People Profiles

Amy Mundorff, PhD, Archaeology

September 21, 2015

Dr. Amy Mundorff is helping people heal from the horrors of genocide. 

Mundorff is a professor with the University of Tennessee’s Department of Anthropology and was formerly a forensic anthropologist with New York’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner. She completed a PhD in Archaeology at SFU in 2010.

Mundorff's current research concentrates on the scientific process of locating and identifying the deceased from mass fatality events and gross violations of human rights. Specifically, her works focuses on developing new practices for identifying human remains.

"A lot of people do not know what happened to their loved ones—particularly in situations involving mass killings. They are in a limbo state--in some cultures, you cannot have a funeral without human remains. Locating their loved ones provides answers to uncertainty,” she says.

The Mass Graves Project, based at the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Center, employs a multi-disciplinary approach to identify environmental changes caused by the decomposition of buried human remains, such as increased nitrogen levels in surrounding plants. Such indicators can then be employed to locate graves more quickly and efficiently and in turn, identify victims, collect evidence and provide an accurate historical narrative of events. The project is part of the university's internationally famous “Body Farm” — where FBI agents train in recovering human remains. 

“I have always been fascinated by human skeletons, and how they allow us to understand things about the person," she says.

Mundorff was engaged in the identification of human remains working as a forensic anthropologist for many years before moving into higher education. One of her most memorable experiences was arriving at the site of New York's World Trade Center just minutes before the second tower collapsed during the 9-11 trajedy. Though thousands were killed in the event, she was one of the lucky few who escaped with only a few broken ribs.  

In order to generate new insights and understanding into large-scale disaster victim management, Mundorff later conducted research on the entire recovery operation. That research was what brought her to SFU. “I was looking for people who had practical experience so that they would be able guide me through the dissertation experience in a way that was meaningful to me. SFU was able to offer that,” she says.

Mundorff explains that she found that and much more in her graduate program. “I liked that I was treated like a colleague. We went to a visiting lecture every week and then profs and grads and undergrads would all go to the pub together. It really fostered a culture of sharing on ideas and projects,” she says.

Author: Jackie Amsden

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