No Bones About It

This 2018 photoshoot inside an Anthropology classroom features professor Alice Gooding as she discusses human bones with her students.

On TV screens across the world, crimes are neatly solved in a matter of hours with little paperwork and nothing boring about it. That doesn’t reflect the reality that Alice Gooding, assistant professor of anthropology, knows as a forensic anthropologist.

Forensic anthropologists can work with local law enforcement agencies to help with clandestine grave recovery and helping identify remains, primarily bones. “What I do is a public service. It’s reuniting families with their loved ones,” she said. Her job is focused on identification of the body and not as much on the cause of death.

“I create a biological profile based on what the bones tell me,” Gooding said. Cause of death is not always obvious, as soft tissue damage from a stabbing or a heart attack won’t be detectable when examining the bones.

X-Ray of Shoulder

So, what actually happens when human remains are discovered?

Someone calls in the body and law enforcement either collect the remains themselves, mainly if the body is all in one place, or they may call in help if the remains are spread out or buried. The remains are then brought to the morgue where specialists like Gooding get to work.

At the morgue, there is a process of data collection. Measurements and photos are taken to create a biological profile with the results. X-rays are done, and there is a small trauma analysis for any obvious signs of bone damage. She is gathering information to try to piece together who this person was so they can be identified.

“My role is not to solve the crime. My goal is to gather enough evidence that this person can be returned to their loved ones.”

Alice Gooding, assistant professor of anthropology at Kennesaw State University

The process can take a lengthy amount of time depending on the recovered body.

Height is determined from length of the arm and leg bones. Teeth are some of the more powerful identifying bones as they can help indicate age, by the amount of wear, or health procedures, like dentists or wisdom teeth placement.

Tooth Examination on Skull

The information from the bones only presents a small piece of an identification and isn’t always foolproof. Bones can’t identify what color hair or eyes may have been in life. Bones contain genetic information that can help to pinpoint what race or gender someone may have been, but the correlation between skin color in life and what is reflected in bones doesn’t always match.

Once all the data has been collected, Gooding utilizes computer programs to help confirm and compile reports. The entire process can take at least 6 hours, and then a report must be written. The reports can take an additional 8 or more hours.

These reports are a vital part of her job and focus on explaining her findings in simple-to-understand language. She focuses only on what her data gathering has discovered – no extrapolating or trying to explain anything else but the data gathered from the body. The report can become a piece of evidence that can be reviewed by jurors, so it’s vital that it be written well.

She understands why shows adjust some of her work for the sake of the fast-paced drama of television. “I love what I do, but it could be really boring to watch,” Gooding said.