Putting names to remains

Sunday September 23, 2012

Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Foren sic anthropologist Thomas Hol land helps attach names to unidentified remains, interpreting old bones that tell him their age when alive, their height, gender and race.

Even the long dead tell tales, and Holland advised in vestigators from the New York State Police and around the world last week how to listen more closely to what they say.

"There’s a lot of information in the ground as to how people were buried. The posture of the body, for instance, can tell you whether they were buried by friend or foe," Hol land said. "Whenever you see a time investment, it generally equates to respect."

So, he says, look to see if the hole is big enough for the body. Is the person buried on their back? Are their arms fold ed over their chest?

The skeletons of the dis re spected dead look like they were simply dropped or shoved un cer emoniously in to the ground.

Still, it’s not like television’s popular forensic police procedurals, shows where cases are solved in an hour. Hol land chuckled when asked about them. "It’s sort of like asking an astronaut what they think of ‘Star Trek,"’ he said.

Holland, with a doctoral de gree in anthropology, is the scientific director of the Cen tral Identification Laboratory in Hawaii that finds and identifies U.S. military dead from past wars. They identify about 100 a year, often with fragmented bones, a pace Con gress wants accelerated.

Unidentified military re mains in clude about 8,000 from the Korean War, 1,700 from the Vietnam War and 20,000 to 30,000 that are recoverable and identifiable from World War II, Holland said.

"The major problem is finding them. If we can find them and get the remains into the laboratory, our success rate in terms of being able to achieve an identification is over 90 percent."

Also a consultant to the New York State Police, his work is an amalgam of archaeology -- finding and recovering re mains -- and anthropology -- analyzing and interpreting what happened to them. New York has more than 700 unidentified dead out of about 40,000 na tionally, according to state po lice in vestigators, who said they identify four or five every year.

In a high-profile case, Hol land and a colleague were called in to help with the in ves ti gation of Kendall Fran cois, a serial killer whose Pough keep sie home contained the dismembered bones of several wo men he had killed. They
re assembled the skeletons of eight women out of nine who were missing, gleaning information about how and when they were dismembered and ul timately helping identify them.

Holland advised a few hundred investigators last week about fundamental clues and methods when searching for buried bodies. Technology like ground-penetrating ra dar hasn’t lived up to its hype, he said, emphasizing the old-fashioned method of interviewing witnesses and looking for in dicators like mounds or de pres sions along the ground, areas of softer soil, differing patches of vegetation, animal or insect activity, then flagging suspicious areas and using systematic probes to de ter mine the shape of the soft spots.

"Weeds pioneer disturbed soil faster," Holland said. "It means something has disturbed that soil."

Most flagged sites get ruled out, but some lead to digging in 6-inch layers. Soil at burial sites is darker, looser and richer than surrounding ground because of oxygenation from digging and the organic material. That difference lasts thou sands of years, he said.

"Excavate inside that stained area, and eventually remains will start to turn up." It needs to be done carefully, to avoid disturbing the burial site, not just pulling bones out. "You’ve got to be aware of bone fever. Everybody gets it."


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