On Friday morning we ran our first year undergrad field trip for 30 of our new crime scene students and held a mock session on the beach at Saltburn.
We met at 09:30 near the Students’ Union to take the bus together. As we drove to Saltburn there was dead silence on the bus. Did I say silence? On a bus full of undergrads? Well, yes. Term is just about to start and one of the main reasons we run the trip is to help the new students get to know each other. It is also a chance to familiarise them with a crime scene scenario, and normalise the excitement of that experience in a fun environment. We all know that if you enjoy what you do you will be more likely to do it better, and having fun is associated with positive learning experiences. Working together in the open air in the beautiful coastal landscape is certainly a great start, and a good memory; after all everyone remembers their first undergrad trip – so a positive one is all the better.
We had set up the ‘crime scene’ on the beach and before we got started Professor Ian went down to double check everything was in place. This consisted of several ‘dead bodies’ (think anatomical replicas), completing the final health and safety review and ensuring all the equipment was ready to use. There were also some rather colourful spades and buckets for some fun team-building activities.
When all was ready a large group of excited students headed down to the beach to learn about working at a crime scene. If you have ever have been to Saltburn you will know that are more than a few steps down the spectacular cliffs to beach below. Along the seafront the peaceful expressions of dog-walking and coffee-drinking locals turned to surprise and curiosity when they saw us bearing down on what now appeared to be a crime scene – and then they realised that this was just a university outing.
At the scene Professor Mark outlined the main tasks for the activities and the ‘dos and don’ts’ of crime scene management: health and safety, marking out the scene, setting a walking path, photographing evidence, logging people arriving and leaving, which specialists to bring onsite, and the importance of the questions for each specialist, along with other standards for crime scene management and decision making.
We then split into four groups, each covering different activities which aimed to get the students to think about the practicalities of managing a crime scene, a theme which they will encounter throughout the course of their degree and professional careers.
My role as forensic anthropologist was to supervise excavation of the skeletal human remains and explain best practices for recording crime scene contexts containing human remains. For this I was carrying some standard archaeological kit: tape measures, scales, buckets, trowels, finds trays, skeletal recording sheets, forensic protocols and my favourite field guide, and of course the skeletal casts which were by now already buried below the sand, along with some animal bones scattered about to complicate identification.
The students excavated in pairs, with the goal of taking notes and filling in a basic recording sheet. I clarified the role of forensic anthropologist and archaeologist to them, and described how to record the scene, including the necessity of opening a clearly defined trench, taking measurements, and how context is vital, not just the bones themselves.
I also outlined how we can read the bones to explore individual biographies using processes for identifying age, sex and recording pathologies, traumas, cut marks, as well as taphonomic changes. Each supports the main goal in these situations: identifying the individual and evidence of the perpetrator. The conversation encouraged the students to consider the questions to ask themselves regarding remains in-situ. As they excavated we discussed the findings, and their interpretations as to whether the skeleton was articulated, disarticulated, and if the remains were commingled, which got us talking about depositional processes. We also touched on other methods that could be applied, including digital recording methods and analytical techniques, and ethical points such as the importance of respect for human remains.
The students appreciated the hands-on scenario, and they kept digging until I had to stop the last group as the tide rolled in (we discussed how to manage that type of situation on excavation too!).
After a lunch of fish and chips at a lovely local pub, and an ice-cream (it was a beautiful sunny day). We ran a quiz on the biggest myths about forensics and Saltburn’s top attractions. At the end of the day we returned to the top of the hill to catch our bus and we announced the quiz winners who won some very special Haribos of their choice. There was an excited and happy atmosphere on the return journey, chatting, laughing about the day and taking photos. So, goals met, the team bonded over the bones, and had a thought-provoking experience in the field. I had a great time and hope our students did too. Thanks to Professors Ian and Mark for the welcome and helping me out with the scene setup.