The Catholic University of America

April 29, 2011

Forensic Anthropology Students Become Crime Scene Investigators for a Day

  Students and David Clark (in the yellow jacket) conducting a field project for the Forensic Anthropology class.

On a rainy and cool Saturday earlier this month, junior Sarah Spierenburg found herself digging up a “dead body” in the mud on campus.

“We had to trek through mud, it was rainy, it was gross, but we were all down on our hands and knees finding artifacts that would tell us something about the person or when the body was buried, how it happened,” explains Spierenburg.

The biology/pre-med student from Chambersburg, Pa., wasn’t unearthing a real dead body, of course. She was one of 17 students who spent their Saturday excavating a skeleton and artifacts as part of a field project for a Forensic Anthropology class.

David Clark, an adjunct professor of anthropology who has taught at CUA for 31 years, came up with the idea for the course after teaching forensic anthropology to high school and elementary school students. Clark, a specialist in archaeology and zooarchaeology (the study of animal remains from archeological sites), buried the bones and artifacts to simulate a crime scene for his students.

“Forensics is everywhere,” he says. As an example, he points to Japan, where a March 11 earthquake and tsunami killed more than 14,000 people. “Every kind of person involved in forensics is over there helping them look for thousands of missing people.”

This spring was the first semester the course was offered.

Spierenburg says the small class size and the many weekly hours she spent studying at the lab created a sense of community. “You really get to know people because you’re in that setting (the lab) with them all the time,” she says.

That lab time was spent preparing the students for their field project. They had to study a skeleton and answer questions about the story it told. Clark also gave the students a box of approximately 35 artifacts to identify: bone or not bone? Human or animal?

On the day of the field investigation, the students formed a skirmish line to scour the fields near Marist Hall at the north end of campus. When one of them came across an exposed bone, the students treated the area as a potential crime scene and began to dig.

“Once we finally located the remains, we had to take our trowels and go inch-by-inch to recover the body,” Spierenburg says. Along with the bones, they dug up other artifacts, such as leaves, insect remains, and personal items such as hair clips. Each item was meant to help them decipher what happened to the person and who they might be.

Clark believes in an applied method of teaching. Rather than giving written tests, he lets students apply the skills they’ve learned to hands-on projects.

The students and Clark, far right, after the dig.

Theresa Ohle, a senior anthropology major/psychology minor from Franklin Lakes, N.J., who has already held two forensic-based internships, agrees with Clark.

“My favorite aspect of the class has been the practical application of everything we’ve learned,” she says. “It is easy to read and be tested on information but when it comes to the application of studies, it is much more interesting and thought provoking to do projects.”

Clark describes the students as “elated” at the end of the dig. “They knew they did something significant,” he notes. “This is not just novelty. This is not just entertainment. They used real archaeological skills and methods in this project.” He says they now have the basic skills to volunteer for an archaeological project if they want.

Clark tells his students they’ll never be the same after this class because they’ll look at the world — particularly people — in a different way.

“I can say that I am walking away from this looking at humans with a totally different eye, as I analyze bone architecture much more,” says Ohle.

For Spierenburg, the class has inspired her to possibly choose a different career path. Although she originally wanted to be a doctor, she says she’s now considering a career as a pathologist or a medical examiner.

“I’d never really thought about it,” she explains. “I had seen crime scene TV shows like ‘NCIS’ and thought ‘That’s pretty cool but that’s not real.’ This class makes you realize it is real and people like that are out there.”


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