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FORENSICS A face from the past

“No one has seen this face for a hundred years,” thought the archeologist as she gently brushed soil away from the skull. Her training in osteology told her at once that this was a young man. Working away dirt from the jawbone with a dentist’s pick, she saw few teeth and corroded bone, sure signs of poor nutrition. Two centuries ago, he would have been in the middle of nowhere. Today, buried outside a suburb of a major city, his remains were a mystery. What would he have been doing out here?

Further analysis in the lab gave more clues. The archeologist had carefully gathered personal evidence in small plastic bags. Bone buttons, metal grommets, a knife, and even fabric from clothing were found. She had also taken samples from the soil layers for analysis. Pollen in the soil indicated that he had been buried in the summertime. His bones were sturdy, but his leg had been poorly set after a break. It had probably given him trouble. The bones showed evidence of hard labor by scars where the tendons and ligaments met the skeleton. Along his ankles and shoulders in particular were marks suggesting long walks and heavy loads. His body had been wracked with illness, and analysis of the remains suggested cyanide.

Historical research gave clues. A newspaper from a local town noted the disappearance of a young local. Further research came up with a description fitting the forensic team’s profile of a young laborer with a limp. The reports were brief, but sad, as the family came to assume that he had run away. The results of forensics work determined that cyanide had killed him, but it was unclear whether the exposure was long-term or a result of foul play.

A local museum decided to include this archeological way of learning about crime in an exhibit. They reconstructed the face to include in the exhibit, found historically appropriate clothing, and developed a landscape background to set the scene. Together with other local crimes, the man’s case made a powerful statement about human behavior and how archeology can contribute to our understanding of it.

Case Studies

(photo) Reconstructed model of 'Pearl', based on forensic archeology. (New York State Museum)
Archeologists investigating a former Lutheran Church in downtown Albany, New York were surprised to find three coffins holding human remains dating to the mid-18th century. Of them, the bones of a woman in her early forties told archeologists and forensic specialists something of what life may have been like for these people.  more +

The woman, nicknamed Pearl, lived a hard life. Pearl's bones showed that she was unwell, having sinusitis, rickets, even gout. Despite these problems, she regularly engaged in heavy labor as revealed on her skeleton where muscle connected to bone.

Having a better understanding of Pearl's life, archeologists could also find out what she looked like. An artist “read” Pearl's skull and jaw to sculpt a reconstruction of her face. To the form and shape the artist drew on cultural information to interpret her eye and hair color, shape of ears, and skin texture. The facial reconstruction offers the archeologists of the Albany site an unusual opportunity to face the past.

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(NPS photo) Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Morgan.
In January 1967, during the Vietnam War, an F-100 fighter aircraft became engulfed in flames and broke apart over the Central Highlands. A search patrol in the jungle more than a year later reported seeing a large scatter of wreckage. No trace of the American pilot was found.  more +

Over the past several years, excavations on a hillside by American service personnel and Vietnamese laborers have investigated what happened to the pilot. Archeologists recovered parts of the aircraft, helmet fragments, a pilot's microphone, charred parachute harness and shrouds, a Chapstick, and, finally, pieces of burned flight suit.

By the close of the mission, local villagers had also presented the U.S. team with a dog tag, a flight boot, a wool sock, and 13 human bones found at the crash site.

Using a comparative sample from a maternal relative of the pilot, mitochondrial DNA analysis conducted on the bone identified Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Morgan of Akron, Ohio. Morgan's recovery by the archeologists confirmed his loss for the family. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in September 1997.

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