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From Under the Pall, a Science is Born

By Nichole Stevens 

A lot of television shows have popularized the forensic sciences. Perhaps it’s the appeal of a reclusive, hyper intellectual character capable of solving an entire case primarily on her own. The scientists are often shown shut into a lab all day solving mysteries and closing criminal cases. What the shows don’t demonstrate is the multidisciplinary aspect of the forensic sciences, says Dawnie Steadman, Director of the Forensic Anthropology Center.

FAC webpage2“We’re actually very socially adept people,” said Steadman. “TV makes it seem like they can do everything but it takes very specialized skills to work on these cases, so we work with broad networks all over the country and worldwide.”

The FAC has garnered worldwide recognition since its beginnings in the 1970s, under the direction of Dr. William Bass. The Bass collection is the oldest and most established research facility for studying the decomposition of human remains.

While studying at the University of Arizona, Steadman wanted to combine elements of medicine and anthropology. After working on in Argentina identifying persons who had disappeared from the Dirty Wars in the 1980s, that aspect of social impact and human recovery tied her to the field of forensic science. She started a long and impressive career merging her knowledge of skeletal biology with human rights investigation, with other forensic investigations taking place in Spain, Uganda, Cyprus and other countries.

“No day is ever the same,” Steadman says of her job. “Researchers come from all over the world to work at the facility and with the Bass Skeletal collection.”

FAC digThe FAC does forensic case work related to excavating burials and crime scene analysis, osteology and trauma, pathology, human identification, and help lawyers, law enforcement and medical examiners in forensics consulting.

“We always want to ask what else can we learn, what else we can do. What other data can we be collecting?” Steadman said.

Along with directing the FAC, Steadman teaches courses in forensic anthropology, works with schoolteachers and civic groups in outreach and coordinates with many researchers and professionals needing to utilize the Center’s valuable resources.

“We stick to what we know best and that’s the skeletons, but we work very carefully with people from all fields and backgrounds and any expertise that’s needed for the case,” Steadman said. “It’s very much a community effort.”

The FAC’s Mass Grave research project has received national attention for its innovative approach to looking at multispectral imagery to  locate remains buried following a period of human rights tragedy. Remote sensing technology was used to detect these kinds of hidden graves from the Yugoslavian genocide. The remote sensing allows researchers and professionals to see before and after photos of a land area for disturbances to the ground, where multiple mounds in the dirt could be indicative of a mass grave. This is one way the Center is increasing their emphasis on technology building for case work.

FAC’s Mass Grave Project will take a closer look at what type of remote sensing technology can be used and if a particular technology will work in five years or only in the first year that a grave exists. The Mass-Grave Project will observe a certain number of bodies over the course of three years for change detections in the ground.

higher groundEach case that goes through the FAC is very multifaceted and involves a team of external researchers. The Center has collaborated with the UTIA entomologist to understand specific behaviors of insects as primary decomposers of human remains. Forensic Anthropologist incorporate expertise from soil sciences to better understand how microbes in the dirt can contribute to estimating post-mortem intervals and or how looking at amino acids and protein breakdown in muscles can be used quickly and efficiently to predict a “time since death.” The Center has been working on a grant this past year with Arizona State University to learn how isotopes change with human decomposition.

“We need expertise from all fields for all the things we could never, ever do on our own,” Steadman said.

Steadman said the variety of know-how from academics and professionals “informs forensic anthropology in new ways we never considered. So when people come to us with ideas, usually the answer is ‘yes and let’s figure out how to test it.’ We have the resources to come up with completely new things in the forensic sciences.”

The Forensic Anthropology Center was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.