Training as a forensic osteologist requires intense study, but there's nothing dry and academic about a career analysing bones
When Spain began digging up the dead several decades after its civil war, forensic experts were ready. It still mattered to the families of those killed in the 1936-1939 conflict to know how their loved ones had died - many were executed with their hands tied behind their backs - and where among Spain's thousands of mass and clandestine graves they had been buried.
Despite years of decay, forensic osteologists were able to examine injuries, determine patterns in executions, and identify bodies. "I was comparing wounds caused by the Mauser rifle with [those caused by] other firearms and looking at how eyewitness accounts and historical records compared with the types of injuries to the skeletal remains," says Emma Bonthorne, who travelled to Spain's Basque country to complete her research for an MSc in forensic osteology at Bournemouth University.
Since 2001 more than 5,000 bodies have been exhumed in Spain in a move designed to heal painful memories of the bloodshed and loss. A shortfall in funding, combined with political objections, means that further exhumations are unlikely. However, Bonthorne continues to work in Spain, where she is examining a medieval burial ground and teaching at an archaeological company. She attributes her success to a broad range of skills gleaned in the classroom, from anthropology to geophysics and archaeology.
Studying human remains is a crowded field. "Forensic pathologists like working with nice wet squishy bodies on a slab," says Dr Martin Smith, a lecturer in forensic anthropology at Bournemouth. "Forensic osteologists look at the bones - and more." They are anthropologists who specialise in the study of the human skeleton in a legal setting, and are as likely to be found at disaster sites such as 9/ 11's Ground Zero as beside 1,000-year-old Peruvian graves. "In our temperate climate, it's bones you're most likely to come across - human remains don't last very long," says Smith.
Bournemouth runs one of the largest Masters programmes in forensic and biological anthropology the UK, with facilities for some 40 postgraduates. Smith and his colleagues have been involved in projects as varied as identifying the head of an Egyptian mummy, previously thought to be a medieval witch, to confirming the identity of victims of First World War battles and examining remains from mass graves from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
Only a handful of universities offer forensic osteology or anthropology Masters. The University of Dundee specialises in disaster victim identification, and uses Thiel cadavers - specially embalmed bodies that retain realistic flexibility - to teach anatomy. "Each UK officer deployed at home or overseas to a mass fatality event was trained at Dundee," says Professor Sue Black, who also acts as an adviser to Interpol and the Home office. About 50 out of 300 cases of suspected human remains sent to Dundee for analysis every year turn out to involve forensic anthropology, she says. Dundee's team are experts in dismemberment analysis and cranio- facial analysis and specialise in trauma analysis, child deaths and identifying individuals from images, often relating to child abuse.
Archaeology is a separate specialism, but it's closely linked. "You can't do much in archaeology without someone handing you a box of burned bones," says Smith. "And it's amazing what you can deduce from a pile of ashes. How a person died, lived and what happened [to their remains] after death can all be revealed."
Most of his students have a life science degree, but some - including a former estate agent and a theologian, who both took crash courses over the summer - come from completely different backgrounds. Bournemouth's Masters in forensic osteology involves many hours in a laboratory handling bones, as well as some inventive practicals such as reconstructed crime scenes, court room scenarios and mass grave exhumations. …