Bring up the bodies

Published in The Times on 1 November 2015

The rain pours down relentlessly, and the woman walking her dog over a grassy brow brings a tartan umbrella closer to her head. The border collie is off the lead and has no care for the glowering sky, running through shrubbery and into a wooded copse. When she returns there’s a bone between her teeth, one she’s refusing to let go. The woman calls the police.

Blue-and-white crime-scene tape seals off the spot, and a common approach path is marked out by crime scene investigators, leading to the spot where the dog found the bone. A forensic anthropologist carefully picks her way along the path, her white protective suit starting to stick to her skin in the downpour. She makes no hurried judgments, but it takes a matter of moments for her to confirm in her own mind that this is a human bone, and that at least some parts of a skeleton lie buried in a clandestine grave, here amid the trees.

It may be in a thicket, but this is not the most secluded location for the burial of a body: the Law is a hill at the heart of Dundee, and one of its most distinct landmarks, a 175-metre-high Iron Age settlement, on whose slopes prehistoric graves have been uncovered. But the crime-scene officers’ job now is not to second guess the psychology of a would-be killer, but to conduct a fingertip search of the area. These uniforms are soon joined by archaeological and soil experts, who examine the site meticulously, delicately collecting samples before finally exhuming the body, and nodding their assent for it to be transported to the mortuary.

Dramatic as it is, this is not a real crime scene, but a reconstruction made for Identifying the Dead, a Massive Open Online Course (Mooc) for students of forensic human identification. The inaugural course ran between this September and October, and involved over 22,000 amateur enthusiasts from around the world, who tried to solve the mystery buried with the pile of bones. Run by the University of Dundee’s award-winning Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (Cahid), in conjunction with Future Learn (owned by The Open University), Identifying the Dead is a journey through the world of forensic anthropology.

Cahid is home to some of the world’s leading forensic scientists. Alongside human identification, it specialises in forensic anthropology, craniofacial reconstruction and the study of the human body. It is led by the formidable Sue Black, professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology, who has worked on the exhumation of mass graves in the Balkans. She also helped to identify victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami, and more recently has analysed photos from Syria, to help with the investigation into allegations of torture.

It is not just international crime that Cahid helps to crack: police forces across the country also rely on its services. In 2009 it helped to secure life sentences for the two ringleaders of Scotland’s most prolific paedophile ring, as well as providing evidence that saw an RAF sergeant jailed for six years for sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl. In 2013, the centre’s work led to the identification of Philomena Dunleavy, whose body was found in a shallow grave on Edinburgh’s Corstorphine Hill. The facial reconstruction Cahid created was recognised by a member of Dunleavy’s family, and her son was eventually convicted of culpable homicide on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

Much of the centre is located in windowless rooms in basements. Here, in one crypt-like office, I meet Helen Meadows. Young, blonde, and with a soft Merseyside accent, she’s project manager for the online course, helping to make forensic science understandable to amateur sleuths. Her specialism is in helping to identify the perpetrators of sex crimes against children, studying hands in photographs for vein patterns and other identifying marks, which can help the police identify an anonymous figure found in obscene photographs and films.

“We do get a lot of interest in our department,” she says, “and forensic science is universally appealing. Whether it is morbid curiosity, or an academic interest, I don’t know what attracts people… maybe it’s wanting to find out the truth, or it’s a fascination with death, and what happens immediately prior and after.”

Public interest in forensic science has rocketed since the television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was first screened in 2000. It was followed by US shows such as Body of Proof and Bones, and bookended by British dramas Waking the Dead, Silent Witness and The Body Farm. Collectively, they introduced a new phrase to the lexicon — “the CSI effect” (though this referred principally to jury members becoming obsessed with DNA and other compelling scientific evidence, and making sometimes unrealistic demands for such proof). “Pre-2000,” Meadows says, “nobody really knew what this field was, or what we did. But there’s been an incredible boom in university enrolments and in the number of courses offered in this area.”

Over six weeks, Identifying the Dead students learn to read a crime scene like a narrative, making sense of clues, documenting and attempting to explain any evidence of trauma on the remains, and using biological profiling and facial reconstruction to try to discover who the victim is, and what happened to them. Through videos, online chats, Q&A sessions and interactive exercises, they will gain an extraordinary insight into the beginning of the journey from crime scene to courtroom. At the end of the course, all those who submit an evaluation of the deceased’s identity will be rewarded with a download of a short story by the crime fiction writer Val McDermid, which sheds light on the backstory that led to the victim’s death.

