Students get their hands dirty in forensic anthropology class
Published: Saturday, April 28, 2012
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 16:08
You’ve seen them on shows like “Bones,” “CSI,” “Rizzoli and Isles” and “Dexter;” but what does a forensic scientist really do? DePaul students can find out by taking a new class offered by the anthropology department. ANT 274 “Forensic Anthropology,” gives students an inside look at the worlds of forensic anthropology and forensic science.
“[The class] is all about the theory and application of forensic anthropology,” said Julia Fochtman, a senior in the class.
For now, it is offered to anthropology majors only, but it will be open to all students in the fall and spring next year, according to Marco Aiello, the professor who teaches the class. For non-majors it will cover the "scientific inquiry" liberal studies requirement.
“What it’s about is dead bodies,” said Anthropology Department Chair Robert Rotenberg. The class begins with the study of the anatomy of the human body, the death process and the post-death process, according to Fochtman. Students also learn what happens to a body as it decays and the process of collecting evidence. Fochtman explained that real forensic work is not quite what people might think, but she believes that it is still just as fascinating.
“We are hoping that students develop not only an understanding of forensic anthropology, but a realistic one. The media romanticizes the subject of forensics,” she said, noting that there is much more time-consuming and extensive lab work in reality than what is often depicted. “There are shows that show forensic anthropologists running around, shooting guns and doing skeletal identification in a matter of moments. We want students to understand that this is more of a field that revolves around science, not drama.”
Though the class does have lectures and lab work, students in ANT 274 don’t just stay in the classroom – the other part of the class includes hands-on outdoor excavations. A crew dug four two-and-a-half foot graves behind the anthropology department building. According to Aiello, the graves are filled with sand and skeletal remains are buried in it for the students to excavate and study. The experience replicates the investigation of a crime where the victims were murdered, taken off-site from where they were killed, buried and later discovered.
“The graves were created to replicate a shallow burial,” Aiello said. “The remains, when deposited, will resemble a secondary burial sight.”
“Shallow graves are typical for murder victims,” said Rotenberg.
The graves are currently only filled with sand, but Aiello said that the skeletal remains will be deposited in the graves in the next few weeks for the students to excavate.
“We will be digging them back up in May,” Fochtman said. “This allows students to get hands-on work excavating ... I think that students will really enjoy this and it will be a favorite part of the class for many.”
“At DePaul we have an advantage because we are a resource-rich university, which allows us to provide a broad range of teaching materials,” Rotenberg said of the graves, skeletal remains and other equipment used in the class.
The remains are replicas of real bones and skulls from both male and female adult and children victims. Some have been traumatized, which is crucial to the evidence-collecting process and for determining how the death occurred.
“The traumatized bones will tell the students how the person was murdered. One of the skulls I think was hit by a machete, for example,” Rotenberg said. “Students also learn how to execute and maintain a chain of evidence. This is highly important in real forensic anthropology … If [maintaining the chain of evidence] is done right, an attorney can’t claim that the evidence was tampered with.”
Rotenberg also said that forensic anthropologists have to pay close attention to details to be sure the evidence is authentic. “There may be some remains that are not from humans that get mixed into the graves. They may be from animals and look surprisingly similar to human bones, but you have to know the difference,” he said. These elements are stressed throughout the class.
“It offers a more extensive understanding of the human anatomy and death process, as gruesome as it may sometimes be,” Fochtman said.
The anthropology department recommends the class for students who are studying any of the subfields of anthropology including cultural, linguistic and biological anthropology. The class would also benefit those studying archaeology or biology, but any students interested in the subject may take the class next year.
“My favorite part of the class thus far has been the skeletal examinations,” Fochtman said. “Being a biological anthropologist, I am fascinated by human lineages and bones. This class is allowing me to utilize the knowledge I have on the subject and human anatomy.”
ANT 274 will be offered in the fall and spring quarters of the 2012-2013 school year “because the weather is best for excavations those times of the year,” said Rotenberg. “We predict that it will become one of the more popular courses in anthropology.”