Poetic Archaeology A.10 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology

Where memory lives

Those departed are not lost

Knowledge brings closure

(Catch up with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, and Part 9)

Four weeks later, Meghan is back at Tom Sandberg’s station. The County Medical Examiner’s office has taken DNA samples from the skeleton and Chuck Compton. The analysis results are in.

Meghan and Sandberg look up from their conversation as two men approach them. One is elderly but walks with strong strides and stands tall. The other is younger and bears a striking resemblance to him. Father and son, Meghan realizes. Continue reading

Poetic Archaeology A.9 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology

with a whirl and click

images glide by with clues

hidden in plain sight

(Catch up with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8)

For the second day, Meghan Bode is at the state archives, looking for clues to the murdered boy’s identity. Luckily, her class lectures for next week are finished. She rubs her eyes and picks up her glasses. Nothing is worse than sitting at a microfilm reader for hours, straining to read faded and blurry newspapers. But she forgets her discomfort when she sees the short story from June 24, 1944. Continue reading

Poetic Archaeology A.8 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology

will the trail go cold

or can other skills win out

truth may have its day

(Catch up with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7)

Tom Sandberg shuts the last file cabinet drawer and sneezes. The basement of the sheriff’s office houses all the old case records from the county’s police departments. But his searches have raised only years of dust. He hasn’t found any missing person who fits the boy in the park.

How is that possible? he wonders. Who wouldn’t report their missing son?

Maybe the body was brought to the woods from another county. But that strikes him as unlikely. Travel in the 1940s was a bigger effort than today. And this park is 15 miles from any county line. Who would go to such lengths back then to bury a victim?

Sandberg grabs a tissue from the box on one of the cabinets. Someone on staff knows what it’s like down here. An image of his two kids comes to mind as he clears his sinuses. And he thinks of Becky’s suggestion to apply for a job in the big DC suburbs.

Drugs, gangs. Does he want to face them every day? Or have his kids get involved with them? Meth labs were a problem in this neck of the woods some years back, until tough laws on over-the-counter drugs pushed them further west. But the pipelines still lead to the big cities and suburbs.

The body counts are a hell of a lot higher the closer you get to the capital, he thinks. Who needs that?

No, this is the best place for the family. The kids are doing well in school and have good friends. Why tear them away from that? They can drive to DC on weekends when they want and take in its good side without dealing with the bad. Becky knows that. She’ll understand.

Sandberg checks his watch. Time to leave for Meghan Bode’s lab. She’ll be disappointed in his lack of results. He shares her desire to identify the boy and give him a proper burial. But the harsh reality is some victims are never identified or even found. And this case, which never officially existed, will remain unsolved.

********************

When Sandberg arrives at the lab, Meghan is working on her computer. The boy’s skeleton is laid out neatly on the adjoining table.

“Was it an accident?” he asks.

“No,” Meghan says, rising to show him the bones. “Irene Kristoff—she’s our physical anthropologist—said he was hit with something like a shovel. Twice. Once on the left side of the head and after that a more forceful strike on the back of the skull.”

Her voice trembles. “If the first blow didn’t kill him, the second did. Which means the intent was to kill, right?”

“Yeah. Once, maybe it’s an act of blind rage or a horrible accident. But a second, stronger blow? That’s intent.”

“Did you find a missing person’s case?”

Sandberg looks at the boy’s skeleton and shakes his head. “Nothing that fits him. Who wouldn’t report a missing son?”

“How about the parent who killed him?”

Sandberg leans against a counter. “That’s the last thing I expected to hear from you, Dr. Bode.”

“I read too many murder mysteries. And my husband watches too many crime shows.”

“Family’s always a good place to start for a murder investigation. But I’d expect someone to file a report with the police—friends, a teacher, another relative. And there’s nothing.”

“Maybe they were afraid to. I’ve been thinking about this all weekend. And I had an idea.”

Meghan returns to her computer and shows Sandberg the screen.

“I thought the old newspapers would cover a missing person. And some of them are online. So far I haven’t found anyone who fits, either. But the papers all have columns dedicated to local doings. The ladies’ auxiliary was holding a charity drive. Which men were drafted and heading to basic training. Mrs. So-and-So and her children were making a trip to visit family in another state. Mr. Smith was traveling to DC on business. Maybe there’s a clue in those stories.”

