By Meagan Williford
Forensic anthropology has been surfacing in pop culture thanks to such popular television shows as Fox Network’s Bones, on which forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth team up to solve murders by studying human remains.
The popularity of such shows brings an important question to the forefront: What does an anthropologist actually do in real life?
Look no further than at East Carolina University’s own professor Dr. Megan Perry to see the tremendous impact anthropological research has had on society.
Perry, a biological anthropologist, has focused her major research in Jordan working on skeletal remains. However, she has also been working on forensic cases since coming to ECU in 2003. Before that, she worked on forensic cases at the University of New Mexico.
Last year, Perry and her graduate students worked on about six or seven forensic cases, and they have had two this year alone. One of these cases involves the 10 Edgecombe County women who have gone missing over the past five years. Recently, more remains turned up in a wooded area outside of Rocky Mount, and Dr. Perry was called to assist with the case.
Dr. Megan Perry (right) and one of her graduate students, Crystal Vasalech, survey a site map from Perry’s research work in Jordan.
Dr. Perry described what it is like to get the call that she is needed at a death scene.
“First, I call and see who is available to assist me, like my graduate students, and we go about getting equipment together,” she said. “Usually, we have a contact number with someone from law enforcement, so we can find out where we are supposed to go. Then, we head out the door.”
Once Perry and her team arrive at a death scene, they must first coordinate with any law enforcement agencies that are present at the scene. After that, observing and mapping takes place.
“We go and look at the scene and see how scattered the remains are because often, if they have been there for awhile, animals will scavenge the body and spread the remains,” said Perry. “We also conduct a survey to see how far the bones have been spread out. Sometimes we have to move any kind of pine straw or leaves that have fallen on the bones. Pieces such as the skull or the pelvis will be sticking up, but often everything else is hidden.”
Perry added that the bones can also be used to map the location of the body. If the bones are scattered, the team can map in that scatter. Then they can create a map showing major features of the surrounding land, such as tree lines or roads. This, in turn, can be used to reconstruct how the body was initially laying in relation to the land’s features.
Once that is all completed, the team then gathers the bones and takes them to the morgue for analysis. According to Perry, this is an involved process, including analyzing the bones, writing up reports, and going back into the field.
Perry, who offers her anthropological assistance free of charge as a service of the university for the community, said that sometimes balancing teaching with working forensic cases is challenging.
“The balance is really hard to achieve because when these cases come up, you have to basically drop everything and go,” she said.
Bones that Perry has analyzed and tools of the trade.
However, Perry also said that helping with these forensic cases has also been very rewarding.
“When working on forensic cases, the implications are a little higher,” she said. “Not only can the information you are collecting possibly be used in a criminal case, but there is also a family out there who is wondering what happened to their loved one and you are trying to resolve that issue. With archaeology, that is not really as critical. There is more riding on this.”
Perry is also passionate about including her graduate students in the fieldwork process. She said these opportunities are invaluable to the students because it allows them a lot of hands-on experience. Her students agreed that they would not trade their field experiences for anything.
“Every time we get a recovery, it’s great to use our knowledge,” said Crystal Vasalech, a master’s student in anthropology. “It is interesting to actually take knowledge that you have learned and apply it to something that is useful to the community and something that can really help people.”
Vasalech, who originally wanted to be a lawyer during her undergraduate studies, said she took one anthropology class and immediately was hooked.
“I completely switched my career focus,” she said. “Something just clicked, and I realized that anthropology is what I am passionate about.”
Master’s student Mindi Seeman also echoed Vasalech’s sentiments.
“When we do our projects, it’s definitely valuable to society and history and culture,” she said. “But, when we do forensic work, it helps the community and families by identifying these individuals to give them justice,” she said.
Seeman added that she feels as though she has learned as much if not more in the fieldwork setting as the classroom.
“You are able to synthesize all you have learned,” she said.