Anthro Field Class Teaches Students to Excavate and Analyze Bones

Students excavating bones in the forensic anthropology lab
Diane Lederman
Friday, June 21, 2013

It’s another rainy day in a series of rainy days, yet the students are used to the mud and focused on the bones that lie before them. These are not real bones but tools to help them learn what to do when they are in the field with the real thing.

The students have come from all across the country to learn about excavation and laboratory analysis of skeletal remains at the Taphonomy Research Laboratory on campus. And mud or no mud, they are deep into it.

This is the fourth year the Field and Laboratory Methods in Bioarchaeology and Forensic Anthropology lab has been offered, says director and assistant professor Ventura R. Perez (anthropology). This year's class, extended to six weeks, involves two teams. One investigates bioarchaeology, trying to figure out more about a body that seems to have been buried at the site. The other is a forensic team examining the site of what might be a crime.

The scenes laid out were so authentic that the first year, because the area was not fenced off, someone stumbled upon a grave and called police. Now the area is clearly marked. Perez and his two doctoral students, Tiffany Parisi from the forensic team and Heidi Bauer-Clapp from bioarchaeology team, come up with the story lines for each team. Then the students literally have to dig to get to the truth.

All the students have either degrees in or are in school studying archeology and have to apply to the program. It’s not like a summer camp.

Shows like “CSI” or “Pompeii” on the History Channel have piqued people’s interest, but "we have to show them what archaeology really is," says Perez." A big part is getting wet and muddy.”

“If you study bioarchaeology techniques, they can be applied in forensic anthropology,” says Parisi. The only difference is in forensics, a report is prepared for a court instead of as a research paper.

Bauer-Clapp says while examining bones “you are dealing with (what once) was a living person. You try to understand their life through the dead body."    

This article was adapted from a longer one by Diane Lederman in the Springfield Republican.