It’s a long shot, Sandberg thinks. But the determination in Meghan’s expression is unmistakable. He’s known it and kept with cases that made others give up. He won’t try to dissuade her.

“It’s worth a try,” he says. “But you have to be prepared not to find anything. This isn’t TV. Some cases are never solved.”

“I know. But I have to try. If I don’t find anything online, I’ll go to the state archives. They’ve got more papers on microfilm. If there’s anything, I’ll find it.”

“I don’t doubt that, Dr. Bode. Let me know how it goes.”

Will Meghan find a clue in old newspapers? We’ll find out next Tuesday.

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!

Poetic Archaeology A.6 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology

death won’t silence him

others may still hear his tale

through such foreign means

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

Tom Sandberg is impressed. For all Meghan Bode’s nervousness about the case, she’s already given him useful information. He’s dealing with a teenager, probably a boy. Back in the office, he’ll start with missing persons records—if the skeleton isn’t old. And he still hopes it is. Tree roots have to mean the boy’s been there a long time, don’t they?

Sandberg can also understand Meghan’s explanations. Even when she throws out terms like epiphyseal fusion, he can decipher their meaning from the rest of her words. She’s probably a good teacher.

He shakes another small bucket-load of soil through the screen. But he soon resorts to pushing the remaining small, sticky clay balls through the 1/8-inch mesh. So far, no artifacts have shown up. Given Meghan’s careful scraping, he doubts any will.

“Why screen?” he asks. “How could you be missing anything?”

“Most of the time we’re shovel-skimming, not troweling. The bucket fills up faster with bigger chunks of soil that hide small artifacts. That’s why we normally use 1/4-inch mesh. You’d never get all the screening done with the 1/8 inch. And when I trowel a normal feature like a storage pit, I don’t have to be as careful as with a burial. Small artifacts get past me. With a skeleton, I don’t want to miss any clues. So I still make sure nothing’s slipped through.”

“Ever find anything interesting on a dig?”

Meghan laughs as she continues her excavation. “Thanks for not asking about buried treasure or dinosaur bones. That’s what I usually hear.”

Sandberg keeps quiet. He was about to add those very details to his question.

“If you like American history, I’ve found some good early plantation sites from the 1700s and even one from the 1650s. There have been a few Spanish coins if you want to call that treasure. But archaeologists don’t do dinosaurs, despite what most people think.”

Finished with the current load of soil in the screen, Sandberg stretches and waits for the next round. His arms and back are sore from the unaccustomed muscle movements. This is a good upper body workout. He watches as Meghan excavates near the skull. Her back is to him, blocking his view of the body. But when he hears her sharp intake of breath, he drops the screen.

“What is it?” he asks, kneeling beside her.

Meghan points to the right side of the skull, near the back of the head. “See the lines? Those aren’t sutures where bones meet. Those are fractures.”

“What kind?”

“I don’t know. My osteology courses didn’t cover forensic work. Maybe he fell and hit his head. Or maybe someone struck him from behind. Our physical anthropologist should know.”

Meghan begins to clear more soil from the back of the skull, bumping into Sandberg as she maneuvers around the body.

He crawls around her, trying to stay out of her way but wanting to see everything her quick, confident right hand reveals. Before long, she’s reached the area around the left hip.

“There’s something here,” Meghan says. She sets down her trowel and switches to a small brush. “It’s metal. Coins, I think. Yes. That’s interesting.”

“How so?”

“Where do you keep yours?”

“In my pocket,” Sandberg says, instinctively reaching down. “Of course. My right pocket.”

Meghan nods. “This boy might’ve been left-handed. Bone measurements should bear that out. The arm bones on our dominant side tend to be more robust from doing more work.”

“Can you read the dates on the coins?”

“Give me a few minutes.”

Meghan grabs her clipboard, adding to the burial sketch and writing notes. Then she takes more photos before removing the coins for a closer inspection.

“Anything?”

“They’re hard to read. The soils are acidic, and corrosion’s setting in. One’s a wheat penny, I can tell that much. They stopped making them in the ’50s, I think. The other two are dimes. I can’t make out the date on the first one.”

“What about the other one?”

Meghan smiles. “I was wrong. It’s not a dime. Even better. We can narrow down when this boy died.”

Hmm, what has Meghan found? To be continued next Tuesday.

