inscribed watch or paper documents like a driver’s license. He’s nameless and alone.

She stands to stretch and to grab a water bottle and small magnifying glass before sitting down again with the coins. Taking a bandana from her pocket, she splashes water over the dime and wheat penny and gently wipes the mud away. She peers through the loupe and can just make out the dates.

“The other penny is from 1940 and the dime from 1939. Looks like 1943 is the earliest the boy could have died. Nothing says it wasn’t a few years later, though. Maybe he just didn’t have anything from the current year.”

Meghan sets down the coins and looks up at Sandberg. “Do you investigate murders from the ’40s? Or are they too old?”

Sandberg takes off his jacket and sits next to Meghan. The afternoon sun is warm enough to make a pleasant day. “If he died in 1943, that’s nearly seventy years ago. He’d be in his eighties today. If he was murdered, the killer’s probably dead, too. But murder cases can always be reopened when there’s new evidence. I’ll check the old missing persons records for the area. That long ago, I don’t think anyone would transport a body too far to dump it.”

“I hope you’ll find someone who matches,” Meghan says softly.

“Are you all right with this? You don’t normally deal with anything this recent.”

“It’s just hard to understand how someone could kill a boy and bury his body in the middle of nowhere. Why did they do it? What happened?”

“Maybe it’s not murder.”

Meghan shakes her head. “People in the 1940s wouldn’t just bury a boy in a hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere. He’d be in a cemetery in a coffin, even if it was a simple pine box. I know I’m no skeletal expert, but I’d bet his skull didn’t crack that badly in an accident.”

She wipes her face with a dry corner of the bandana, hoping Sandberg doesn’t notice the tears welling in her eyes. “I have a ten-year-old boy,” she says and points to the skeleton. “This is my worst nightmare.”

“Mine, too,” Sandberg says. “My boy is twelve and my daughter, ten.”

“Is it hard for you? Cases with children?”

“Yeah. You have to disconnect your personal life from your work life. Otherwise, you go crazy.”

“I couldn’t do it,” Meghan says. “I’d always see John, even if I knew he was safe at home.”

“Then you made the right career choice.”

Sandberg stands up. “I promise. I’ll check the missing persons files. But let’s get this boy out of the middle of nowhere. When can your physical anthropologist look at him and tell us what happened?”

“I emailed her last night. She’ll come by on Monday after I’ve cleaned up the bones.”

“Right. How about I drive up and meet you that afternoon?”

“We’ll be ready,” Meghan says, shoving her primeval fears back to the depths of her mind. “Let me show you how we pack up the bones.”

You know the drill—more next Tuesday!

48 thoughts on “Poetic Archaeology A.7 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology

    • I wondered how many people have ever seen them. :) One reason I couldn’t write murder mysteries full-time is because the subject matter would weigh too heavy on me, even if I only had adults getting killed. I couldn’t have written this boy any younger and gotten through the story.

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    • Thanks, Vanessa. :) I like stories where I’m not only entertained but I learn something new, too. If the job market had been different, I might have gone the traditional academic route and been a good teacher. I’m happy to say I got good reviews in the two courses I taught in grad school.

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  1. Thanks to you I now know about the steel penny. :)

    Continues to be an engaging story, leaving us wanting more. Love how you have Meghan react to the boy’s death. Although she tries to be stoic, who wouldn’t be emotional over thoughts like that? The tears were realistic and touching.

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    • A little piece of trivia that you can sneak into your next thriller. ;) Maybe the killer carries one for luck?

      I know how hard an experience like this would hit me—and I don’t have children. I think it could be a thousand times worse for someone who does. Meghan’s been keeping a brave face, but as she fully realizes this isn’t an accident from a thousand years ago, it’s gotten harder for her. I think she’s determined to find out who he is and give him back his identity.

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      • When I was a resident many moons ago and rotated throught the pediatric ICU, I was relieved I didn’t have kids yet. Such sad stuff. Once I had kids, every child with a severe illness or disease was suddenly my own, especially if the age and sex matched up. I have such respect for pediatric neurosurgeons and cardiovascular surgeons. Sadly, not all patients will survive–not with some of the malformations that can exist–and that’s a tough job to face every day. Takes cajones. Sorry. I digress. But see? You’ve done your job as a writer. You’ve got me thinking. :)

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        • Given how squeamish I can be, medicine would not have been a good fit for me. But even if I could handle some of the “simpler” aspects of it, I couldn’t bear to give someone bad news about himself or a loved one. I’d be absorbing too much of their pain, which wouldn’t be good for my mental or physical health. I admire people who can do it day in and day out.

          When this story wraps up, I’d be curious if it made some parents do something unexpected for their kids—like an extra bedtime hug or making a favorite dish… That would be a nice impact to make. ;)

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    • Your support and encouragement are so helpful. :) I’m full of self-doubt about my writing and hypercritical of what I do write. Hard as it is to write a story “live” on the blog, I am so glad I dared to do it. Feedback like yours is really helping me with the novels, too. :)

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  2. Aha, a steel penny! I have some of those, why didn’t I think of that? I don’t know how people in law enforcement deal with dead or abused children. Fortunately in archaeology, Meghan (and you) don’t probably see much of this.

    But I originally read “taking a bandana out of her pocket” as “taking a banana out of her pocket” and it made me laugh.

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    • That would be one squished banana! :D My hunch was that most people aren’t familiar with steel pennies. And the few who are would probably have the same reaction you did. ;)

      Thankfully, I have never dealt with anything like this. And I could never have gone into law enforcement. I couldn’t deal with the horrors inflicted on adults, let alone children. The “youngest” burials I’ve dealt with date to the middle 1800s., and all were adults. But even there, I’ve always wondered about the person I was dealing with. They were never just a collection of bones. Some people can view skeletal remains that way. But I’m not one of them.

