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A Lecture by Prof. Sue Black

This post will give you a little update on my PhD work, but mostly I’m going to talk about a lecture that I attended yesterday presented by Professor Sue Black at the Royal Society of Medicine.

Since my last post I have been carrying out the first round of measurements and recordings to test my new method for recording dental wear. The next step to do complete some statistical analysis and to highlight and issues that need to be rectified. I think the plan is to do these tests, make some adjustments and additions to the method and then repeat the recordings. I should imagine that I will be doing this a few times to ensure a robust and accurate is produced.

To take a little break from my PhD work a couple of friends and I had a trip into London. A few weeks ago a friend of mine told me about the Royal Society of Medicine‘s Jephcott Lecture. This year’s lecture was by the esteemed Professor Sue Black, and entitled: the Real World of Forensic Anthropology

I had didn’t really have any expectations before going into the lecture, although I had heard that Sue Black was a wonderful speaker – which I can confirm! I thought that there might be a discussion of the differences between the public’s perception of forensic anthropology and the reality, and there was a bit, but the lecture was so much more than that. It started off pretty light hearted by highlighting some of the skills needed by a forensic anthropologist, e.g. the ability to distinguish between human and animal, but quickly moved onto some case examples.

The first example case was of a young man whose remains were found in some woods, it was later discovered that he had committed suicide. The following case was of a women, murdered by her husband. In both examples, Prof Black explained clearly how each case was solved, and expressed the importance of particular bits of evidence. For example, a shard of bone was discovered in the second case and instead of being destroyed, to provide DNA evidence, it was examined and identified as being part of the sphenoid bone, located within the cranial vault. This meant that the case could be increased to a murder or manslaughter charge because anyone who had that part of their skull damaged would not have survived. If the bone had been used for  DNA only it would have only revealed the individual’s identify, a fact that had already been confirmed from blood spatter. It was clear that Prof Black wanted to demonstrate the importance of forensics and the impact that it can have on a case’s direction and intent.

Following these cases the lecture focused on the forensic anthropologist’s role in the identification of sexual predators. When I first read about this lecture I had not realised that it would have taken this route, however, it was extremely interesting, although very sad. In some cases of sexual assault the abuser will take photographs that will include parts of their body, as well as the victims. Professor Black informed the audience that a recent approach in the identification of such abusers related to the pattern and visible variation in the veins, freckles, wrinkles and other physical characteristics. Over time Prof Black, and her department, have helped to compile a database to investigate this variation and have conducted research to identity whether it can prove useful in a court of law to convict an individual of a crime.

As I have said it was an extremely interesting lecture, and there was certainly food for thought afterwards! I do hope that more research and funding can go into the area of forensic anthropology.

In addition to the lecture content there were two other take home messages. The first was to not believe any of the science on CSI, or similar detective shows. It’s true that they are (extremely loosely) based on a type of forensic anthropology, but they are incredibly misleading. I have recently started watching Bones (a bit late on the band-wagaon I know!) and I must admit I do enjoy it, whilst ignoring some of the horrible inaccuracies! However, if I was a member of the public, with no or little real knowledge about forensic anthropology, I can see how damaging these shows are. They create an expectation of what could be achieved that the real world just can’t live up to. My personal recommendation would be if you enjoy watching these shows – great, but please read around the subject, read biographies of real forensic anthropologists, watch real (and creditable!) documentaries. It is a fascinating subject, but the public must be accurately informed. 

The second message that Professor Black gave was that if you want to work in the world of forensics study a hard science. Forensic anthropology is a huge field and taking a course to study the subject in general will not be enough. Study chemistry, biology, anatomy. These are just a few of the subjects that are a part of the forensic sciences. So to any aspiring forensic anthropologists – take Sue Black’s advice, she is the one to follow!


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