The continuing adventures of a second-career archeologist, teacher, and sci-fi geek

Month: August 2018

Trip To Texas State Osteological Processing Lab

I’m sorry for the delay in this post. It’s taken me about a week to process what I saw last week at Texas State University’s osteological processing lab. I originally wrote a good chunk of this post the day I got back. I needed to get it out of my system and it helped me try to understand the overwhelming emotions I experienced from that day. It was definitely the hardest day I’ve ever had so far in this journey to become an archaeologist, but I am thankful for the experience and do not regret going at all.

Please note that I did not take any pictures because it was not allowed and it’s considered controversial, even disrespectful, to photograph human remains or funerary objects. This is why I did not photograph any at TARL. It is simply not allowed and not done.

It’s not the lab or the skeletons that bothered me. I guess I should start at the beginning. The lab is located at the Freeman Ranch outside of San Marcos, TX. It is one of five forensic research centers in the United States. People can donate their bodies to science and they use some of the acreage to study decomposition. Not only that, it is the home of Operation Identification (OpID), a cooperation of several different organizations whose mission is to identify the remains of undocumented migrants who perish along the border in South Texas. So, there are primarily two kinds of skeletons you’ll find there. They’re either donations used in research or they’re the remains of undocumented migrants.

The lab itself is a really nice facility, though much smaller than I actually anticipated. We entered through the back where the bodies usually arrive to be processed if they’re donations. There are several large freezers, a scale, and other equipment to take tissue samples. The first room we visited was for OpID. It was a long narrow lab with a computer and counter along the left side and two computers and a small workstation on the right. We had been warned that it can get smelly at times and there was definitely an odor in the air, sort of sweet but musty. It wasn’t that strong, but it was for sure the smell of decomposition. It wasn’t enough to make me feel sick or anything, though. I imagine the people who work there are used to it.

There was skeleton laid out on the counter in full anatomical position. There were three cardboard boxes that held remains of other individuals. The guide explained to us in detail what OpID does and how they try to use DNA and the missing persons databases to match the remains up to a family. Their success rate is about 12%. That’s it, though she says it used to be lower and they’re getting better at their work. They have field schools where they exhume skeletons from cemeteries and also do recovery on ranch sites along the border. They work closely with Border Patrol, sheriffs, and justices-of-the-peace. She said most individuals they have are males in their twenties or thirties, though occasionally they have older individuals and their youngest skeleton is twelve.

Next, we saw the room where they process skeletons once they come in from the field if they still have soft tissues attached and such. This looks like an autopsy room, like the ones you see on television. There are large kettles for boiling bones, a long sink for cleaning bones, and a table with a light for examination. There were two ladies in protective gear at the sink meticulously cleaning bones from a skeleton that was lying on the table. The bones were brown and discolored, probably from being outside and exposed to the elements. They used copious amounts of Dawn, which makes sense to me seeing as how it’s great at breaking up organic substances. Dawn Dish Soap…it washes your dishes, saves wildlife, and scours your bones clean!

Around the corner was where the bones go after they’ve dried. There were about 5 plastic trays on a counter that held all the bones from a skeleton. I noticed right away that the left femur and tibia had knee replacement hardware. That was pretty cool to see. I asked the guide and she confirmed that they often see knee and hip replacements among their donated bodies as they tend to be from elderly white males. It’s also common to come across screws and plates. She said sometimes dentition (teeth) are missing because the individual had dentures. My mom had her knee replaced about ten years ago and I thought it was cool to see what her implants might look like.

Next to that room is their storage facilities. They only store the individuals for OpID there. The processed donor skeletons are curated in a separate facility for further research. There are tubs that store personal effects from the OpID bodies. If an individual is identified, then they lose their unique number, the tag is replaced with their name, and their box is moved to a separate shelf to await repatriation to their families.

There were so many boxes. This is what has me feeling weird, sad, and a little angry. I know illegal immigration is a huge problem. All politics aside, we are talking about human beings who are so desperate from poor conditions in their own country that they are willing to travel hundreds or thousands of miles risking everything so they can survive. Staring at those shelves upon shelves of boxes, I found myself wondering how many of those individuals ever imagined that they wouldn’t survive the journey and wind up as nothing but an unidentified skeleton in a cardboard box in a lab. I’ll bet none of them did.

