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CSI Amherst? UMass students digging up ‘grave sites’ for forensic research

  • Melissa Malave, a student at University of Massachusetts Amherst, participates in Dr. Ventura Perez's field school, part of his class on bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology. The field school gives students a chance to apply what they have learned at a mock crime scene and archaeological dig. The sites were set up at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Taphonomy lab field site on June 13, 2013.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Melissa Malave, a student at University of Massachusetts Amherst, participates in Dr. Ventura Perez's field school, part of his class on bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology. The field school gives students a chance to apply what they have learned at a mock crime scene and archaeological dig. The sites were set up at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Taphonomy lab field site on June 13, 2013.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Janet Anderson, an illustrator interested in archaeology, draws diagrams of the mock dig site. The site was created for Dr. Ventura Perez's bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology class at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Anderson's drawings are specific and include measurements and three-dimensional sketches of the site as students uncover the fake remains. The field school dig was held at University of Massachusetts Amherst Taphonomy field site.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Janet Anderson, an illustrator interested in archaeology, draws diagrams of the mock dig site. The site was created for Dr. Ventura Perez's bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology class at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Anderson's drawings are specific and include measurements and three-dimensional sketches of the site as students uncover the fake remains. The field school dig was held at University of Massachusetts Amherst Taphonomy field site.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Natalie Birch, a student in Dr. Ventura Perez's bioarchaeological and forensic anthropology class, pours water on the field school's mock skeletal remains to clean off the specimen. The students got the chance to hold their own mock dig at the University fo Massachusetts Amherst Taphonomy Lab field site on June 13, 2013. <br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Natalie Birch, a student in Dr. Ventura Perez's bioarchaeological and forensic anthropology class, pours water on the field school's mock skeletal remains to clean off the specimen. The students got the chance to hold their own mock dig at the University fo Massachusetts Amherst Taphonomy Lab field site on June 13, 2013.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Julianne Seekell (left) and Melissa Malave, both University of Massachusetts Amherst students, get the opportunity to get hands-on forensic experience as part of a bioarchaeological and forensic anthropology class taught by Dr. Ventura Perez. The students uncovered the fake skeleton and treated the site as if it was a real crime scene. The mock crime scene was held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Taphonomy Lab's field site on June 13, 2013.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Julianne Seekell (left) and Melissa Malave, both University of Massachusetts Amherst students, get the opportunity to get hands-on forensic experience as part of a bioarchaeological and forensic anthropology class taught by Dr. Ventura Perez. The students uncovered the fake skeleton and treated the site as if it was a real crime scene. The mock crime scene was held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Taphonomy Lab's field site on June 13, 2013.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Murphy Florman, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, prepares to take photographs of a mock archaeologic dig to document their progress as if it were a real dig site. The students of Dr. Ventura Perez's bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology class had the chance to take part in a field school to allow them to apply what they learned at a mock site on June 13, 2013.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

    Murphy Florman, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, prepares to take photographs of a mock archaeologic dig to document their progress as if it were a real dig site. The students of Dr. Ventura Perez's bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology class had the chance to take part in a field school to allow them to apply what they learned at a mock site on June 13, 2013.
    AYRIKA WHITNEY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • Melissa Malave, a student at University of Massachusetts Amherst, participates in Dr. Ventura Perez's field school, part of his class on bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology. The field school gives students a chance to apply what they have learned at a mock crime scene and archaeological dig. The sites were set up at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Taphonomy lab field site on June 13, 2013.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Janet Anderson, an illustrator interested in archaeology, draws diagrams of the mock dig site. The site was created for Dr. Ventura Perez's bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology class at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Anderson's drawings are specific and include measurements and three-dimensional sketches of the site as students uncover the fake remains. The field school dig was held at University of Massachusetts Amherst Taphonomy field site.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Natalie Birch, a student in Dr. Ventura Perez's bioarchaeological and forensic anthropology class, pours water on the field school's mock skeletal remains to clean off the specimen. The students got the chance to hold their own mock dig at the University fo Massachusetts Amherst Taphonomy Lab field site on June 13, 2013. <br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Julianne Seekell (left) and Melissa Malave, both University of Massachusetts Amherst students, get the opportunity to get hands-on forensic experience as part of a bioarchaeological and forensic anthropology class taught by Dr. Ventura Perez. The students uncovered the fake skeleton and treated the site as if it was a real crime scene. The mock crime scene was held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Taphonomy Lab's field site on June 13, 2013.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY
  • Murphy Florman, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, prepares to take photographs of a mock archaeologic dig to document their progress as if it were a real dig site. The students of Dr. Ventura Perez's bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology class had the chance to take part in a field school to allow them to apply what they learned at a mock site on June 13, 2013.<br/>AYRIKA WHITNEY

On this day, a week later, in the midst of incessant rain, the job is to carefully remove it from the ground. The workers are students, the skeleton is plastic, but the circumstances are as real as they can be in this six-week course called Field and Lab Methods in Bioarchaelogy and Forensic Anthropology.

