Tuesday 17 December 2013

A little something..

Here's a little article from Huddersfield University* about me. Little video too. Please note, I had a cold that day!

*Did I mention that Huddersfield University has been awarded the Times Higher Education Award for University of the Year? It has, you know.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Meeting Mandela

This post is about a different kind of anthropology than usual. It is about the anthropology of hope and perseverance and triumph over adversity. My upbringing was unconventional and nomadic, and courtesy of my parents' wander-lust, I have visited and lived in many different countries. One of them was Swaziland, a small kingdom tucked into the corner of South Africa, overlooked by many and currently floundering under the rule of a young, naive king. I was lucky enough to live there from 1989-1993, and attend an amazing school, Waterford Kamhlaba, United World College of Southern Africa. The school was pioneering and revolutionary, set up in the early 60's because its founders believed children of all nationalities, ethnic backgrounds and cultures had a right to a good education, together. On the side of a mountain often shrouded in fog, just outside the Swazi capital Mbabane, the school offered a sanctuary from the apartheid regime of South Africa which segregated blacks and whites. News of the school's multi-racial and multi-cultural ideals soon spread around South Africa, and many political leaders and activists sent their children or relatives there, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Desmond Tutu.
When I arrived at the school in the late 1980's, Nelson Mandela was still in prison, but this did not dampen the sense of hope and resilience among the staff and students. If we could live and work in harmony, and help people in the local villages, schools and hospitals through community service, and offer an education to those who might otherwise have missed out; then it was possible for it to happen across the border in South Africa. The political agenda was never far from our thoughts, and our rallying cries for equality across the races a constant theme at school. I shared my classes (French in particular) with both Mandela's grandson Mandla and Sisulu's grand-daughter Ayanda, and Mandela's defiance in prison was often uppermost in our minds. And then came the day that none of us there will ever forget. I was 13, and suddenly there was a buzz, an electricity around the school, in the classrooms, canteen and corridors. People streamed into the TV room, crowding in, sitting on the floor, on the window sills, craning to see Mandela released from Robin Island. When he appeared on the screen, his arm raised in a fist, the room erupted into clapping, singing and dancing. I remember the distinctive African wail of joy filling the room. Everything had changed. There was a new beginning, a visible end to the oppression, a new light.
I was lucky enough to meet the man himself, soon after his release. He visited the school, on a bit of a whim, to see his grandson and his friends. I remember watching him wrapping his arms around Ayanda's shoulders and asking her how good her French was (she was very good, I knew, from our French classes). She giggled that her French was OK, and he said in a jokey way, "Good! Zaire needs an ambassador." His gentle, caring and protective nature was apparent even in that little gesture. That day, I got to shake his hand and say hello to him. I think I may have curtseyed. To him, I was one of hundreds of teenagers he said hello to on his visit to his grandson's school, but to me, he was a true leader, a hero, a martyr and an inspiration, all rolled into one.

Thursday 28 November 2013

Educating Yorkshire

I very much enjoyed watching the brilliant and inspirational series Educating Yorkshire, on Channel 4 recently. With the moving stories, images and accents from the series in mind, I was looking forward to my own foray into the secondary education establishments of the local communities. In the last few weeks, I have visited Calder HighSchool, Horizon Community College, Barnsley College, Sheffield City College to talk to Year 11’s and Sixth Formers about the principles of forensic science, routes into a forensic science career, what it is like being a Forensic Anthropologist, and interesting cases of mine. All of the students I have met have been enthusiastic, interested and eager to learn, soaking up my anecdotes and case examples. I have been interviewed by panels of students, and interrogated about all aspects of my job, with questions ranging from ‘what does death smell like?’ and ‘how can you tell how long someone has been dead?’ to (more amusingly) ‘what Health and Safety regulations do you observe?’ and ‘how much do you earn?’. Others which that have made me pause and think a little more have been ‘how do you cope with the horrible things you see?’; ‘do you have nightmares?’ and ‘what are the biggest challenges to Forensic Anthropology today?’. However, I am certain about one thing – I have enjoyed every minute of these ‘outreach’ activities, and have found each one very rewarding. I am keen to do more, so if you know a school or sixth form college where the students (and staff) would like to learn about Forensic Anthropology, please let me know!

