Identification Protocol

Written by Dr. D. Rao


A. Introduction

This proposed model protocol for the disinterment and analysis of skeletal remains includes a comprehensive checklist of the steps in a basic forensic examination. The objectives of an anthropological investigation are the same as those of a medicolegal investigation of a recently deceased person. The anthropologist must collect information that will establish the identity of the deceased, the time and place of death, the cause of death and the manner or mode of death (homicide, suicide, accident or natural). The approach of the anthropologist differs, however, because of the nature of the material to be examined. Typically, a prosector is required to examine a body, whereas an anthropologist is required to examine a skeleton. The prosector focuses on information obtained from soft tissues, whereas the anthropologist focuses on information from hard tissues. Since decomposition is a continuous process, the work of both specialists can overlap. An anthropologist may examine a fresh body when bone is exposed or when bone trauma is a factor. An experienced prosector may be required when mummified tissues are present. In some circumstances, use of both this protocol and the model autopsy protocol may be necessary to yield the maximum information. The degree of decomposition of the body will dictate the type of investigation and, therefore, the protocol(s) to be followed.

The questions addressed by the anthropologist differ from those pursued in a typical autopsy. The anthropological investigation invests more time ant attention to basic questions such as the following:

(a) Are the remains human?

(b) Do they represent a single individual or several?

(c) What was the decedent's sex, race, stature, body weight, handedness and physique?

(d) Are there any skeletal traits or anomalies that could serve to positively identify the decedent?

The time, cause and manner of death are also addressed by the anthropologist, but the margin of error is usually greater than that which can be achieved by an autopsy shortly after death.

This model protocol may be of use in many diverse situations. Its application may be affected, however, by poor conditions, inadequate financial resources or lack of time. Variation from the protocol may be inevitable or even preferable in some cases. It is suggested, however, that any major deviations, with the supporting reasons, should be noted in the final report.

B. Proposed model skeletal analysis protocol

1. Scene investigation

A burial recovery should be handled with the same exacting care given to a crime-scene search. Efforts should be co-ordinated between the principal investigator and the consulting physical anthropologist or archaeologist. Human remains are frequently exhumed by law enforcement officers or cemetery workers unskilled in the techniques of forensic anthropology. Valuable information may be lost in this manner and false information is sometimes [----- Page 35 of original----] generated. Disinterment by untrained persons should be prohibited. The consulting anthropologist should be present to conduct or supervise the disinterment. Specific problems and procedures accompany the excavation of each type of burial. The amount of information obtained from the excavation depends on knowledge of the burial situation and judgement based on experience. The final report should include a rationale for the excavation procedure.

The following procedure should be followed during disinterment:

  • Record the date, location, starting and finishing times of the disinterment, and the names of all workers;
  • Record the information in narrative form, supplemented by sketches and photographs;
  • Photograph the work area from the same perspective before work begins and after it ends every day to document any disturbance not related to the official procedure;
  • In some cases, it is necessary to first locate the grave within a given area. There are numerous methods of locating graves, depending on the age of the grave:
    1. An experienced archaeologist may recognize clues such as changes in surface contour and variation in local vegetation;
    2. A metal probe can be used to locate the less compact soil characteristics of grave fill;
    3. The area to be explored can be cleared and the top soil scraped away with a flat shovel. Graves appear darker than the surrounding ground because the darker topsoil has mixed with the lighter subsoil in the grave fill. Sometimes a light spraying of the surface with water may enhance a grave's outline;
  • Classify the burial as follows:
    1. Individual or commingled. A grave may contain the remains of one person buried alone, or it may contain the commingled remains of two or more persons buried either at the same time or over a period of time;
    2. Isolated or adjacent. An isolated grave is separate from other graves and can be excavated without concern about encroaching upon another grave. Adjacent 
      graves, such as in a crowded cemetery, require a different excavation technique because the wall of one grave is also the wall of another grave;
    3. Primary or secondary. A primary grave is the grave in which the deceased is first placed. If the remains are then removed and reburied, the grave is considered to be secondary;
    4. Undisturbed or disturbed. An undisturbed burial is unchanged (except by natural processes) since the time of primary burial. A disturbed burial is one that has been altered by human intervention after the time of primary burial. All secondary burials are considered to be disturbed; archaeological methods can be used to detect a disturbance in a primary burial;
  • Assign an unambiguous number to the burial. If an adequate numbering system is not already in effect, the anthropologist should devise a system;
  • Establish a datum point, then block and map the burial site using an appropriate-sized grid and standard archaeological techniques. In some cases, it may be adequate simply to measure the depth of the grave from the surface to the skull and from the surface to the feet. Associated material can then be recorded in terms of their position relative to the skeleton;
  • Remove the overburden of earth, screening the dirt for associated materials. Record the level (depth) and relative co-ordinates of any such findings. The type of burial, especially whether primary or secondary, influences the care and attention that needs to be given to this step. Associated materials located at a secondary burial site are unlikely to reveal the circumstances of the primary burial but may provide information on events that have occurred after that burial;
  • Search for items such as bullets or jewellery, for which a metal detector can be useful, particularly in the levels immediately above and below the level of the remains;
  • Circumscribe the body, when the level of the burial is located, and, when possible, open the burial pit to a minimum of 30 cm on all sides of the body;
  • Pedestal the burial by digging on all sides to the lowest level of the body (approximately 30 cm). Also pedestal any associated artifacts;
  • Expose the remains with the use of a soft brush or whisk broom. Do not use a brush on fabric, as it may destroy fibre evidence. Examine the soil found around the skull for hair. Place this soil in a bag for laboratory study. Patience is invaluable at this time. The remains may be fragile, and interrelationships of elements are important and may be easily disrupted. Damage can seriously reduce the amount of information available for analysis;
  • Photograph and map the remains in situ. All photographs should include an identification number, the date, a scale and an indication of magnetic north;
    1. First photograph the entire burial, then focus on significant details so that their relation to the whole can be easily visualized;
    2. Anything that seems unusual or remarkable should be photographed at close range. Careful attention should be given to evidence of trauma or pathological change, either recent or healed;
    3. Photograph and map all associated materials (clothes, hair, coffin, artifacts, bullets, casings etc.). The map should include a rough sketch of the skeleton as well as any associated materials;
  • Before displacing anything, measure the individual:
    1. (i) Measure the total length of the remains and record the terminal points of the measurement, e.g. apex to plantar surface of calcaneus (note: This is not a stature measurement);
    2. If the skeleton is so fragile that it may break when lifted, measure as much as possible before removing it from the ground;
  • Remove all elements and place them in bags or boxes, taking care to avoid damage. Number, date and initial every container;
  • Excavate and screen the level of soil immediately under the burial. A level of "sterile" (artifact-free) soil should be located before ceasing excavation and beginning to backfill.

