Keeping Up with the Bones
January 3, 2017 2:53 PM   Subscribe

Police in Missouri found four coffins and 15 skeletons inside an archaeologist's house. Establishing their origin illustrates some new developments in forensic Anthropology.
posted by Rumple (12 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
This is a really weird case
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 3:07 PM on January 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

This is sad and fascinating. The aside about fungal DNA sequencing, though, kind of blew my mind. They can identify the U.S. geographic origin of a sample of dust within a couple hundred kilometers! I never would have imagined that.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 3:40 PM on January 3, 2017 [7 favorites]

Headline reads: DNA proves Missouri archeologist is an asshole
posted by BlueHorse at 4:15 PM on January 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

It sounds like a huge amount to spend on a case that really amounts to grave-robbing. That's a crime, certainly, but it's not a very common one and its impact on victims is relatively low. And the tests were reportedly not even admissible as evidence, so what was the point?
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:46 PM on January 3, 2017

I think they were just trying to get a clue what the remains were and where they might be from.
posted by Bee'sWing at 4:59 PM on January 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

> It sounds like a huge amount to spend on a case that really amounts to grave-robbing.

They couldn't know that until the tests were done.
posted by ardgedee at 5:20 PM on January 3, 2017 [13 favorites]

As a scientist, I'm pleased to see police follow up on his claims and evaluate them, and make sure he doesn't have bodies which should belong to people whose kin and culture are still extant to claim them. Anthropology has a long and sordid history of theft of bones, bodies, and body parts without consent of anyone with a claim to them--not family, the body's owner, nor even local communities. It is a history that leaves the field's ethics poisoned. I don't think there's nothing of value there, but.... the history has tainted anthropology's reputation and left the field on unsteady footing indeed, and that history is intimately tied to anthropologists' longstanding relationship with racism and racist ethics.

This man was suspected of having stolen bodies from a local historic black community in St Louis, bodies he had already ransomed unlawfully in the past. In prioritizing his own research above respect for the communities he stole bodies from, he has behaved unethically and in fact hurt the ability of his own field to conduct research in the future with those communities. Moreover, he has hurt the primary data by obscuring the origins of the skeletons he stole, which is important data that should be associated with them.

There's a reason that grave robbing is illegal, and why it isn't held to the same standards as theft more generally. No one wants to think of Grandma's grave dug up and desecrated so a thief might steal a few baubles buried with her, because that is an act of deep disrespect to one's loved ones, family, and heritage. Why is it somehow a lesser crime to steal dead people and treat them with the same disrespect?

I hope he is prosecuted, if they develop evidence that links the skeletons to specific graves in St. Louis. He should be, because he has committed a serious crime that hurts both the vulnerable and his own colleagues hardest.
posted by sciatrix at 5:36 PM on January 3, 2017 [31 favorites]

I wonder how much you can rely on the oxygen isotope ratio map when a lot of people only drink bottled water/soda.
posted by 445supermag at 6:20 PM on January 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

"It sounds like a huge amount to spend on a case that really amounts to grave-robbing. That's a crime, certainly, but it's not a very common one and its impact on victims is relatively low. "

My husband prosecuted a couple of grave-robbing cases. In the largest case the looters used a backhoe to die up a Mississippian burial mound. It resulted in permanent damage to the mound which may impair all future archaeological analysis; permanent damage to the skeletons; permanent damage to artifacts buried with the skeletons which can no longer be reliably dated or even interpreted at all; and unjust enrichment of the grave robber who can sell the artifacts lucratively on the black market. It cost the state tens of thousands of dollars to repair the damage to the site (exclusive of investigation costs and prosecution costs), and a few thousand just to get the backhoe towed out. It also encourages the black market in Native American artifacts that results in more and more damage to NA sites and graves, and that is linked with organized and unorganized crime, art forgery, money laundering, etc. It's common enough a crime that there's a multi-million dollar black market. In the midwest US, grave robbing is often linked to methamphetamine manufacture: unexcavated and partially-excavated Mississippian mounds are in rural areas, as are meth operations; and meth heads don't really care if they get caught. They will follow archaeologists to active sites, wait for them to leave, and then rob the dig. They trade it to their dealer for meth; there are meth dealers directly hooked in to a multinational black market in antiquities. (In your head it's a bunch of Indiana Jones type nerds heroically stealing pottery shards but when you talk to the state police or the DNR officers who actually have to confront these guys, they shudder, because a LOT of them are on drugs or deal drugs, and a LOT of them have significant guns, and a LOT of them have so many felonies that shooting a cop won't make that much difference.)

