As biological and forensic anthropologists, Madeline Atwell and Katherine Weisensee read skeletons to help answer questions, solve crimes and pursue justice for individuals, families and communities.

Photography by Ashley Jones
*The skeletal models depicted in these photos are used for instructional purposes. They are not real individuals and should not be constructed as such.

On a cool morning in the woods of Pickens County, South Carolina, Katherine Weisensee pierces red flags into the soil, surveying the site of scattered remains. A biological anthropologist who consults as a needs-based forensic anthropologist for counties in the Upstate, Weisensee has been called to the scene of a potential crime.

She’s there to survey, map and collect human remains. These are some of the first steps toward determining what happened — and whom it happened to.

While some researchers interpret the law and others analyze genetic code, skeletons are the texts of biological anthropologists like Weisensee and Madeline Atwell. To some, a skeleton is a structure of bones supporting a body, evoking images of a model in a classroom, memories of bones broken in years past, or thoughts of spooky seasonal decor.

For Weisensee and Atwell, however, skeletons hold the clues to unraveling mysteries past and present.

In a research lab in Brackett Hall on Clemson’s main campus, housing the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice, Weisensee points to telling features of skeletal models. Topography on the joint between the pelvic bones — the pubic symphysis — suggests a person’s age at time of death. Marks in teeth show a history of inadequate nutrition or illness.

A wider feature on the pelvis suggests the skeleton was a female; a narrower pelvis suggests a male. The smooth or textured feel of joints contributes to age estimation and can suggest the presence or absence of diseases like arthritis and the activities people engaged in during their lives.

As Weisensee points to subtle variations in the skeletal models, she mirrors a graduate student who showed her skeletons in the seventh grade. She was job shadowing a biological anthropologist at Portland State University in Oregon and learned about stories preserved in a cast of fossil hominins and skulls.

In that moment, Weisensee learned that everything — “from the moment of your birth to the moment of your death,” she says — is written on the skeleton. She was instantly drawn to their stories.

Biological anthropology is a subset of anthropology that focuses on the physiological aspects of people and our nonhuman primate relatives, including the scientific investigation of evolutionary changes across time. The field also studies ancient to modern skeletal remains to provide insight into past health and disease. Forensic anthropology is a further subspecialty that analyzes skeletal remains of the recently deceased within a legal setting.

In the same way that skeletal collections tell the stories of a group or community, a single skeleton tells the stories of an individual.

“All that information that you’re gathering about people and populations, you can apply to the individual in this very applied specific context of forensic anthropology,” Weisensee explains.

When Atwell began her career as a biological anthropologist, she examined biting and chewing behaviors and the muscle architecture of extant primates to inform questions regarding the anatomy of extinct nonhuman primates. Although fascinated by the research, she felt compelled to examine humans, including “the ways social and political structures impact humans and their bodies,” she says.

As part of her doctoral research, Atwell examined the skeletons of women who lived and died in 19th- and 20th-century state mental hospitals in Colorado and Ohio. Through macroscopic analysis of skeletal fractures and archival research, she determined that the women had experienced avoidable harm in the state institutions.

Now a postdoctoral fellow at Clemson, Atwell balances her studies with assisting the Richland County Coroner’s Office in Columbia, South Carolina. The bodies that move from the coroner suite to their anthropology lab are often unidentified individuals due to advanced states of decomposition that have rendered them facially unrecognizable.

By estimating their age-at-death, sex and height and uncovering anomalies, such as skeletally manifested disease or pathology, Atwell, like Weisensee, assists law enforcement with identifying the remains.

“I think both of us are interested in helping people,” Weisensee says of the forensic work they wedge into demanding academic careers.

“It’s a tangible way to impact individual lives.”

Slides of skeletal models show anomalies that help forensic anthropologists with the process of identification.

As a professor of anthropology, Weisensee teaches courses in biological and forensic anthropology, plus study abroad trips and a Creative Inquiry course. In a study abroad trip to Szeged, Hungary, students examine the age, health and sex of skeletal collections dating from the Neolithic period to the 1800s. Recovered from archeological excavations, the skeletons are housed at the University of Szeged.

