Reconstructing the Past: Forensic Archaeology and Bioarchaeology

by Brooks Taylor

I remember rather vividly the trepidation I felt the morning of the recovery. It was going to be a hot day on the coast; humidity was high, and the breeze was low. The weather was not what had me worried; I was going to recover a body.

Reconstructing the Past

I was enthralled when I realized that my application to the SCDNR Heritage Trust Program for an internship under Senior Archaeologist Sean Taylor at the Parker Annex Archaeology Center was accepted. My entire life has been filled with fascination of the people of the past; when I wasn’t hunting or fishing, I was scouring plowed cornfields for small sherds of pottery, flakes, or even the holy grail of sorts; an arrowhead. I recall pouring over my grandfather’s historic property, searching for relics of the American Civil War. This captivation with artifact collection is not my only vocation, however. For as long as I can remember, I have been intrigued with the notion of mortality, whether it be of animal, plant, microorganism or man. There are many things that we can learn from death that can only be obtained from examining fatality and its surrounding causes.


Archaeologists conduct a controlled excavation at this beach site upon the discovery of skeletal remains.

Naturally, I was entranced by the idea of a field that combined these two interests into one profession: forensic archaeology. Forensic archaeologists execute a controlled excavation upon the discovery of potential remains, collecting osteological data, as well as other physical artifacts, such as buttons, rings, or other definitive objects, all of which are used to attempt to identify the individual(s) in question. Bioarchaeologists reconstruct past lifestyles of historic and prehistoric populations through the study of skeletal remains.

My internship was geared to focus on this subject, specifically with a buried individual that had begun to wash out from the shore along Georgetown County. I admittedly felt a bit anxious. I had never seen human remains outside of the dressed-up image of death that we are all provided at funeral visitations. I possessed far more enthusiasm than anxiety, despite my apprehension. I noted this motivation as I tucked the legs of my pants into my muck boots, donned my hat, and drenched myself in deet.

Transporting water and supplies to the archaeological dig site. (Photo by Dr. Karl Rohr, SCGSSM)

 

The Dig

The walk out to the site was one of those moments that is unforgettable for an unknown reason. Perhaps it was the pluff mud clinging to everything it touched, or the salty air that flowed through my lungs as we trudged on, laden with gear. A large amount of equipment was required for this recovery; trowels for removing material from around the bones, tarps for encasing the individual once removed, screens for sifting through the dirt and mud, a metal detector, and boxes to temporarily store the collected artifacts.


The intern gently removes layers of soil in search of artifacts surrounding a skeleton, supervised by SCDNR Archaeologist Sean Taylor. (Photo by Karl Rohr, SCGSSM)

The Richland County Coroner’s Office’s forensic anthropologist, Dr. Bill Stevens, had been called to assist in the recovery effort by Georgetown County Coroner Kenneth Johnson and the SCDNR. Georgetown County Sheriff’s Investigator Michael Thacker represented his department in documentation and recovery of the remains. We were instructed to use trowels to gently scrape away the sand from around the skeleton and then use wooden tools to expose the bones as to avoid marring their current condition, as well as to preserve any fragile artifacts that may be lingering. The individual was lying on his stomach in a sprawled position; the importance of this observation cannot be overstated, as it meant that his burial was likely not intentional. He was still clothed, torn rags at this point, but essential data nonetheless. Eight buttons were found, seven of porcelain (superheated clay) and one of glass. The excavation was brief; as the skeleton was on the edge of the beach, the tide would quickly and indiscriminately sweep away any unsecured evidence should it be given the chance.

Field sketch drawn by Dr. Bill Stevens during the excavation process.


Back to the Lab

As soon as the necessary information was cataloged, the bioarchaeology team and the archaeology team carried their respective data back to their respective labs. Pathological and osteological analysis was conducted by Dr. Stevens and his intern Rachel Manley of USC Anthropology, who determined that the individual was an African-American male between the ages of 18 and 20, who showed signs of probable tuberculosis and heavy manual labor, determined by the curvature of his spine, the lesions of the spinal vertebrae, and the erosions of the ligament connections of the humerus. Some brain material was preserved in the skull. This organ is currently being studied by a forensic pathologist and a neuropathologist in Columbia.

Many scraps of clothing were collected. Several hours of research were conducted on the manufacture of the buttons and clothing in question by Sean Taylor, Meg Gaillard, Dr. Karen Smith, and myself. Clothing and textile experts at the Charleston Museum, Martha Zierden and Teresa Teixeira, collaborated with us in the identification of the recovered articles. It was determined that the shirt the man was wearing at the time of death was a plain-woven blend of wool and cotton, and the pants were of denim. These materials are rather commonplace at the end of the 19th century. However, the discovery of a polyester seam that ran down the leg of the pants pushed the date up to a far more modern timeline. Currently, the leading estimate is around the mid-20th century, and investigations are still ongoing.


Using textiles to interpret the artifacts recovered with Teresa Teixeira, left, of the Charleston Museum. (Photo by SCDNR Archaeologist Meg Gaillard.)

Our Findings

The leading theory based on the skeletal and archaeological context for these human remains is that the young man was probably lost at sea or drowned and subsequently washed ashore. The good preservation of the skeleton and clothing may be the result of rapid burial in sand by severe weather.

I feel that it is necessary to state that this research was never meant to terrify, it was meant to educate. A commonplace emotion surrounding the “uncleanliness” of death is fear, a sentiment which I feel is unwarranted. Death is a matchless component of life, one that can be used for education and the enforcement of its comprehension. We do not fear the things we understand.


Brooks Taylor using a trowel to remove mud from around the skeleton. (Photo by Karl Rohr, SCGSSM)

I cannot express the gratitude I have for the SCDNR Archaeological team, the Georgetown County Coroner’s Office and Sheriff’s Office, the Richland County Coroner’s office, and the experts at the Charleston Museum for allowing me to partake in an event of such significance. I would like to especially thank the archaeologists at SCDNR’s Parker Annex Archaeology Center for aiding me in my efforts and for providing a unique experience that cannot be forgotten.

For more information about the SCDNR Heritage Trust Program, visit http://heritagetrust.dnr.sc.gov/.

 

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.