Poetic Archaeology A.3 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology

what do we do now

we do archaeology

girl you can do this

(Catch up with Part 1 and Part 2)

Meghan gives herself a mental shake. You’ve excavated burials before, she thinks. This isn’t so different.

There was the 1800s cemetery that had to be moved. And the two Late Woodland Native American graves that were found when a new sewer line was built. But those burials were old. This could be a murder from ten or twenty years ago, maybe even this year.

No, not this year, Meghan realizes. The soils in this part of the county are acidic, but they couldn’t act that fast. How long would it take flesh to completely decay in this park?

Focus, she thinks. Take some extra soil samples. Forensics experts can test them. Test them for what? Hell, I don’t know. They’re the experts.

“Dr. Bode? What do we do now?” Detective Sandberg asks again.

Meghan checks her watch. It’s two-thirty, and the October sun will set in another four hours.

“It’s too late to finish an excavation today. But we can do the prep work and start in the morning.”

Sandberg turns to the uniformed officer. “I’ll take the first shift. Get me a sub and a thermos of coffee. Then come back at midnight for the second.” Sandberg excuses himself to call his wife, apologizing that he’ll be home late.

Good idea, Meghan thinks. She pulls out her phone and texts her husband. Held up with work. Reheat leftovers if not back by 6. Make sure John starts his homework.

Meghan grabs a few items from her truck—compass, surveyor’s tape, and GPS unit.

“What’s the tape for?” Sandberg asks. “You’ve got GPS.”

“It’s not accurate enough to plot something as small as a burial. I’ll get some readings but also do a map based on taped measurements. Could you grab the clipboard and yellow toolbox for me?”

Sandberg brings over the box and thick metal clipboard. Meghan’s hyper aware of his gaze as she takes GPS readings of the burial, some large trees, and the jogging path. Normally she would be with her crew, listening to them talk about their weekend plans or tell stories about other field projects. But Sandberg isn’t talking to her, and she doesn’t want to make any mistakes in front of him.

She pushes a large spike into the ground by the base of a large oak tree and takes a final reading. This will be her datum point for her sketch maps of the burial excavation.

Her nervousness eases with the familiar routine. She pulls a sheet of graph paper from her clipboard and and prepares to sketch the general layout of the site, including the largest trees and the shrub-lined path where she took earlier GPS readings.

“Detective Sandberg? Could you hold the end of the tape over this spike? I need to take some measurements.”

Sandberg stands under the oak tree as Meghan gets her compass bearings and then walks toward the burial. The click and whir of the unwinding tape accompanies the crunch of her footsteps on dry leaves. Reaching the exposed bones, she reads the distance and pulls a pencil from her pocket to begin drawing her her map. Then she rejoins Sandberg at the datum and repeats the process with other landmarks.

Within forty minutes, she’s finished the sketch map. Sandberg looks over her shoulder to see confident lines and legible text.

Click the map for a larger, more readable image

“You’ve been at this a while, haven’t you,” he says.

“Since I was an undergrad. It’s been nearly twenty years now. I’ll be back in a minute. I’m going to grab some sample bags from the truck.”

“What for?”

“Maybe nothing. But I thought I’d collect some of the leaf litter from the burial area and from a control spot. Maybe forensic folks will see something I can’t. . . . I mean, if this is a murder, won’t you call in some real experts?”

Sandberg sighs. “Like on the TV shows? Only if necessary. But here in real life? I hope not. My legwork’s a lot cheaper.”

Meghan collects leaf samples and some of the topsoil from the burial and another spot about twenty yards away. She labels the plastic bags and adds the location of the control sample to her sketch map. Returning to the grave, she begins pushing the leaf layer away from what she thinks is the likely burial location.

Sandberg kneels down and helps. “We’re ready to dig?”

Meghan nods. “When do you want to start?”

“Meet me at the park entrance at seven. The sun comes up by seven-fifteen, and I want that body out before the end of the day.”

To be continued. I’m in the office today, so I’ll reply to comments this evening.

58 thoughts on “Poetic Archaeology A.3 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology

    • Horizon broadening is always good! Now if I can just do a good job of writing down Meghan’s ideas. These posts are getting very little editing before they go up. I hope I don’t fall flat on my face on later ones! 😉


  1. More great stuff. I can empathize with Meghan, because I’ve been in situations where I’m supposed to be the authority but have little experience in the situation as well. Makes us extra cautious and also sends us to our computers for crash-course research. 🙂

    You realized you’ve started something here–now we’re all eagerly awaiting the story’s progression. This can be a tease for the ultimate novel you’ll create on the same topic. Forensic archaeology’s a hot book-seller!


    • Thanks, Carrie. 🙂 And speaking of crash-course research, I’ll be doing more of that for the rest of these posts! I think when Meghan heard your suggestion of finding bones, she started plotting this series. I was thinking of just simple discussions like I did for her Phase II project. And then Meghan and Sandberg started speaking…. 🙂

      All I ask is that Meghan please be patient and let me finish the other two books first!


        • Oh, true! But please don’t encourage her just yet! 🙂

          Have you started breathing normally again? It looks like the Scourge did well on Amazon yesterday. This morning I saw it was #46 in medical thrillers and had jumped several 10s of 1000s in the rankings!