Monday 11 November 2013

The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy

In case you didn't catch the Channel 4 Secret History documentary about Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy last night, there's another chance to see it here. My little bit is about 20 minutes in. It was a real pleasure working with Chris Naunton (follow him @chrisnaunton on Twitter), and learning about his research regarding the possibility that Tutankhamun's anointing oils had lead to signs of charring and burning on his body; and exploring the scenario that Tut's injuries were potentially caused by being run over by a chariot wheel. As we were only involved in a small section of the filming, it was really lovely to watch the entirety of Chris' research come to life. I thought it was a great documentary that showcased how new technology can solve ancient mysteries, which was pitched well for both lay people and academics. Oh, and more information about the really cool autopsy table we used can be found here!

Monday 7 October 2013

'Bones' Day..

I recently was fortunate enough to host a 'Forensic Anthropology experience day' for several journalists, organised by Premier PR, to coincide with the launch of the latest season of Bones on DVD. After giving the delegates a little bit of a lecture and taste of the work of a Forensic Anthropologist based in the UK, I asked them to 'have a go' and try and answer some of the questions Forensic Anthropologists are regularly asked when confronted with potential cases brought in by the Police. They looked at an assemblage of co-mingled bones and tried to determine the minimum number of individuals present, and tried to distinguish animal from human bone, as well as archaeological specimens from more recent ones. I also gave them some examples of bone with inflicted blunt force and sharp force trauma, for them to examine; some examples of skeletal elements exhibiting different pathological conditions; and some lovely pictures of decomposed remains for them to determine post-mortem interval. We also had an interesting chat about the lighter and darker side of Forensic Anthropology, the potential for controversy, especially in research, and the ways in which the portrayal of the professional and the discipline on television is accurate or 'not so' accurate. You can read about their experiences here (Sunday Express). I had a really enjoyable day, and I hope they did too!

Wednesday 2 October 2013

Huddersfield Ahoy!

Hello there readers! Greeting from sunny (well, a bit drizzly, actually) Huddersfield! I am now properly ensconced in my new office (it has a kettle and everything), and am officially Senior Lecturer in Forensic Science in the department of Applied Sciences. You can find out all about the Forensic Science courses here, and follow what's going on via Twitter (@Huddersfielduni, @HudSAS and @HudForensics). I am enjoying the environment here - the university is very lively and busy. There is a 'proper' campus feel to it, and it has great facilities like a bookshop, bar, big cafeteria and it feels bustling and animated. The people I've met so far have been very friendly, engaging and interesting, and the students are keen! I'm already getting excited about all the projects we could do here, from 3D microscopy to hydro-taphonomy!
Here's my first view of the university - quite a refreshing change to have a canal cutting through campus!

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Raised by monkeys?

I was recently asked for my opinion about the curious case of Marina Chapman, a lady from rural Columbia, now living in Bradford, who claims to have spent many formative years in the company of capuchin monkeys. You may have seen this article from the Guardian earlier this year, or even read her autobiography, 'The Girl with No Name'. I was asked if there was any evidence on Marina's bones that might corroborate her claims. I was given access to a couple of radiographs of her knee to look at. Now, I need to make it clear that I am not able to confirm or deny whether Marina was 'brought up by monkeys' per se; but I was able to identify some Harris lines on the x-rays of her tibia and femur, which can be an indication that she suffered a couple of short episodes of malnutrition in her childhood. I would have liked to have seen photos of her dentition (or a chance to examine them)to look for enamel hypoplasia, which may also indicate periods of vitamin deficiency or malnutrition during early years. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether you think this skeletal evidence means that she was raised by monkeys or not... Look out for the documentary from Blink Films coming soon to the Discovery Channel to help you make up your mind!

Top Forensic Anthropology website - yay!

Hi there loyal readers. I am feeling particularly rosy today, as I have just been informed that my humble blog has been selected as one of the Top Ten Forensic Anthropology websites by the lovely people at Forensics Colleges. I am really pleased, as the site is an excellent resource for students and graduates looking for information about university and college programs in the USA, UK and further afield, and for career hints and tips. I am honoured! If you would like advice about getting into the discipline, or about education and qualifications required, don't hesitate to ask!

Monday 22 July 2013

Exciting news!