Meadows leads me to the Val McDermid Mortuary, so named when the crime writer won the most votes in a public competition to raise funds for, and name, the morgue. She beat nine other exponents of the genre, including Lee Child, Kathy Reichs, Mark Billingham and Harlan Coben, and takes great delight in her name sitting above the door. Meadows turns and asks if I’m okay with dead bodies, before slipping through to check what might lie before us. There’s only one, a cadaver in the Stuart MacBride Dissecting Room — the writer came second in the naming competition, which went under the banner Million for a Morgue. Inside, an embalmed body (donated by the owner) is being examined by two clinicians training in surgical and clinical procedures. Further back, there are rows of stainless tables, each with a cadaver resting on top, respectfully covered with a blue, plastic shroud. The morgue at Cahid was the first in the UK to employ the Thiel process of embalming, in which cadavers are preserved using much less formaldehyde than in other methods, and thus are more lifelike. The room smells at once sweet and vinegary, perhaps with a hint of ammonia, but there is no discernible odour of death. There are stainless-steel embalming tanks, each containing four cadavers. Each tank is named after one of the remaining competition crime writers, except Lee Child. “We couldn’t call it the Child embalming tank,” whispers Meadows. “So it’s called the Jack Reacher, after his lead character.”

McDermid tells me how much she enjoyed being involved in the academic course. She may love the narrative possibilities of forensic science, but she hates “blood and maggots”. Even now, she marvels at something she learnt from Sue Black, and which featured in McDermid’s 2014 novel, The Skeleton Road. “When I was researching that novel, Sue told me about a bone in the skull that is formed in the womb, and [from this] you can tell where your mother was living when she was pregnant with you. That’s just amazing.

“Forensics is constantly developing and changing. In the 1980s, DNA technology needed a bloodstain the size of a 50-pence piece, and it took six weeks to get a result; now they can do it with a stain the size of a millionth of a grain of salt, and they are almost at the point where they can do it at the scene of the crime.”

Over coffee and chocolate cake in Contini, her favourite Edinburgh cafe, I try to crack the case. “Who is the body on the Law? What happened to them?” I ask. McDermid tuts at my cheek. “You’ll have to follow the clues the same as everyone else. Then I come in and fill in the blanks. Just like any good crime novel.”

In a top-floor canteen with a view of the Law, and out across the Firth of Tay, Helen Meadows is discussing the online course. “With Identifying the Dead, this is as close to a realistic case as you can get,” she says, “although it is not based on anything that has ever happened in Dundee. The idea of the body being found because of a dog walker is not unusual, and we have tried to make the entire scenario believable.” But, she is keen to emphasise, “We’re not a whodunnit: we’re not really interested in who committed the crime. Predominantly, what our department is about is finding out who the victim is. They’ll look at perimortem, ante-mortem and post-mortem trauma, as well as blunt- force trauma, sharp-force and ballistic, and we’ll talk about what the expert actually sees on the bones. There will be videos of the experts performing their roles at the scene, and in the mortuary.”

Should they desire, students can go to their local butcher and ask to be shown cut-marks on bones, and how they differ, although palpating their own skull to identify cranial landmarks and distinguishing characteristics is, perhaps, an easier challenge.

Leading the exhumation module is Gaille MacKinnon, a lecturer in forensic anthropology and archaeology. She spends much of her life uncovering mass graves and sifting the remains of atrocities — digging gear, scalpels, bone cutters and evidence bags are the tools of her trade. In her (windowless) office, shelves are lined with books on genocide and mass graves. MacKinnon trained in archaeology, but after she was called to the war crimes tribunal in Bosnia, she changed course, to study forensics.

“I’ve found, in my work, that there is an increasing need for the services of a forensic archaeologist,” she says. “In Bosnia, the bodies were often dismembered, and dug up and dug up again, and we had secondary and tertiary graves being dug up and redeposited in other places. That hides the crime, and the initial ID of the person. If you’ve got 300 men in a mass grave and you get one, two or three DNA-positive IDs on those people, then you link them back to an event and a set of perpetrators, and then a witness who might provide survivor testimony. If you dig up these mass graves as they are decomposing, not only do you confound that person’s identity, they might be in three different graves that will not be dug up at the same time.” As she says, “After that, you can’t really go back to swanning about Egypt digging up pyramids, can you? You’re suddenly part of a team that bears witness, and there is almost a moral imperative to use the skills. It can sound pompous, but it’s very compelling.”

MacKinnon is aware that many students will be fans of the various forensic-science TV series, and she relishes the opportunity to correct their somewhat unrealistic representation of her job. “There really is a lot of misinformation. In CSI and the like, people are tottering around in high heels, flicking hair and skin cells everywhere. They’re doing their ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ They are not scientists. This course lets people see that we wear scene-of-crime personal protective equipment — a white paper suit, bootees, hairnet, mask, double gloves. It is not all glamorous.”

But it can only be a taster of forensic anthropology. “What we show them has to be abbreviated by the very nature of archaeological excavation,” says MacKinnon. “Sometimes we get directed by police intelligence, but often it is a man walking his dog who comes across secret human remains. We will just be giving the learners an overview, because it is very time-consuming. We take them through the clandestine grave and the anomalies in the ground, the landscape that needs to be investigated further.”

Is there a danger that potential offenders will sign up for the course?

“We think it unlikely,” she says, “but we do have to be careful”

Audrey GillanThe Times, Scotland