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On the table there is the skull of a small child--or rather, the fragments of a skull patched together--and bone dust flies around the office of Corinne Duhig (see photo at left) whenever she touches anything on the table. If forensic anthropology is a fascinating subject, it definitely is not for the fainthearted.

The skull has been recovered from a research institute near Cambridge, unexpectedly brought back to the surface of Earth during building works. The building site turned out to be a mine of human bones dating from the Iron Age, and the council asked for them to be analysed. Digging out and examining human remains from ancient cemeteries is the expertise of osteoarchaeologists (osteology being the examination of human remains and archaeology their recovery, with anthropology a combination of both)--a hobby that turned into a profession for Duhig and took her into the world of crime investigation. And in the 20% of her time she isn't working on ancient sites or forensic cases, she teaches archaeology and forensic science to both undergraduates and mature students and also does in-house training for police and similar staff.

Her job in the ancient cemetery is to rebuild each skeleton from the disordered bones and fragments (there are no less than 206 bones in the human body). The skeletons are carefully recorded on a form along with their measurements and shapes, and so are teeth, pathological changes, and individual variations. This inventory then allows Duhig to assess how many people were present in the site, give a basic description of each one according to "the big four"--race, sex, age, and stature--and tell of any family relations between them.

But there is more to anthropology than identifying people. "Archaeology uses the whole arrangement of the site to interpret what was going on in that place at that time," says Duhig. "And it?s exactly what you do with a crime scene. Various specialists contribute to the recovery and analysis of material, and specialists like myself work on human remains to tell the story of who the people were and what happened to them."

Except for the fact that forensic anthropology deals with recent rather than ancient remains, many skills are transferable from osteoarchaeology. "The pathologist has the responsibility for determining the cause of death, and I am there to assist," says Duhig. "For example, when the skull has been shattered, because I am used to putting ancient bones together, I can use what I have learned from ancient materials. I also have to locate and recover bodies just as we might locate and excavate an ancient site."

Both professions require one to be utterly meticulous. "One thing I always teach my students is that a crime scene or an archaeology site is an unrepeatable experiment, because in working on it, you alter or destroy it," adds Duhig. "You have to be sure that you record and recover meticulously and do not contaminate evidence."

A condition that is also high in the requirements for anthropology, whether forensic or not, is to be physically fit. "You will be searching through fields, digging holes lying on your tummy, and scraping around in the cold and at night, and you need to like that," explains Duhig.

However, forensic anthropologists need extra training for working with the police and the judicial system, as they can become expert witnesses in murder cases. One also needs to be able to think on one?s feet, adapt to different social and physical environments, and to like slotting into new teams. A combination of pace and flexibility is also important to respond to the pressure of working on a murder scene.

In addition, a strong ethical sense is crucial. "However much satisfaction you get from your work, you do not do it for your own fun, and you need to be dedicated and treat the deceased and their families with respect," says Duhig. And by the sound of it, one surely needs extra stomach for forensics. "Working with decomposed bodies can be very, very unpleasant," says Duhig. "It stinks and you go home stinking." You cannot be emotionally vulnerable, either. "I can cope with it because I have this capacity for switching humanity on and off," adds Duhig. "I once worked in the Balkans, in a mass grave. One evening, somebody had a video on some work of the previous year. The person was talking about family members of the dead, and we cried, because we had tuned into a different mode."

So what are the rewards that make such a challenging job enticing? "Some people just die in the woods; it is not murder," says Duhig. "I feel that I am giving people back their names and recognition, and sometimes reuniting them with their families. What helps me is that it makes me angry, just enough for me to want to do something about it, but it doesn?t paralyse me. The unnecessary death is a great spur."

It was her passion for the human body and hard tissues as well as ancient history that brought Duhig to her vocation. And as for many people living by their passions, her path was tortuous. Duhig was a personnel officer in the National Health Service until age 31. "I quit my job in the health service to study anthropology and archaeology as a mature student," explains Duhig. "I thought I would do it as a hobby, but I stuck to it and here I am now." Duhig?s first job was in the archaeology department at Cambridge University, where she worked with animal bones in the hope of working with humans later. She then accepted a custodian job at the physical anthropology departmentfor a few years, where she looked after the human bone collection, "boxing, marking, and cataloguing thousands of human remains."

After working another year for the city council archaeology unit, Duhig decided to go freelance. "I was working only on ancient bones, but the police kept bringing recent bones to me, so I took a course in forensics and was ready just when I was needed. When I finished the course, a man confessed he'd killed his wife. We needed to dig up the garden, and we found her. I then started to advertise as a forensic."

The timescales for ancient archaeology and murder investigations make it possible to combine the two in a career. Ancient material is usually found in a great quantity at once, so ancient projects tend to run from one date to another. "Forensic cases need to be done immediately but are often of short duration," adds Duhig. While Duhig herself is entirely freelance for both ancient and forensic anthropology and teaching (she has a one-person company called Gone to Earth), most forensic anthropologists have university posts or work for archaeological field units and are called out when necessary. "Lots of people who study forensic science are sensible and cautious, I think, and do not want to take the chance to go out on their own."

Forensic archaeology is a vocation though, and Duhig encourages people to go ahead. "If people are gripped by the subject, then they should follow their path," she says. "Some people will get there." So for those of you who feel the vocation, three main routes will lead you there. You can study archaeology and then forensics, or the other way around. "If it is a forensic science degree, there is little or no anthropology, so you have to do that afterwards. But if you want to do both, you can do archaeology with a bit of forensics at the Universities of Bradford, Sheffield, and Birmingham Bournemouth and at the University College London. Another way to get into forensic archaeology is to train as a scene-of-crime officer and then do extra training through the force."

"It is difficult, but I have always had extremely lucky breaks," concludes Duhig. There are lots of leads, and "if you are keen enough, you will find them."

If you would like to hear Corinne Duhig speaking about her work, you have a chance to do so on 10 June 2002 at the Cafe Scientifique in Cambridge.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.