          • Yes, I enjoyed riding the wave yesterday as it got as high as #39, but I know those numbers will quickly decline. I have no false illusions. 🙂

            I suspect I won’t breathe easier until I start seeing reviews and people’s reactions. That to me is the most stressful.


            • Few first books do great with sales. But I already see two very positive reviews. 🙂 I’m enjoying the story, and as you can imagine, I love your sci-fi twist in it. Even without that, I’d still think it’s a good read. 🙂

              I’ll buy the second one when it’s out. 🙂


  2. Well done, JM! I love how this is really taking off. Bet you never thought you’d start your third novel based on an unassuming blog post. 🙂

    I like the personalities that are coming through here, and I really like that Meghan is a little nervous about her work in front of the detective. Would he typically know if she made any mistakes? And what are the chances that she would be the one they rely on because they don’t want to spend the money on a real ‘expert’? Or, is there some sort of regulation that an actual specialist would need to take over?

    This is so enjoyable. Really happy you’re following through with this. 🙂


    • Thanks, Kate. 🙂 As I just said to Carrie—Meghan, please be patient!

      I doubt Sandberg would recognize a mistake, or figure out that she was “re-doing” something to get it right. But Meghan would know she did. And she’s the kind of person who would worry about it leading to more problems.

      As for your other questions, let’s just say Sandberg’s got a few hours coming up with no one to talk with except himself…. A good chance to think on things like this. 😉 You’ve rather presaged that installment!

      As long as Meghan doesn’t go wandering off, I should be able to keep going forward with the story. And as long as everyone realizes I don’t have much time to edit these posts, maybe some sloppy wording or awkward constructions can be forgiven. 🙂


  3. Nice. I just read part 1 and 2 so I knew what was happening. This sounds like it’s going to be a great story. I’m hooked. Love the pictures to go along to help me visualize.


    • Thanks, Char. 🙂 The “props” help me focus, actually. And I’m glad to know they’re not boring you and other reader! Meghan is pleased as punch to read these comments, so I hope that’ll keep her from wandering off to some tropical beach for a vacation. At least until we’ve finished this little exercise! 🙂


      • Yes, storybook characters can be very jittery and take off when we don’t want them to. Meghan…get the body and the dirt on it for us before you head to the beach…please!


    • Thanks, Ileandra. 🙂 I’ll date myself here, but we didn’t have GPS available when I was in graduate school. It was still military-only, and nowhere near as advanced as today. We thought total stations were an amazing advancement over the old optical transits and alidades! Those are probably all antiques now. 🙂


    • I’m glad you and others are enjoying those details. Making the mundane, technical aspects of a task sound interesting is not easy. 🙂 I really tried to get the flavor of the work without bogging you down with excess information. Of course, I’m limiting myself to a short story, too, so there’s no room for too much of anything.


  4. I think that policeman looking over my shoulder would make me nervous too. I’m glad Meghan is handling it well. We need more women characters like this in literature – a strong and confident character but one who’s human too.


    • I agree wholeheartedly. And I don’t think I could write a story with a female lead who isn’t strong. The women in my books tend to be, but they have their doubts, too—along with a sense of humor, brains, and sometimes confident in their feminine sides as well. Why can’t a smart woman also be sexy and funny and capable? In real life, most women I know are!


  5. I too understand how Meghan panicked at the beginning, but nice that she talked herself down. I also enjoyed the mapping lesson, and I had fun looking at the actual map to see everything in detail. I’m looking forward to Part 4!


    • Thanks, Mme Weebles. 🙂 Meghan and I will be sitting down over the next few days to write it for next Tuesday. I wish I could say my real field maps look that neat, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to make one up at my desk than do a real one while stomping around in the woods. 🙂


  6. Love the diagrams – you do a great job infusing reality of the work/details of archeology into the story line – it’s balanced: not too much so the science/methods slows down the story or obscures Meghan. I, too, can see a series shouldering in here. How much fun.


    • I hope I can keep a balance of the reality of the work with the creative license of the fiction. I think Meghan’s got some ideas up her sleeve, but so far she understands the need for me to finish the other WIPs first. But she’s sneaky. She turned the simple haiku and archaeology lessons that I did before into a short story where she gets to speak. And I never saw it coming!


    • Thanks, Alastair. This “Poetic Archaeology” series began as a haiku about an aspect of archaeology followed by some basic real information. I would describe what our “poetic archaeologist” was up to. She soon became Meghan since it was awkward to keep describing her as “our something archaeologist.” When I started this series, to describe some of the basics of forensic archaeology, I thought I would do the same thing. When I wrote the first installment, I soon learned otherwise. So I’m still trying to include a dose of the “nuts and bolts” of real archaeology within the fictional story. Not what I envisioned, but it’s a good writing exercise for sure.


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  8. I love how Meghan relies on her knowledge in an unfamiliar situation. She’s really quite likeable and someone I’d like to spend more time with!


    • Thanks, Kourtney. 🙂 I think she’d be a fun friend to hang around with. She’s way out of her comfort zone here, but she’s pulling from an inner strength to do what needs to be done and do it well. But this is oh-so-different for her.


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