My dear readers, I have some exciting news...after exactly nine years at Cranfield University, I am moving on. From the first of October, I will be taking up a position as Senior Lecturer in Forensic Science at The University of Huddersfield, in the Forensic and Analytical Science Group in the School of Applied Sciences. I am particularly excited because I will be continuing my forensic taphonomy research with a new, improved decomposition facility (please submit name suggestions if you have any), and will be introducing new Forensic Anthropology courses there. I am also looking forward to living in the beautiful Peak District! More updates to come soon...

Thursday 11 July 2013

'Ultimate Tutankhamun'

Those of you lucky enough to have access to Sky TV, and in particular the National Geographic Channel, might like to keep an eye out this Saturday evening (13th July, 8pm, in the UK) for a new documentary on the life and death of Egypt's most famous Pharaoh, King Tutankhamun, called 'Ultimate Tutankhamun'. The documentary is hosted by Chris Naunton, Director of the Egyptian Exploration Society. It revisits some of the long-held debates surrounding the mystery of King Tut's death, and uses modern forensic techniques (some done by yours truly!) to investigate possible scenarios that could explain the evidence found on his body. The investigation (or at least the part I was involved in), used a state of the art anatomy imaging system, the Anatomage table, to visualise the damage to his skeleton. The investigation was a joint effort between archaeologists, Egyptologists, historians, forensic pathologists and anthropologists, biomechanics experts and accident investigators, working together to examine King Tut's remains as thoroughly as possible using the latest tools. Chris has written on his blog about his experience making the documentary.
You can watch the trailer here. I've spotted myself in the lower right hand corner of the screen in this shot!

Friday 3 May 2013

Another busman's holiday!

I am sorry that there's been a lack of activity on my blog for a while - I have been away on holiday. While away, although I tried my best to forget about work, my obsession with Forensic Anthropology haunted me. In Las Vegas, I had to try the CSI Experience.
It was extremely well designed, and a great interactive experience, which I am relieved to say we aced! I did pick up on a few tiny mistakes in their anthropology-based scene, but I let them slide!

I also couldn't help myself wondering about the sort of sharp force and blunt force trauma that could be inflicted by an aligator bite when we saw them in the Everglades. Perhaps not by one this tiny though..

Thursday 7 March 2013

School trip!

Just wanted to share a lovely experience I had recently with you... The other day, Cranfield Forensic Institute hosted a group of 12 year olds from a local public school (a private school to those abroad) for a day celebrating STEM subjects. The students were the brightest in their class, and had especially chosen to visit us because they were particularly interested in forensic science. We gave them lectures and hands-on exercises to help them learn about forensic biomechanics, forensic anthropology and even ballistics. I talked to them about the sort of questions a Forensic Anthropologist can answer when presented with unknown bones, and we discussed the differences between male and female skeletons; how to tell how old someone was when s/he died; how to distinguish human bones from animal bones; as well as looking at some skeletal diseases and signs of trauma. The children were so attentive and enthusiastic, and full of lots of really insightful questions. It gave me real pleasure to see the excitement and interest in their eyes and to be part of their learning experience. I do hope some of them become the Forensic Anthropologists of the future!

Monday 18 February 2013

Another bone puzzle

Thank you for the response to my 'What is this bone?' post a few weeks ago. The answer, kindly provided by Paulo Viscardi, Jake and Ben, was that it was the tarsometatarsus from a large wading bird. I have another conundrum for you, sent to me from Ohio. I can tell it's a vertebra, but I'm not sure of the species (humans are more my thing!). It certainly is beautiful!


Wednesday 6 February 2013

Top Blogs

Well, colour me chuffed! I've just found out that my humble blog has been voted one of the Top 25 Forensic Science Blogs of 2012! You can read the write-up and the other blogs here. I'm amazed that people are actually reading my blog at all, so I am very pleased. Thanking you very kindly very much so.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

What is this bone?

As some of you may know, I have a What is this bone? service on the Cranfield Centre for Forensic Anthropology Research webpage.  Occasionally, people from far flung places send me pictures of bones that their dog has dug up, or they've found on a walk, and I attempt to identify them. When I set up the service, I naively thought that it would be people from the UK responding, but of course, the internet gets everywhere! I have had enquiries from Newfoundland, the Everglades, and now, Australia. I have been sent a video of a bone found in an Australian attic, and I'm appealing to my zoo-archaeologist friends for help with identifying it!