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

Poetic Archaeology A.4 — Meghan’s Brush With Forensic Archaeology

the restless night watch

last crickets usher the dark

rustle, then silence

[Catch up with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3]

 

Detective Tom Sandberg sips his coffee and checks his watch—ten o’clock. Two more hours until a uniformed officer takes the second shift. He huddles deeper into his fleece jacket. The night air is seasonably crisp, but he keeps the window down. Not that anyone will show up at this burial site. He won’t know until tomorrow if this is even a crime scene.

Let it be a hundred years old, he hopes. I’ve already got two arson cases and a jewelry store robbery on my plate. I don’t need a murder.

Sandberg’s car is parked on the jogging trail, near a break in the tall shrubs. He flips on the headlights for a minute to view the taped-off scene. A pair of yellow-reflecting eyes stares back before disappearing in the underbrush. Probably a raccoon, he thinks.

In a bigger city, he wouldn’t be here. Hell, three years ago in this job he wouldn’t be here. But massive budget cuts in his town of  twenty thousand mean fewer bodies to share the load. Becky wants him to apply for a job in one of the big suburbs. Maybe he should. Then he wouldn’t have needed to drive more than an hour to see Dr. Bode. He’d have the crime scene unit she expected.

He shakes his head and reaches for a power bar. Shouldn’t a university professor know real life is nothing like TV? Small towns can’t afford those specialists. Uniformed officers and detectives do most of the work, relying on basic training, occasional seminars, and well-worn manuals from the Justice Department.

To be fair, he expected Bode to look like a Hollywood archaeologist, maybe a female Indiana Jones, or else an absent-minded professor. But she was an average-looking blonde, about five-foot-five, with stylish glasses framing her brown eyes. Her lab was clean and organized. And while her truck needed a wash, all the equipment and supplies in it were neatly stacked.

Rustling sounds near the scene rouse Sandberg from his thoughts. He turns on his spotlight this time. But it’s only a few deer, three does and two fawns that he can see. He turns off the light, and a few moments later the crunch of leaves fades as the deer move off.

He decides to inspect the tape and grabs a flashlight. The deer might have pulled it down, and the walk will warm him up and loosen his stiff legs.

Everything’s as it should be. Returning to his car, he checks his watch. Ten-thirty. Another ninety minutes before he can head home for a few hours of sleep before coming back to meet Dr. Bode. He takes another sip of coffee and huddles back into his jacket.

********************

Meghan sits in the family room with her husband, Rick. Their ten-year-old son, John, is tucked in bed upstairs, no doubt reading a comic book with a flashlight.

“So what did this guy really find?” Rick asks. “You never go look at ‘a possible site’ with some farmer on the spur of the moment.”

“It wasn’t a farmer. I didn’t want John to know it was a detective. He brought in a bone some dog dug up in the county park.”

“Wow. Was it human?”

Meghan nods. “He asked me to check out the area. I found more of the lower arm. That’s why I’m leaving early in the morning. I have to excavate it for him. God, don’t let me say anything stupid. He must think I’m an idiot already.”

“You? No way. Why?”

“I kept talking about crime scene units, even after he said this isn’t TV and his town doesn’t have anything like that. But I’ve never worked on a possible forensic case before. I don’t want to mess anything up if it is.”

“So that’s what you were doing online after dinner?”

“Yeah, I was looking for excavation tips. But I guess I handle it like any burial. Take it slow and careful and document the heck out of it. I’m hoping it’s some old settler, but we’ll see. Based on the condition of the humerus, it’s too well-preserved to be any older than that.”

“But if it’s a murder, they’ll call in someone else, right? You wouldn’t have to do the forensic work, would you?”

“God, no. I’m not qualified for that. I don’t even feel qualified for the excavation. But I guess I am.”

“Good. I don’t want it turning into one of those TV shows where the investigator gets targeted by the killer.”

Meghan shivers. “Oh, thanks. The nightmares are already taking shape. We’re sleeping with a night light tonight. Did you lock the doors?”

Rick pulls her close and laughs. “Yes, I locked the doors. Want to watch a scary movie?”

Meghan reaches for a throw pillow and smacks her husband on the arm.

I hope you’ll stay tuned for the next installment of Meghan’s brush with forensic archaeology. At the office again today, so I’ll be back this evening.

[Author’s note — Meghan also photographed the area in Part 2.  Posting these in near “real time” leads to glitches I would normally catch in editing.]