February 28, 2014

Skull Duggery

UMass Amherst’s ‘Body Farm’

If you hike through the woods north of campus, you may just happen upon a fenced-in area tantalizingly marked “Keep out: UMASS AMHERST TAPHONOMY LAB.” A quick search on your smartphone reveals that taphonomy means “the study of decaying organisms over time,” only increasing the mystery.

The mysterious zone is the field site for Associate Professor of Anthropology Ventura Pérez’s ’00G, ’06PhD six-week-long summer intensive course, “Field and Laboratory Methods.”  Pérez, a specialist in bio-archaeology and skeletal biology, conceived of the summer archaeological field school to focus on the excavation and analysis of human skeletal remains while he was a graduate student in anthropology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

The taphonomy lab, home to a mock grave site and a mock crime scene, is fenced and clearly demarcated because in the early years of the lab, a hiker actually did stumble upon what he assumed to be hastily buried remains (the class uses model skeletons at the field site), and dutifully called the UMass Campus Police.

A diverse array of students in anthropology, archaeology, and pre-med takes the field class, which is divided into two sections: one for bioarchaeology, which excavates a mock burial site, and another for forensic anthropology, which examines a staged crime scene.

Beyond the technical aspects of excavation, Pérez adamantly imparts to his students a perspective of the “big picture” of violence: how direct acts of violence stem from cultural and structural contexts that make them possible. He has students focus on the “context of the body”—the cause of death, and how violence was involved—to tell a whole story.

Pérez wanted to create a methods class in which students were free to make mistakes without risk. “Excavation is a destructive process,” says Pérez. “You only have one shot to get it right.”