All of the people in those boxes had a name once. It makes me so sad and angry that this program even has to exist. It is very noble work that they do, but I wish it never had to be done in the first place. The guide told us that most of America has no idea just how bad of an international humanitarian crisis this has become. Their work is an international effort…Argentina, Mexico, even a lab in Poland dedicates their time and energy processing DNA samples to offer profiles for identification. I sincerely wish more Americans knew just how many thousands of migrants die in the desert just for the opportunity to survive.

Maybe more people would have empathy for undocumented migrants if they knew. Maybe they would try harder to improve conditions in other countries and battle the gangs, the disease, the warfare so people wouldn’t have to leave their home countries to begin with. Maybe our elected officials would understand what people risk (EVERYTHING!) to come here and not tear children away from their parents and lock them in cages. Call me a bleeding heart liberal if you want. I don’t see that as insult at all, especially if that means that I believe in human dignity. There is nothing dignified about fleeing your home, dying in a desert, and winding up in a box on a shelf in a lab without a proper burial. OpID works to give those people back their dignity.

Maybe it wouldn’t have hit so close to home if some of my own students weren’t undocumented or the children of undocumented parents. Those skeletons could be their missing family members.

Forensic work is necessary and there is justice involved, whether if it’s solving a crime or giving someone back their name so they can have a proper burial. I understand why people are drawn to this aspect of anthropology. I come away from this experience with a deeper and profound respect for forensic anthropologists.

I also know it’s not for me. I already knew that going into this experience, but this confirms it for me. The skeletons, the lab, the smells…none of that bothered me. I liked seeing the lab itself and the bones were so cool! It was the people who don’t have a name. It was the sheer number of those people.

I had a lot of trouble sleeping that night and was irritable and unhappy the next morning. I snapped at Nora for no good reason and made a point to apologize to her later on. Thursday at work I had several coworkers and some of my students ask about my trip. I told them I was still trying to process it and all of them were very understanding. If any of my coworkers are reading this, thank you for being patient with me. I am doing much better now that I’ve had time to think about everything I saw and the emotions that I felt.

I still want to study osteology and work in funerary archaeology, but I definitely know I’m going to contain myself to archaeological burials only. Like I said, this was a good experience. It was difficult, but I am thankful that I had the opportunity.

Casts, Cataloging, and Classes

I’ve been putting off this post because my life suddenly became hectic with work starting up again. I’m hoping that someday I won’t have to worry about the annual insanity that constitutes the back-to-school season because I won’t be a teacher, but that’s a dream for another day.

My wrist is fine. The cast came off almost a month ago. I have some residual muscle weakness and stiffness, but it’s gotten a lot better over the last 4 weeks. God, that cast was awful. It was the first major bone I’ve ever broken and the first cast I’ve ever had. Combine a cast with a hot Texas summer and you’re in for a stinky treat. Actually, I found some great stuff on Amazon called Cast Comfort. It looks kind of like WD40 with a long tube that you can stick down into the cast and it blows cold air and powder inside. This cools the itching and keeps the cast dry so it doesn’t smell bad. Cast Comfort was temporarily my best friend and really saved my sanity!

Hey, this is a blog about bones, so here’s a random image of my X-Ray. Can you see the buckle fracture on the left side of my ulna? See the bit that’s pushed in? Yeah, it’s tiny! That’s why I was only in a cast for 3 weeks. The nurse totally missed it and only the radiologist caught it. I wouldn’t have noticed it if they hadn’t shown me where it was!

When I wasn’t hitting deer at field school and breaking my wrist, I was spending one day a week volunteering at the Texas Archaeological Research Lab (TARL) working on cataloging and conserving artifacts from a field school from the 1960’s that was an excavation of a 19th century village site. I can’t tell you too much more than that because of site security (looting is unfortunately a big problem, so I cannot share site names or trinomial coordinates). Yes, I guess they are that backlogged! Anyhoot, it was great getting some experience working in the lab. I was told that a lot of archaeologists have absolutely NO lab experience whatsoever and it was very beneficial for me to see what happens after the artifacts come out of the ground and are shipped off to be recorded and processed.

