When someone is murdered, the medical examiner isn't always able to discover the cause of death. Sometimes, especially in cases where a body has been buried for a long time, they have to call in a scientist that specializes in understanding how bones work. Ann Ross is a forensic anthropologist and the co-director of the Forensic Sciences Institute at North Carolina State University. It's her job to help authorities find buried bodies and inspect their bones to help puzzle out what brought about their demise. Ross chatted with us about what it's like to adapt tricks of the archaeological trade to find success in her unconventional field work.
What's a forensic anthropologist?
That's a good question because I always ask people what they think it is and I get so many different answers! It's the applied discipline of biological anthropology or skeletal biology. We are experts on bones. A lot of skeletal biologists are dealing with prehistoric or past populations but we apply that to contemporary issues or issues of the law.
What kind of law? Is it crimes that have happened recently?
Not necessarily recent. A lot of time we're experts in the tools that make some kind of pattern on the bone or a trauma. The medical legal community, the medical examiner, or law enforcement need our help in identifying the class of weapon that make the wound. Or was the fracture made at around the time of death or post mortem.
The skeleton can tell us so much. We can tell everything that you do in life--it's almost mapped on your bones.
Where is your lab? Do you work out of police offices?
Most of us work in the university context. Quite a few of us work in medical examiner offices. There are other government agencies that contract forensics or have one on staff. I work at North Carolina State and when there's a case I get a phone call or an email. It can be from a medical examiner's office or the sheriff's department or the SBI. Generally it's remains that I need to see. I either go pick them up or bring them to the laboratory. A lot of times we reexamine cold cases. So it can be as old as the 70s or as recent as a year ago.