2. Laboratory analysis of skeletal remains

The following protocol should be followed during the laboratory analysis of the skeletal remains:

  • Record the date, location, starting and finishing times of the skeletal analysis, and the names of all workers;
  • Radiograph all skeletal elements before any further cleaning:
    1. Obtain bite-wing, apical and panoramic dental X-rays, if possible;
    2. The entire skeleton should be X-rayed. Special attention should be directed to fractures, developmental anomalies and the effects of surgical procedures. Frontal sinus films should be included for identification purposes;
  • Retain some bones in their original state; two lumbar vertebrae should be adequate. Rinse the rest of the bones clean but do not soak or scrub them. Allow the bones to dry;
  • Lay out the entire skeleton in a systematic way:
    1. Distinguish left from right;
    2. Inventory every bone and record on a skeletal chart;
    3. Inventory the teeth and record on a dental chart. Note broken, carious, restored and missing teeth;
    4. Photograph the entire skeleton in one frame. All photographs should contain an identification number and scale;
  • If more than one individual is to be analysed, and especially if there is any chance that comparisons will be made between individuals, number every element with indelible ink before any other work is begun;
  • Record the condition of the remains, e.g. fully intact and solid, eroding and friable, charred or cremated;
  • Preliminary identification:
    1. Determine age, sex, race and stature;
    2. Record the reasons for each conclusion (e.g. sex identity based on skull and femoral head);
    3. Photograph all evidence supporting these conclusions;
  • Individual identification:
    1. Search for evidence of handedness, pathological change, trauma and developmental anomalies;
    2. Record the reasons for each conclusion;
    3. Photograph all evidence supporting these conclusions;
  • Attempt to distinguish injuries resulting from therapeutic measures from those unrelated to medical treatment. Photograph all injuries:
    1. Examine the hyoid bone for cracks or breaks;
    2. Examine the thyroid cartilage for damage;
    3. Each bone should be examined for evidence of contact with metal. The superior or inferior edges of the ribs require particular scrutiny. A dissecting microscope is useful;
  • If the remains are to be reburied before obtaining an identification, retain the following samples for further analysis:
    1. A mid-shaft cross-section from either femur, 2 cm or more in height;
    2. A mid-shaft cross-section from either fibula, 2 cm or more in height;
    3. A 4-cm section from the sternal end of a rib (sixth, if possible);
    4. A tooth (preferably a mandibular incisor) that was vital at the time of death;
    5. Several molar teeth for possible later deoxyribonucleic acid fingerprinting for identification;
    6. A cast of the skull for possible facial reconstruction;
    7. Record what samples have been saved, and label all samples with the identification number, date and name of the person who removed the sample.

3. Final report

The following steps should be taken in the preparation of a final report:

(a) Prepare a full report of all procedures and results;

(b) Include a short summary of the conclusions;

(c) Sign and date the report.

4. Repository for evidence

In cases where the body cannot be identified, the exhumed remains or other evidence should be preserved for a reasonable time. A repository should be established to hold the bodies for 5-10 years in case they can be identified at a later time.