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  3. I hadn’t had a chance in a while to catch up on blogs, so I got to read two installments at once! This continues to really pique my interest further with each reveal. The coins are great details.The suggestion of violence… I’m glad the death isn’t just so far back that there’s no chance of learning the boy’s story.

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    • I didn’t want to do anything too old, for that very reason. There are potential research avenues for Sandberg and Meghan to try. And I think there’s something to be learned in those searches. Meghan does not want to see the boy remain anonymous.

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  4. I didn’t get to deal with the week to week thrillers the newspapers used to put out to keep circulation going. But, this reminds me of it. What it also reminds me of is all the weekly TV shows that continued several weeks hoping people would stop watching the other stations and stick with theirs. Boy! VCRs took care of that!
    It’s a great story and I have a feeling there is more to come!
    Scott

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    • It’s not what I originally intended, but Meghan had other plans. ;) So now I’m writing one post each week from a vague outline. It’s really turned into a great writing exercise and forces me to focus. But I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) do this with a full novel as some bloggers are doing! (And then making readers buy the full book to get access to the ending.)

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      • Lol, not only would I not do that, but I would no longer follow someone who did that.
        I will tell you that, even if you go on for 10 or 12 more episodes, I would still enjoy it.
        I hope this isn’t the last one you try. I thought about doing something like this once.
        Scott

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    • Thanks, Kourtney. :) I couldn’t write this kind of story regularly. This one couldn’t have happened closer in time with us or have had a younger victim. That would tear me up too much to write.

      But as a writer, I’m glad to see I’m evoking an emotional response from readers. That’s a critical skill to develop if I’m going to attract and keep an audience for my novels.

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  5. A steel penny. Whodathunkit. Great little twist there, JM. I don’t blame you for having a tough time with writing about murdered children. I’m the same way, I make connections to reality way too easily. I liked that you had them take a moment over the boy’s death, no matter when the murder took place. I thought that was a really important scene that gave us more insight into the characters.

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    • Thanks, Kate. :) If I was dealing with a project like this, I know I couldn’t be coldly analytical about it. When dealing with skeletal material, I’m very much aware of the person who once fleshed it out. And I think a recent death (and 70 years qualifies in my book) would make it all the harder. Sandberg may be “a seasoned detective,” but he hasn’t lost the capacity for empathy. And Meghan isn’t one who can switch off her maternal instincts. She wants justice for this boy, even if it’s 70 years late.

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    • If it’s any consolation, I promise I won’t say, “Oh, you want to read the conclusion? You’ll have to buy the complete published version on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.” Apparently, there are writers doing just that with their books. Not me. If I do turn this story into something for publication, it won’t be until after you’ve been able to read the full original story here.

      And sharing some similarities with Dickens and Thackeray doesn’t sound like a bad thing to me…. (I’m still amazed that I made it through Vanity Fair in high school English class!)

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      • I’m amazed! What a sheltered life I live,! How grasping can some people be? Adds another nuance to the meaning of teaser, eh?

        Of course, Dickens’ and Thackeray’s audiences weren’t accustomed to immediate gratification like us, JM. I suppose in a way their serialisations were a lovely tease for them, something pleasurable to look forward to!

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  6. Love the info about the coin. Some relative (if ever found) could make some loot from it (Hey its the American way!). Good story and nice Haiku to open it with.

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    • There’s still some fluidity to the end of the story as to whether there will be a surviving family member or not. ;) But I can’t give too much away here in the comments. Maybe I should close these with the old radio serials’ line: “Tune in next week for….”

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      • I know you don’t use a smartphone, but there is a cool app on the iphone where you can listen to old serialised radio shows for free. My wife and I were listening to some when we were away from home last year. The cliffhangers are great.

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        • When we had satellite radio in the car, my husband enjoyed the station with the old radio programs. Of course, even with all those channels, there was nothing that overwhelmed us, so we’re back to the iPod. So cutting edge, right? ;)

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  7. Really interesting on the 1943 penny – I was wondering about it and couldn’t wait for this next installment. It’s good to see the emotional response from both characters. It makes sense that the whole thing would make her think about her own son.

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    • I’d look askance at a woman who didn’t think of her own children in such a situation. I’m sure there are some out there. But if one like me, with no children, would feel “maternal” pain/sadness, how could a woman with children not? And I’m glad Sandberg isn’t totally numb to parental feelings, either. These two may have novel potential….

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    • Thanks, Margarita. :) I really wanted to evoke that kind of response. Certainly a 16/17-year-old boy could get into some bad—and adult—situations, even in the 1940s. But he was still someone’s son. Meghan will do everything she can to find out what happened.

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  8. this story really has my attention! I have a question: do YOU already know how it ends or are you seeing where it goes and deciding what comes next after finishing an installment?

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    • Hmm, we’ve got a doppelganger here, I think! :)

      When I first started this series, I honestly thought it would work like the previous project for Meghan. I thought I’d be talking about “this experience” as a simple discussion of forensic archaeology, using Meghan and her crew as a way to do that. Meghan, however, had a different idea. When I was wrapping up the first post, having simply described the basics of forensic archaeology, there was suddenly a line of dialogue from Meghan. And then one from Sandberg. And that was the first I knew that I had a short story on my hands.

      At that point, I didn’t know if the skeleton would be from AD 2012 or 2012 BC. But each week, Meghan would give me enough details to carry the next post forward. After the first four, I think, she gave me the basic outline for the rest of the story. But each installment is still being written after the previous one is finished.

      So as I write this reply, I have Tuesday’s post partially written and the rough ideas for what goes into the installment after that. But other than a sketchy outline that took several weeks to assemble while writing the early parts, I have been writing each post by the seat of my pants. :)

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