Grisly research unearths clues

June 10, 2004, vol. 30, no. 4
By Howard Fluxgold

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Erin Jessee's master's thesis topic is both gruesome and unfortunately necessary in an increasingly violent world. An archeology student, Jessee has attempted to devise a scientific method for the unearthing of mass graves.

“Right now forensic archaeologists and anthropologists are being used internationally to excavate sites, but there isn't a lot of scientific research going into their methods,” says Jessee who studied with archaeologist Mark Skinner.

“What I'm trying to do is to encourage research within our discipline that specifically pertains to forensic archaeology,” adds Jessee, who receives her master of arts in archaeology at the spring convocation.

Jessee says that forensic sciences usually deal with a single body, but mass graves with many bodies can alter a gravesite in different ways. “When we are trying to apply standards to the rate of decomposition, for example, having more bodies can either speed up or slow down that process,” she explains.

Jessee contends that those studying mass graves often lack an understanding of how much evidence is being lost over time.

“Different climates or a different variety of insects can affect what we are actually recovering in a mass grave,” she says. “So another reason for doing this type of work is to determine the loss of information - how much and what kind.”

Jessee says that such knowledge is vital when cases come before international courts in helping to prove the guilt or innocence of perpetrators. “It's going to be necessary to make things a little bit more scientific in the future,” she says.

Jessee became interested in the grisly topic after taking a forensic anthropology course from Skinner as an undergraduate.

And while she has yet to work on a mass gravesite herself, she was hired by police to work on the excavation of the Port Coquitlam pig farm.

Recently she was notified that she has won a Fulbright scholarship usually tenable in the U.S. She is hoping to earn a doctorate and pursue an academic career.

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