In my area grave robbing is not even a crime that's particularly linked to living people (Mississippian graves are the ones with the hot black market value, but there's no clear descendant tribe and of the five-ish tribes that are recognized as likely candidates, none are all that interested in the remains, which are not part of their tribal lore), but it's still very shitty.

The thing where you claim to dig up specific identified graves in order to move them for new development (most often a freeway but sometimes other things), and take the money from the government for moving them, and then can't be arsed to move them and just hope nobody checks, is its whole own thing with a history dating back 200+ years in the US. It's more motivated by utter laziness and government graft, and less by outright greed. Here in Peoria the first city graveyard was supposedly dug up before the Civil War, in the 1850s, because it was leaking dead body into the water supply. In the early 2000s, when renovating a library, they found a dead body and properly halted work for the state archaeologists to come out and check it out. And then the found another. And another. And another. Some 300 in all by the end; it became apparent that the contractors hired to move the dead bodies to the new graveyard had taken the money, dug around to create a good visual, and JUST NOT DONE ANY OF THE WORK because it seemed hard. There were 300 graves in the "new" graveyard that were just empty, and 300 graves in the old, leaking-into-the-water graveyard that JUST SAT THERE LEAKING INTO THE WATER for 150 years. 150 years is long enough ago that the general reaction, even from living descendants of the dead, was "HOLY CRAP, FOR REAL?????" and it was quite the sensational news although no one really felt personally injured. But it was VERY galling that so much taxpayer money was given to these grifters to move the bodies, and very horrifying that they were supposed to be moved because of disease in the drinking water and then just sat there poisoning the drinking water for another 150 years. Also relatively upsetting that someone can claim to be taking care of your dead loved one and you just don't know because how are you going to check? And it cost a shit-ton of MODERN taxpayer money to move the graves 150 years later so the library could be expanded! Which we already paid for 150 years ago! So galling. There's nobody to prosecute for a 150-year-old fraud.

Anyway any time your US city builds a new bit of freeway they have to have archaeologists out there to survey it first and they almost always find graves while doing so. Most often they're just old family farm graves but sometimes they're cool finds like early Native Americans or someone who died in a duel or an early pioneer grave or whatever. Keep up with your local news when they're digging freeways! (These bones go to a state warehouse where they can be claimed by descendants but mostly are cataloged and tagged, and then either stored respectfully or reinterred, with appropriate labeling so they can be found later if necessary. In some states this is an extremely contentious process if the bones are Native American; in others it's quite calm and relaxed and no big deal. (Perversely, in states with less NA presence it's often less contentious; states where NA land ownership and tribal claims are big deals often have much more fraught dealings over bones, burial lands, etc.; states with hardly any NA presence left are like "pleeeeeeeeeease come love my bones" and successor tribes are like "uh, whatev.") In my head these warehouses look like the coolly lit one on Bones, but in reality they're much more warehousey.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:26 PM on January 3, 2017 [60 favorites]

Wheatley called the Morgan Country Coroner, who indicated that the remains shouldn’t have been stored in Walters’s home. The detective confiscated the coffins and their grisly contents. “We went ahead and secured them for safe keeping until we could figure out what was going on,” Wheatley says. “I’m not trained in anthropology or anything like that, so I didn’t know how old they were or what they were.”

Walters ............ produced decades-old documentation from the Guatemalan government to prove the legality of his cache.

But Wheatley says he “still wasn’t convinced that those documents covered those remains that we had seized. . . . We wanted to make sure that they weren’t newer bones that [Walters] had come across locally.”

Dt. Wheatley is a master of understatement, isn't he?
posted by fshgrl at 8:39 PM on January 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

There's another tale of forensic archaeology here: Part 1 / Part 2.

[This tale involves an anonymous Victorian skeleton unearthed at South London's Cross Bones graveyard, which scientists and researchers were eventually able to give a confirmed age, gender, diet, likely job and - just possibly - a name. Their work became the subject of a BBC television documentary in 2010, and the account linked above is my written summary of the programme's content.]
posted by Paul Slade at 3:43 AM on January 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

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