Using trowels and paintbrushes the students are removing excess dirt from the bones.

“We’re trying to elevate it so can we remove the body without destroying the original context of the body,” said Julianne Seekell, a UMass senior from Taunton.

Melissa Malave, a student from the American University of Puerto Rico, is helping Seekell, while Amelia Hubbard, who earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Northern Arizona University, searches for clues while sifting excess soil from the hole.

The area where the students are working is the UMass Taphonomy Lab. The skeleton was buried there a year ago, and their job is to determine what happened to the victim, relying on just some basic background facts. In this case: A man in a bar told a story about a person on the property in question ending up dead and buried.

The course is training for those who may one day do criminal forensics for a living. Caution tape outlines the area while red flags line the pathway to the pseudo crime scene. Visitors have to sign in. The investigators have to collect the evidence, maintain it in a professional manner and write a report, just as they might for a real-life court case.

Professional approach

Ventura Perez, an assistant professor of anthropology who leads the class, said the students are in the field eight hours a day, five days a week, no matter the weather conditions. Even on a day of steady, heavy rain, they are down in the mud, doing their job.

“You get cold, you get wet, you pee in the woods. You find out quickly if you’re OK with it,” said doctoral candidate Heidi Bauer-Clapp, who assists Perez.

The students, Perez said, are given a great deal of independence in figuring out where to dig and determining the reasons the skeleton ended up there. They have to sift through the evidence and determine how the person was killed.

“They get to do this from beginning to end, starting from the excavation to the analysis work,” Perez said. “When they leave this school, they will have the skill set to be employable at a real archaeological site.”

Perez said the students, both graduate and undergraduate, understand that the course is not a summer camp, but an intense program that begins with classroom lessons and concludes with the site work and eventually a return to the lab to examine real skeletons and write detailed reports appropriate for a court of law.

In the beginning, they hear from scientists, FBI agents, attorneys and others who talk about the chain of evidence, ethics and legal responsibilities.

The course includes intensive osteology work, to understand the human bones, and learning about what trauma such as gunshot or stab wounds look like on bones, or the difference between a recent bone break and one that has healed.

“They come out here and put their skills to work,” Perez said.

Perez, Bauer-Clapp and a second doctoral student, Tiffany Parisi, create the stories behind the forensic site and design quizzes and tests for the students.

Parisi, who took the course three years ago, said the crime scene appears so realistic that during her time in the course, a person unfamiliar with the lab contacted the police about the buried skeleton. Since then, the area has been enclosed by a fence.

Another twist

Not far from where the students are lifting the skeleton from the grave, another dig that is focused on bioarchaeology instead of forensic anthropology is taking place. Perez said the students are conducting this excavation after being told about a potential anomaly existing beneath the ground and found through use of ground-penetrating radar.

At this site, Natalie Birch, a Latin and ancient Greek major with a minor in archaeology, is sketching the skeleton the students have found, trying to understand how long it has been there. Unlike those at the crime scene, these students are trying to reconstruct the life history and time period for the skeleton before removing it. Perez said the artifacts and soil will help provide the information they seek.

Bauer-Clapp said the students also will try to determine the skeleton’s age and gender.

“They are trying to find out what is significant and what is not,” she said.

Murphy Florman of Northborough, who graduated from UMass with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 2011, explained that it has taken several days to get into the hole.

“We uncovered the first piece of bone about a week ago,” Florman said. “We first found the hips, then we found the top of the skull.”

Janet Anderson, who comes to the program from New Jersey, said the dig went about 80 centimeters deep and the students are inspecting and evaluating everything they find.

They will eventually write a report about the skeleton and artifacts found, hoping this will accurately match the backstory Bauer-Clapp has created.

Anderson said she is looking forward to seeing what they get right and what they missed.

Bauer-Clapp said whether at the forensic site or the bioarchaeological site, the students get much of the information right, but it’s usually not as detailed as the stories she and Parisi have created.

“Often it’s not that they get it wrong, it’s that they get things missed,” Bauer-Clapp said.

Those in the program hope to use the course to further their careers, much as it did for Parisi, who helped launch a summer archaeological program at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

“This course gave me a solid idea of where I want to go in this field,” said Parisi, who returned to UMass to get her advanced degree.

“I want to know as much as I can about all different aspects of archaeology,” Birch said, who comes from Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, Perez said he is assisting Amherst Regional Middle School science teachers with incorporating archaeology into their curriculum. A teacher visited the site last week and later this week he will talk about how UMass can be a resource for teachers and students.

Before the course ends, the teams will build their own sites for next year’s students and create the scenarios.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for students. They are getting excellent training and can apply for real field work when they are done,” Perez said.

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