With one foot in biological anthropology and the other in forensic, Weisensee also connected students with the Pickens County Coroner’s Office for a service-learning opportunity. Inundated with decades of paper records dating back to the 1970s, the county needed help digitizing the files and asked Weisensee for help.

The students not only digitized the death records but also used them to create a map to visualize the patterns of death in the county over time. Through the database, students observed death trends unique to Pickens County. They determined, for example, that female suicide patterns were unique compared to many published studies that use urban populations from other regions of the country.

Inspired by the methods used in the Creative Inquiry, Weisensee catalyzed the development of geoFOR, a revolutionary technology in forensic science. The web application helps investigators with their identification by providing a data-driven estimate of the postmortem interval (PMI), or the amount of time that has passed from death to the discovery of the body.

While paramount to death investigations, the PMI has been historically difficult for investigators to estimate.

“Whenever you go out to the scene, that’s the first thing people want to know … and that’s the thing I’m least comfortable providing,” Weisensee explains. “A long-time interest for me is improving PMI methods.”

When Atwell came across a posting seeking a postdoctoral researcher to aid the development of geoFOR, the call felt right up her alley. It aligned with her work for Richland County, and she eagerly joined the robust interdisciplinary team.

The team from Clemson includes Patricia Carbajales-Dale, director of the Center for Geospatial Technologies; Patrick Claflin, a GIS developer; and Hudson Smith and Carl Ehrett, data scientists who work with The Watt AI program.

Using a mass collaborative reference sample, GIS data and machine learning, geoFOR has improved PMI predictions. The success of the web application is a testament to the power of interdisciplinary research, fieldwork and Open Science, aiding investigators in their quest for answers.

It also brought together two of the few forensic anthropologists in South Carolina.

Slides of skeletal models show anomalies that help forensic anthropologists with the process of identification.

In 2004, the National Institute of Justice created the National Missing and Unidentified Person System to help solve missing and unidentified person cases. When bodies are found skeletonized, decomposed, burned or scattered — and an identification has not been made — they are listed in the NamUs system.

In South Carolina alone, one can read the details of nearly 75 unidentified corpses found in cities such as Spartanburg, Columbia and Charleston. The unidentified deceased are listed by numbers because their names are unknown, and case information includes their condition upon being found.

Nearly 15,000 deceased are listed as unidentified nationwide. Browsing the catalog is not for the faint of heart.

“We have a crisis,” Atwell says.

Forensic anthropologists work on the frontlines of the crisis with law enforcement to both recover and identify skeletal remains through scientific methods. The work isn’t always straightforward — and sometimes forensic anthropologists recover scattered remains in challenging settings. “I had a case recently where a person was dispersed over a large area and had been there over five months,” Weisensee shares. “They were under leaf cover, and it was difficult to recover all of the skeleton.”

After recovery, Weisensee and Atwell clean and reassemble the remains to begin telling the skeletal story. “One aspect of the whole process is cleaning the skeleton,” Atwell explains, “so you can examine skeletal subtleties, including identifying features or trauma.”

Subtleties of the skeleton offer clues to estimating the individual’s age-at-death, height, biological sex, disease or trauma. Forensic scientists provide this information, along with any unique identifiers, such as tooth loss, to forensic artists, who create 2D or 3D facial depictions.

The facial depictions are then released to the media in hopes of someone recognizing and identifying the person.

Although demand is high, jobs like Weisensee’s and Atwell’s are few and far between. In fact, they are two of only four forensic anthropologists in South Carolina. With few to fill the need, the pair is spread thin, which is indicative of the field more generally. Unidentified corpses can remain in morgues for years.

“It’s a profoundly overworked system,” Atwell explains. “Coroners, law enforcement and forensic pathologists are really overworked. … There are a lot of bureaucratic and funding factors working against getting things done efficiently.”

A forensic anthropologist examines a model skull.

