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Postgraduate Study

Forensic osteology: Could you unearth a body of evidence?

Training as a forensic osteologist requires intense study, but there's nothing dry and academic about a career analysing bones

When Spain began digging up the dead several decades after its civil war, forensic experts were ready. It still mattered to the families of those killed in the 1936-1939 conflict to know how their loved ones had died – many were executed with their hands tied behind their backs – and where among Spain's thousands of mass and clandestine graves they had been buried.

Despite years of decay, forensic osteologists were able to examine injuries, determine patterns in executions, and identify bodies. "I was comparing wounds caused by the Mauser rifle with [those caused by] other firearms and looking at how eyewitness accounts and historical records compared with the types of injuries … to the skeletal remains," says Emma Bonthorne, who travelled to Spain's Basque country to complete her research for an MSc in forensic osteology at Bournemouth University.

Since 2001 more than 5,000 bodies have been exhumed in Spain in a move designed to heal painful memories of the bloodshed and loss. A shortfall in funding, combined with political objections, means that further exhumations are unlikely. However, Bonthorne continues to work in Spain, where she is examining a medieval burial ground and teaching at an archaeological company. She attributes her success to a broad range of skills gleaned in the classroom, from anthropology to geophysics and archaeology.

Studying human remains is a crowded field. "Forensic pathologists like working with nice wet squishy bodies on a slab," says Dr Martin Smith, a lecturer in forensic anthropology at Bournemouth. "Forensic osteologists look at the bones – and more." They are anthropologists who specialise in the study of the human skeleton in a legal setting, and are as likely to be found at disaster sites such as 9/11's Ground Zero as beside 1,000-year-old Peruvian graves. "In our temperate climate, it's bones you're most likely to come across – human remains don't last very long," says Smith.

Bournemouth runs one of the largest Masters programmes in forensic and biological anthropology the UK, with facilities for some 40 postgraduates. Smith and his colleagues have been involved in projects as varied as identifying the head of an Egyptian mummy, previously thought to be a medieval witch, to confirming the identity of victims of First World War battles and examining remains from mass graves from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Only a handful of universities offer forensic osteology or anthropology Masters. The University of Dundee specialises in disaster victim identification, and uses Thiel cadavers – specially embalmed bodies that retain realistic flexibility – to teach anatomy. "Each UK officer deployed at home or overseas to a mass fatality event was trained at Dundee," says Professor Sue Black, who also acts as an adviser to Interpol and the Home office. About 50 out of 300 cases of suspected human remains sent to Dundee for analysis every year turn out to involve forensic anthropology, she says. Dundee's team are experts in dismemberment analysis and cranio-facial analysis and specialise in trauma analysis, child deaths and identifying individuals from images, often relating to child abuse.

Archaeology is a separate specialism, but it's closely linked. "You can't do much in archaeology without someone handing you a box of burned bones," says Smith. "And it's amazing what you can deduce from a pile of ashes. How a person died, lived and what happened [to their remains] after death can all be revealed."

Most of his students have a life science degree, but some – including a former estate agent and a theologian, who both took crash courses over the summer – come from completely different backgrounds. Bournemouth's Masters in forensic osteology involves many hours in a laboratory handling bones, as well as some inventive practicals such as reconstructed crime scenes, court room scenarios and mass grave exhumations.

"Our first term," Smith explains, "is all about who is this person? How old were they, what stature, what sex? Our second term is about finding out what happened to them – we look at disease, violence, traumatic injuries that relate to the skeleton. Can you tell the difference between a fracture from a spade and one sustained when he or she was alive? Were bones left here or were they scattered by scavengers?"

One of Smith's students is investigating how quickly bodies become defleshed and scattered by leaving deer carcasses as a proxy for human bodies in the nearby Dorset woods.

"Being able to tell part of a person's story from their skeleton makes osteology the most elegant and important of subjects," says John Rickman, 37, a former lecturer in animal science and physiology, who quit his job to begin at Bournemouth last year. "Here was a subject that applied osteology to make a difference to people's lives – identifying victims of genocide, giving relatives the ability to grieve. Or identifying a homeless person who succumbed to the cold and was found months or years later. To me, very few subjects have the potential to be so important." Critical to success he says, is putting in dedicated hours of study to master the basics of pure osteology.

Part of the appeal of forensic sciences is the focus on lively field work. After a brief session examining the aftermath of a "violent crime" in Bournemouth's dedicated crime scene house, students take part in a week-long field exercise. This leads them from an investigation into bodies apparently buried in an old farmhouse, through the process of exhumation and laboratory examination. The exercise culminates in a "court room" appearance where they are required to give evidence that would stand up in court, and justify their findings. "At the time students find it stressful but often they say later it was the most useful exercise," says Smith.

A clutch of expert guest lecturers – including an entomologist from the Natural History Museum, a disaster management specialist, a pollen expert, a police pathologist and a medical examiner – complement the academic input. But although the course promises a stimulating year, be prepared to fight hard for work in the field. Jobs in the industry are notoriously scarce, says Dr Tal Simmons, the forensic anthropology course leader at the University of Central Lancashire. "All of our graduates are in full-time employment though, and some have gone on to PhDs," she adds.

Other forensic anthropologists find work with international human rights bodies, archaeological organisations and museums. The Government's Forensic Science Service shut this year because of spending cuts, and police work is now given over to private laboratories, where job opportunities can arise. "Some students have become coroners, some work for police cold case squads," says Simmons.

"Only in the last decade have we thought looking at modern people has real value. Forensic anthropologists are increasingly being used in disaster investigations," he adds.

"A Masters this specialised will certainly help, but you have to be prepared to start at the bottom, build up your CV, go to conferences and volunteer to work as an intern."

Dina Halai, MSc in forensic osteology, Bournemouth University

First degree in forensics and crime scene science.

This course covered everything you'd actually face. I'm always challenging myself to do bigger things, so as soon as I was done with the Bachelors I went straight for the Masters. I enjoyed the anatomy class the most. We learnt using actual bodies donated to science. I found I was studying the same topics as a friend who was studying medicine at a competitive university in Austria, which shows the level we are working at.

A lot of people are put off from doing courses in this field now the Forensic Science Service has closed. But people forget how much more there is. Some students have been sent to a range of sites of plane crashes and natural disasters to assist in recovering and identifying remains. All the connections are here if you need them.

Outi Salminen, MSc in forensic osteology, Bournemouth University

First degree in forensic anthropology and crime scene investigation.

I felt I didn't know enough osteology for a career in the field. I chose Bournemouth as it has a strong emphasis on forensics. Neither my degree nor the Masters has included a placement so I've tried to get experience by taking part in an archaeological dig and doing some volunteering for charities and museums. What I've enjoyed most is analysing and dealing with human skeletal remains. We have 24/7 access to the anthropology laboratory. I've also enjoyed practical field sessions, such as an air-crash major incident exercise at Bournemouth Airport.

The course is very intense and you have to be prepared to spend long days studying. It's difficult to get a job so you'll need to be motivated to search persistently and keep applying.