In the latest session of the Hot Springs Village Ouachita Speaker Series, Dr. Thomas Holland gave an excellent presentation on forensic anthropology and how it works to identify missing-in-action service men and women and other forensic cases.
Holland, also the author of two novels, is presently the scientific director of Defense’s Central Identification Laboratory, the largest skeletal identification lab in the world. In this position he has led forensic recoveries around the world, from Vietnam to Korea to Europe; the team continues to find America’s MIAs.
As Holland spoke, he gave a PowerPoint presentation with excellent visuals of what he was describing – the locating of remains, identifying those remains and analyzing the hard tissue trauma. Much of his work took place in Hawaii, where he worked for 23 years identifying military death cases.
To find the bodies, high-tech equipment is used, like magnetometers, but mostly they go on eyewitness accounts.
One telltale mark they look for is soil stains, which show up as a difference in the color of soil. The stains will remain for more than 150 years. He showed one slide of a dig that found three U.S. soldiers from the War of 1812. How bodies are placed in a grave also tell a story. If placed in a dignified manner, it’s likely they were buried by their comrades. If jumbled up, they were likely buried hastily by the enemy.
The task is to create a biological profile (age, gender, injuries, etc.) of the remains, and Dr. Holland said age is the easiest factor to determine, usually by examining teeth, which form from the top downward. Bone fusion is another indicator which helps determine male or female (like the width of hips – wider in women than in men, because of childbirth).
At the center’s lab they also look at any material items found, like buttons for example. Buttons can tell the forensic anthropologist what they were wearing at time of death.
Holland showed in detail how the process works to narrow down the parameters that eventually lead to a single identification. Things like skull formation and teeth are part of that puzzle.
He concluded his presentation by showing how he has helped develop partners in the worldwide search efforts. Some entities he has used are the National Park Service, Wood Hole Oceanographic Institute and other countries’ resources.
The OSS spring session concludes Wednesday, May 16 with a presentation by Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology and business at Chapman University in California. His topic will be “Looking for Ghosts, Aliens and Bigfoot.”
For more on OSS visit the website at Ouachita SpeakerSeries.com.