To investigate crime, students break scene down to the bone


Forensic archaeology field school students from left, bottom: Ryan Okey, Rachel Fox, Maggie Sheehan, Meghan Curry, Rebecca Boldry and Brandon Rhone Peterson. From left, top: Adam Darkow, Sheri Osborne, Taryn Elizabeth Wood, instructors Linda Whitman and Linda Spurlock and Allison Machnicki.

Trowels in hand, University of Akron forensic archaeology students shave off thin layers of loose soil from the two shallow graves of murder victims. Clues emerge: Four French-manicured false fingernails, a gold Italian horn pendant, rope twisted around one victim's tibiae.

"There's trauma to the skull, a bullet wound," says senior UA anthropology student Rachel Fox, pointing to a round, beveled section on the skull where a bullet exited the mandible.

Deep in the woods in Bath Township, Fox and nine fellow students receive practical experience in archaeological fieldwork and an introduction to forensic anthropology.

A very 'hands-on' class

"It’s a great class to see if you're cut out for this type of work and if you like it," says Fox, pointing out that her experiences through the course confirmed her decision to pursue a future career in forensic anthropology.

Sophomores Ryan Okey and Brandon Rhone Peterson filter soil removed from one of the graves to ensure they capture crime evidence hidden in the dirt.

Learn more

You can visit the Department of Anthropology and Classical Studies online.

The mock crime scene involves two pig carcasses purchased from a butcher, dressed in human clothing and buried two years ago. Archaeologist Linda Whitman, who team-teaches the course, says that pigs often are used to simulate humans in forensic experiments because they have little hair and a good deal of subcutaneous fat. Adolescent pigs, Whitman adds, weigh about the same as adult humans.

"In order for this to be a true archaeological experience we allot at least 12 months for the pigs to decompose and skeletonize. Once this happens, the remains simulate the sorts of graves that law enforcement professionals have to deal with, and the exact conditions that require them to call upon local archaeologists and CSIs," Whitman says.

Real CSI work

Senior Rebecca Boldry, archaeologist and forensic anthropology course instructor Linda Whitman, sophomore Ryan Okey and senior Maggie Sheehan delight in the details revealed in the work of a budding crime-sketch artist.

The principal objective of the course is to teach how archaeological fieldwork is conducted and the rationale behind the methodologies, Whitman says. Students also learn to locate clandestine burials, delineate a crime scene, collect evidence and maintain a chain-of-custody, excavate decomposed remains and analyze the cause of death.

"The course not only trains students in basic archaeological field techniques, but also in forensic methods and relevant theory," says Michael Shott, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology and Classical Studies. "It is a good example of at once, the joint educational and research value of UA faculty endeavors."

Cleveland Museum of Natural History Director of Human Health Linda Spurlock, who co-teaches the archaeology field school with Whitman, explains that the course has a forensic entomology component comprised of lectures, followed by the field observations of decomposing vertebrate remains.

Several disciplines involved

"Students view the lifecycle of blow flies and carrion beetles. It's exciting for them to actually see what we've been talking about the week before," Spurlock says. "During the laboratory phase we see real examples of trauma to bone and learn about the complexity of an immature mammalian skeleton. We also demonstrate some comparative osteology, comparing the pig skeleton to human skeleton, once the pig bones are clean. This course introduces students to several important scientific fields: archaeology, geology, entomology, forensic anthropology and osteology."

The students complete the fieldwork as swiftly as possible so vandals and animals don’t remove or destroy evidence, which in real life, if excavated and analyzed accurately, would offer positive or negative identification and critical data about a crime in a court of law.

More coverage:

Pig Dig Teaches Forensics,, July 13

Students digging up pig bones to learn forensics, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 11

CSI University of Akron,, July 5

Archaeology students practice real 'CSI',, July 5

Media contact: Denise Henry, 330-972-6477 or