Tuesday 28 February 2012

Clash of the Titans

Again, this isn't strictly Forensic, but I would say it is broadly Anthropology. Last week, I was lucky enough to attend an Oxford Alumni Dialogue event, between Professor Richard Dawkins and Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. You can see a video of the event here. It was held in the Sheldonian Theatre in Broad Street, which filled me with nostalgia, as the last time I was there, I was dressed in a graduation gown. The theatre was packed with current students and alumni, as well as journalists and reporters desperate for a controversial sound-bite or two.
The dialogue was mediated by Dr Anthony Kenny, an agnostic and philosopher, who was clearly there to keep the peace and prevent metaphorical (or real) fisty-cuffs. Despite this, and the reporters gagging for a story, it was actually a very calm, genteel affair, more suited to a report in The Lady than to a tabloid. Richard and Rowan obviously have a great deal of respect for one another, and are probably good friends. They appeared to have tired of their audiences baying for blood, and offered gentle flattery and the lightest of teasing instead.
To give some structure to the proceedings, their dialogue was centred around four main points: the nature of humanity; the origin of humans as a species; the origin of the Earth; and finally; the ultimate origin of the Universe. Just enough to fill an hour and a half.
Now, I am a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, so I am probably biased, but I was expecting that Richard would be put through his paces, and be asked a difficult question or two; causing him to blush, get frustrated and even raise his voice. But I was disappointed. None of the gentle arguments posed by Rowan or Anthony even got his heart pumping. It wasn't an even match at all. Dawkins dealt with their comments in an indulgent, almost sympathetic way, but wasn't condescending. His convictions were left undisturbed, as were mine. He was as eloquent as ever, although I was a little perturbed by his use of the word 'lucky' to describe the chance happening of the origin of life on this planet, as I would have expected him to use a less value-laden, emotive word. It wasn't luck per se, just something that happened by accident. Other than that, he was brilliant! I'm going back to re-read The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion...

Wednesday 22 February 2012

AAFS nerves...

This evening, I am at home in England, preparing a presentation to give in Atlanta, Georgia tomorrow morning. No, I've not invented a time machine or developed teleportation, but am living vicariously through one of my collaborators. Last year, I gave a presentation at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference in Chicago, called 'Femmes Fatales: Why Women Dominate the Discipline of Forensic Anthropology.' It discussed the reasons why Forensic Anthropology appears to be inundated with women. At the moment, women outnumber men enrolled on Forensic Anthropology courses in the UK by at least 2:1, and this trend seems to be world-wide. After my talk, I was approached by a high-profile American Forensic Anthropologist, suggesting we collaborate on further research, to explore the extent of the phenomenon in professional practice on her side of the pond. This year, the presentation is called 'Further Femmes Fatales: Do Women Dominate Forensic Anthropology in the UK and the USA?'

So, here we are...the presentation is at 08.30 tomorrow morning - luckily in Atlanta time - which gives me a few more hours to finish writing the slides! I have always been a 'last minute' person, and I guess this situation is no different. My collaborator may be the one presenting to the audience in Atlanta tomorrow, but I will have butterflies and stage fright all the same.

Monday 6 February 2012

Lucius Valerius Geminus

Hey, kids. This post is not so much forensic anthropology, as archaeological conservation meets Asterix. Today, with a colleague, I have been priviledged to be involved in preserving for prosterity one of the rarest Roman tombstones in Britain. In roughly AD 43, the Roman legion Legio II Augusta came to England as part of the Roman invasion and conquest of Britain. This legion was responsible for building Hadrian's wall and defeating Boudica. After the defeat of Boudica, the legion dispersed over Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, and built a wooden fortress near Bicester, near what was to become the Roman town of Alchester. One of the legionnaires was Lucius Valerius Geminus, who took to life in England. He married a local girl, and didn't want to return to Italy in his old age. When he died, he was given a splendid, engraved tombstone. This tombstone was later smashed up and used as material to build a stone wall around the town. In 2003, excavations of the town wall began near the west gate. Most of the stone had been stolen, but two stones from the tombstone were found in situ and more in the rubble from the wall. The surviving stones from the tombstone are now under the care of Oxfordshire Museum Resource Centre, who asked Cranfield Forensic Institute to preserve them in virtual form, to provide 3D images for subsequent museum display. We started to scan the stones today and will continue tomorrow.
This is the fragmented tombstone as it looks today.
The inscription reads:
"To the souls of the departed: Lucius Valerius Geminus, the son of Lucius, of the Pollia voting tribe, from Forum Germanorum, verteran of the Second Augustan Legion, aged 50(?), lies here. His heir had this set up in accordance with his will."

We scanned it using our 3D topographical scanner, which generates a 3D mesh image that be used for stereo lithography (rapid prototyping). A mason will be given the images and asked to create a replica of the complete tombstone for display.

This is me getting to grips with the scanner!
Scanning in action!

Friday 3 February 2012

Miracle Day?

As part of the Further Forensic Anthropology: Identification module, which is running this week, I promised my students the opportunity to attend a routine post-mortem examination, kindly permitted by the Bereavement Services Department of Swindon Great Western Hospital. We were all set to go, briefed and jabbed up. The students could hardly contain their nerves, excitement, and in some cases, their breakfast. Unfortunately, at the very last minute, the mortuary staff informed me that the visit was off, due to the lack of deaths in the area that day or the day before. 'That's OK,' I told the expectant students, 'I am sure we'll be able to go tomorrow.' But, lo and behold, the next day, there weren't any deaths either. Although my students are disappointed, could this be Torchwood's Miracle Day actually happening? No deaths in the Swindon environs for three days now....

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Give a dog a bone

The Further Forensic Anthropology: Identification module is well under way. Thankfully, the weapon-wound matching exercise, for which my colleague Adrian and I had been preparing specimens for weeks by stabbing and hitting beef legs with screwdrivers and hammers, worked very well. The students all identified the bone that had been attacked with a cross-head screwdriver, but weren't so good at recognising bone hit with a ball-pein hammer! My GSD-cross Lucky even sacrificed one of his beloved bones for the exercise, but they all thought it had been gnawed by a mouse or a rat. That's enough to give a dog a complex!