The Bone Hunter; Real-Life Waking the Dead Prof

The Mirror (London, England), December 13, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Bone Hunter; Real-Life Waking the Dead Prof


Byline: EXCLUSIVE By JULIE McCAFFREY

PROFESSOR John Hunter's trowel slowly scrapes through the crumbly soil, gently scratching at what looks like a grey pebble.

"OK," he says. "We've found an elbow."

Minutes later, in the white tent erected around a 4ft deep hole in the ground, John gingerly pushes back the dirt to reveal an arm, a torso and the head of a man.

Police officers standing on the sidelines flinch and cover their mouths at the grisly sight of the decomposed body parts.

But finding the corpse - of a man killed, cut up and buried in a Coventry garden in January 2002 - does not faze its finder. Discovering human remains deep below a suburban backyard isn't unusual or nauseating for him.

Because John is Britain's foremost forensic archaeologist and it's his job to help police unearth buried murder victims . It's an occupation telly fans will be familiar with from Trevor Eve's Waking The Dead where, as cop Peter Boyd, he leads the Cold Case squad cracking long-forgotten inquiries.

Eve's team includes Sue Johnston's profiler Dr Grace Foley and forensic specialist Frankie Wharton, played by Holly Aird.

Most of John's victims are wrapped in carpet, duvets or polythene. Some are mutilated and dismembered. But none have moved the scientist to tears, ever.

"I don't get emotionally involved," he shrugs. "I can't afford to. I have to treat them as anonymous objects and unanswered questions. If I got too emotional I wouldn't be able to do my job."

The Liverpool-born 56-year-old spent much of his career studying Stone Age settlements in the serene surroundings of the Isle of Harris in Scotland.

But watching news reports of murder investigations inspired him to take on a far more demanding role 18 years ago.

He explains: "I saw police officers on television digging holes in an attempt to find bodies and knew that as an archaeologist I had skills and techniques that could be immensely helpful to them.

I WAS living in West Yorkshire and contacted my local police offering my services. Archaeology was new to them then so they asked me to do a presentation to senior officers before agreeing to let me help.

"Soon afterwards I was on their list of experts to call in the event of a murder."

Since then he has excavated 80 victims in Britain, presenting invaluable evidence to police and bringing answers to desperate families.

But for the past five years he has been leading a project to help the International Commission For Missing Persons find 5,000 graves in Srebrenica, Bosnia.

In 1995 thousands of Bosnian Muslims were handed over to their Serbian killers by Dutch UN peacekeepers charged with protecting them.

So far more than 8,500 bodies have been recovered from the massacre, the biggest since the Holocaust.

John's team take each fragment of bone from mass graves to laboratories where they are examined for DNA, then returned to their families for burial.

More than 2,400 body bags wait to be analysed. Each contains remains from many individuals or just a few tiny bones. Around 20 are processed each day.

John, who lectures at the University of Birmingham, is determined to continue his work until he is satisfied he has found as many of the missing as he can. He says: "When you go into a mass grave you are met by a great big mangle of twisted bodies and a lot of questions.

"As well as looking for bones, teeth and personal effects, we need to find clues to help investigators - such as whether they had their hands tied, which bits of clothing belong to which bodies, and so on. It's like a big, horrible jigsaw puzzle. We know the killers buried them then dug them up with diggers to re-bury them.

"So we are finding some people's remains between three different sites.

"But we know our work brings great comfort to families never sure if their loved ones were lost or dead. …

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