STAFS Trains Historical Commission Stewards on Bone Identification

Archeological Stewards from the Texas Historical Commission received hands on instruction in identifying bones found at archeological sites.
Archeological Stewards from the Texas Historical Commission received hands on instruction in identifying bones found at archeological sites.

The Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility recently trained archeological stewards from the Texas Historical Commission on how to recognize and identify key features of human skeletons they may encounter at archeological sites.

The Texas Historical Commission has 114 volunteer archeological stewards who assist with finding, recording and monitoring archeological sites and providing education program and events around the state. Since stewards may encounter bone fragments at archeological sites or at programs offered to the public, they turned to STAFS for training on detecting human skeletal remains.

Participants assemble the spine of a skeleton.
Participants assemble the spine of a skeleton.
“Every little bit of knowledge helps when you are out in the field,” said Sandra Rogers, an Archeological Steward with the Texas Historical Commission and Collections Registrar with the Sam Houston Museum. “We want to know if this is human or animal bone, whether it is a contemporary or an ancient bone, and whether we can determine the sex and age.”

Using skeletons collected at the STAFS facility, 16 participants got a crash course in forensic anthropology, which is the study of humankind in a legal context. It involves detailed knowledge of skeletal structure, development and degeneration to aid in the identification and cause of death of skeletal remains.
As part of the training, stewards were provided lectures and hands-on lessons in identifying human and animal bones and about the information human bones can provide about age, sex and ancestry.

Participants test their knowledge of animal and human bones.
Participants test their knowledge of animal and human bones.
“We participate in a lot of excavation across the state of Texas, and it is important to know the difference between human and animal bones,” said Linda Gorski, president of the Houston Archeological Society.

Participants were given an overview of the skeleton, including features that provide clues to who the individual was. For example, position of cheek bones and palate shapes may help determine ancestry; teeth and sutures on the skull can provide information on age; and leg bones can predict height. They also learned the elements to look for to determine if the skeleton is contemporary or historic. Key components of the bone also are important to differentiating animal and human bones.

Measuring the femur helps predict the height of an individuals.
Measuring the femur helps predict the height of an individual.
Beth Aucoin has been an archeological steward at a margin site on Galveston Bay for 10 years. She has found bones at excavation sites and washed up on the shore.

“We don’t always run across human remains, but when we do, I would like to be able to say ‘yes, I know what they are,’” said Aucoin. “Sometimes in excavations that happens and other times in salvage archeology or in erosional sites around Galveston Bay, you can just stumble across them. We really need to know if they really are human remains that we found that were out in the open. Do we in fact rescue them or leave them in place to be washed away or for other people to take and carry off. As an archeological steward, we collect them and need to find out about them.”

Stewards take measurements of the pelvis to determine the sex of the skeleton.
Stewards take measurements of the pelvis to determine the sex of the skeleton.
At the end of the training, teams were provided four separate human skeletons to analyze to determine age, sex and ancestry. Most teams were able to come up with fairly accurate descriptions of the individuals.

Archaeologist Lila Rakoczy, a Visiting Professor at Sam Houston State University’s History Department, recently began working in cemeteries and found bones sticking out of a grave. It peaked her interest in the training.

Stewards unearth the mysteries of human remains at a STAFS training.
Stewards unearth the mysteries of human remains at a STAFS training.
“I found it really interesting the aspect of being able to confidently identify or at least speculate with some knowledge as to whether the person was male or female, how to get a sense of height, and to get a general idea of the conditions of bone and what parts of bones look like,” Rakoczy said.

STAFS is a state-of-the-art research facility at SHSU, which advances forensic knowledge for crime scenes and criminal investigation, particularly as it pertains to human remains. In addition to providing education opportunities for students in forensic science, it offers training programs for law enforcement and high school teachers in criminal justice or forensic science.




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