Back in Brackett Hall, Weisensee — also the department chair — points to a trio of skull replicas used for instructional purposes. One model is covered with a spongy black web of syphilis. Another bears the gaping holes of a primary bone cancer. Its neighbor has the shape of a bullet carved through thick bone.

Skeletons hold clues to the mystery of who an individual once was, including offering information regarding disease and cause of death. By closely collaborating with forensic pathologists, forensic anthropologists often analyze trauma, helping to inform the cause and manner of death.

By combining these findings with an estimation of postmortem interval, forensic teams reconstruct the events surrounding an individual’s death, including when and how a person died.

The findings are carefully inscribed by the team into a detailed forensic report. Every detail must be determined with precision because it can be used as evidence in a criminal case, sometimes years after the report has been written.

“Anything you write in a forensic report can be analyzed and taken to court,” Atwell explains. “You have to be able to scientifically defend the contents of your report as it could change the outcome of a case or the course of someone’s life.”

In the event they are beckoned to serve as expert witnesses, forensic anthropologists must swear an oath and defend their findings as scientific experts. Neither Weisensee nor Atwell has been summoned to court, but they understand the role as part of the job.

“It’s a very serious line of work,” Atwell says. “It has very real consequences in people’s lives and in people’s deaths — achieving justice for them or not.”

Nearly 275 people are listed as missing in South Carolina, and over 24,000 are listed nationwide. Still, there isn’t always a match between the unidentified and the missing, and it can take years — even decades — to reach justice.

In forensic science, there is a case. A claim about how a person died, when they died and, potentially, whether someone killed them. While academic research can be theoretical, its application to forensic settings directly touches families who have lost loved ones and crimes that have been committed.

As biological anthropologists, Weisensee and Atwell, too, make a case, albeit typically about populations long gone. Their academic research reaches into the lives and deaths of historic or ancient groups of people, discovering not only when and how they died but the kinds of lives they lived.

Atwell’s observations about women institutionalized in American state hospitals of the 19th and 20th centuries made the case of avoidable harm and neglect that resulted in injury and death within mental health care settings.

A forensic anthropologist measures a model femur.

Part of her research determined that the women experienced a form or structural violence, or violence legitimized through the widespread practices of state institutions. The state hospitals claiming to help women diagnosed with mental psychoses inflicted grave harm, including injury and disease acquisition.

And in a research project published a few years ago, Weisensee studied a more recent population: a group of individuals who died between 2008 and 2012 and were discovered in the U.S.-Mexico border region. In this study, Weisensee demonstrated that people who migrate from Mexico to the United States without documents experienced environmental stress reflected in their anatomy.

Along with identifying marks of injury or disease in adulthood or death, scientists can identify environmental stress during growth and development. Thin or absent tooth enamel, short stature and growth arrest lines are all signs that indicate developmental stress caused by factors such as inadequate nutrition, toxin exposure, extreme weather and high disease loads.

By reading the skeletal remains of past populations, biological anthropologists like Weisensee and Atwell can glean a remarkable amount of insight about past or ancient populations, including their experiences of hardship or vitality, poor or good health. This type of information can also facilitate the forensic identification of skeletal remains.

In their work as forensic anthropologists, Weisensee and Atwell — when asked — cautiously and anecdotally describe trends in the populations they encounter.

Some people found at the point of being unrecognizable, they say, belong to the transient community. They are unhoused, socially isolated and disadvantaged. Other cases involve homicides that are entwined with drugs and domestic violence.

The facially unrecognizable are often, Atwell says, “people who lived hard lives.”
Although the term expert witness is reserved for the court of law, the concept of witnessing can be stretched to a cultural context. As anthropologists who specialize in skeletal remains, Weisensee and Atwell witness the mark of experience, whether it’s the experience of poverty, hardship, institutionalization or crime.

In doing so, they provide an avenue for humanizing the individuals, even in their deaths.

Charlotte Lucke Ph.D. ’22 is the managing editor of Clemson World magazine.

Recommended Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Clemson World!