There were boxes of lithics, rocks, ceramics, metal, glass, beads, and lots of soil samples. Some of them were still moist 50+ years later. EW. Yeah, I wound up saving those for last and didn’t have time to get to them. Whoops! Working with a cast was a little hard, but not impossible. I saved the glass and metal for my last 2 weeks after the cast came off so I could wear protective gloves. Take a gander at some of the cool artifacts that were in my collection:


TARL is a fun place. It sort of looks like the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark with rows upon rows of shelves filled with cardboard boxes. It was a little weird and eerie being alone in there (I wasn’t always alone, though). Walk right around the corner and there’s a big display tray full of giant extinct bison bones. Groovy! I was fond of visiting the bones because they were so massive and I always noticed something new when I studied them.  Sometimes I’d get up to take a break and walk around the rows upon rows of open artifacts on the shelves. I saw metates and what I started calling RBR’s (Really Big Rocks…there are a lot of rocks there). The really super cool stuff is in a climate controlled locked facility called Room 19. I only got to go in there during orientation, but I was able to see some beautiful Native American jewelry and grass sandals.

Sometimes the work was really tedious, repetitive and a little boring, but not often. I had to work with spreadsheets and Excel notoriously hates me, but I managed! I listened to a great podcast called The Magnus Archives that I am still working on. It’s a bit spooky and creepy, which was perfect for working in that lonely isolated lab!

There’s also an osteology lab! You know I was super excited to go in there! Unfortunately, I only got to go in during orientation and sadly, there’s no osteologist on staff. They’re trying to get a grant to hire one. There’s several thousand individuals stored there behind curtains for privacy and to comply with federal laws. I am still unsure of the exact reasons, but I suspect it has to do with NAGPRA.

We were shown the skeleton of a 1,300 year old Anasazi boy of about 3 years old whose fate is still in limbo because of NAGPRA. It was my first experience coming close to human remains. I was fascinated and not at all freaked out. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure how I would react, especially to a child’s skeleton, but it wasn’t at all scary. One of the other volunteers was visibly upset and turned away, but that’s ok. Human remains can evoke a wide variety of reactions from people and they’re all valid responses. It’s a sensitive area and one that must be dealt with respect and understanding of other’s emotions.

Speaking of emotions, TARL invited me to visit the Osteology Research and Processing Lab at Texas State University this coming week. I am ecstatic! I’m taking a day off of work to go because you know I wouldn’t miss this for anything! I’ve been warned that it can be a bit smelly and even upsetting, but if I’m going to be working in cemeteries and with bodies, then this will be a part of my future. I’m a little nervous, but more excited!

On the education front, I took Introduction to Archaeology over the summer and got a 96! It was an enjoyable class. The final project was super fun! It was called the Cemetery at Celdane project and was a mock excavation of a cemetery in Romania. I was given a history, a sketch of ten graves in a cemetery, a chart with details about the bodies and the graves goods, and sketches of some of the finds. I had to discern age, sex, and status of the bodies. Only two of the ten bodies had discernible sexes (the bones were in a bad state) but I had to figure out the other eight.

It started off slow because I could NOT figure out the sexes and I was getting more and more frustrated because I knew there was a solution, but I finally figured it out…in the middle of the night! I had given up and gone to bed, when I thought, “OH! THE FIBULAE!” and ran back into my office to look. Sure enough, there it was staring at me in the face! Fibulae are sort of like safety pins for clothing. The number of fibulae present in the burials indicated whether the skeletons were male or female. Women had two or more and the men had one. There was a 75% correlation for the female and 100% for the male, which are pretty good numbers.

There were also a lot of discrepancies between the data and the sketch, such as labeling a skeleton as being in a flexed position when it was clearly drawn in an extended. I spent a paragraph tearing down the archaeologist’s inconsistencies and poor record keeping. What was supposed to be a 3 page paper…um…turned out to be 8. I pulled in outside sources to back up my claims, even though it wasn’t required. I also talked about the ability to accurately age two of the skeletons from the presence of osteoarthritis in the spine of a female and the saggital cranial suture in another not being closed. I am really glad I have some osteology and funerary archaeology books on hand!

Anyway, I got a 100. The professor told me it was the best and most thorough interpretation of that project he’d read in a long time and he really enjoyed it.

Fortunately, I’ll get another chance to do more work like this. I am so proud to announce that I’ve been accepted into Oregon State University’s online Anthropology program! They gave me credit for field school, even though it was before I applied and that’s pretty cool. I’m going part time and taking Introduction to Cultural Anthropology and Archaeological Interpretation, which is a project-based class doing work like the Cemetery at Celdane project. Obviously, I’m very excited about that! Classes start September 20th.

No bones about it, folks. I am really enjoying this adventure so far and I am having FUN! This has been such an exciting ride so far and I have no desire to get off this train any time soon.

Next post: A report on my trip to the osteology lab at Texas State!

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