Playing With Fire

On the day before Christmas 2002, a timber appraiser surveying land at an abandoned tree farm discovered a partial skull in a thicket located near a logging road. The undergrowth was dense and fearing he might not be able to locate the skull again, he marked the location with a piece of surveyors flagging tape. He then notified local law enforcement who, in turn, requested the services of a forensic anthropologist. Upon arriving at the scene, Dr. Snow initiated a line search, which yielded additional skeletal elements, including a partial pelvis, femur, and mandible. Shortly after the bones were located, however, the search was terminated due to high wind and heavy rain. Before leaving the scene, the locations where the bones were found were marked with additional flagging tape.

Returning for an additional search after the first of the year, more widely scattered bones were found deep in the undergrowth and buried in dense accumulations of pine needles. From punctate markings on the bones, it was apparent that the remains had been heavily scavenged by animals, resulting in their dispersal. Dr. Snow decided that given the wide dispersal of the skeletal elements combined with the dense undergrowth, a controlled burn would be the best solution to recover as many of the bones as possible.

A controlled burn is a seldom used but highly effective way of reducing undergrowth while producing minimal damage to bones. When done properly, the fire produces a low intensity heat of short duration that burns leaf litter and other detritus, but the flames never rise more than a few feet above the ground. The resulting ash is then easily cleared with leaf blowers, revealing the ground surface and bones lying on top of it. Conditions for a controlled burn include low wind speed, relative humidity between 50% and 70%, and other factors that reduce the risk of the fire spreading beyond its intended area. It should always be conducted by forestry officials and attended by a fire department in the event that the fire escapes.

Two weeks later, forestry officials conducted the controlled burn by first cutting a 15-foot wide firebreak down to bare earth around the search area with a bulldozer. Using drip torches, the fire was set at several different locations around the perimeter so that the fire burned toward the center of the location. The following day, law enforcement personnel were able to access the burned area and immediately began to discover bones that were overlooked prior to the controlled burn. These included several left and right ribs, the right humerus (upper arm bone), left and right tibia and fibula (lower leg bones), one vertebra, and clothing that was discovered beneath a log located in a windrow. The clothing was degraded but appeared to be a light-colored tank top and a light-colored piece of cloth with dark lace. A sharp-eyed investigator also discovered a moss-encrusted sacrum (the triangular-shaped bone located at the base of the spine), which turned out to be the key in making the identification.

The following week, Dr. Snow and law enforcement personnel returned to the scene and found several other skeletal elements as well as a brass bracelet discovered in close proximity to the ribs. The bones and evidence were then taken to the lab for analysis.

It was apparent that the remains had been subjected to the elements for an extended period of time. Weathering had produced flaking and cracking on the surfaces of the bones, and all were overgrown with algae. Small roots protruded from some of the bones resulting from close proximity with nearby vegetation. In addition to the punctate markings and scoring of the bones caused by animal scavenging, numerous parallel small grooves were found indicating that rodents had also gnawed the bones.

Although much of the skeleton was not recovered, enough was that Dr. Snow was able to make a determination of the probable sex, ancestry, and age of the individual. Characteristics of the pelvis indicated that the sex of the individual was female, and measurements of the skull suggested that the remains were likely those of Black ancestry. Age was estimated at between 35 and 55 years.

As stated previously, the sacrum was instrumental in the identification of this individual. The fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae, which lie directly above the sacrum, exhibited an unusual forward displacement, such that they had overridden the first two segments of the sacrum. In addition, neither exhibited a neural arch, the posterior portion of the vertebrae that completes the vertebra’s encirclement of the spinal cord. The fourth lumbar vertebra was fused to the fifth lumbar vertebra and the fifth lumbar vertebra was fused to the first two segments of the sacrum. Absent the neural arch, the vertebrae become unstable and can override the sacrum, a condition referred to as a spondylolisthesis.

Examination of the pelvis revealed a roughly triangular area where bone had been removed in a surgical intervention. It was apparent that this section of bone had been removed and used to fuse the vertebrae to the sacrum in an attempt to stabilize the vertebrae.

Dr. Snow then requested that investigators begin looking for medical records of a 35- to 55-year-old Black female who had undergone surgery to correct a spondylolisthesis. Some months later, investigators located medical records of a Black female who had undergone surgery to correct a spondylolisthesis in 1984. The woman had disappeared from a nearby community in 1991 but had never been reported missing. The manner of death is classified as undetermined.

Two things make this case memorable. First, it was one of the few times Dr. Snow had used a controlled burn in an effort to recover human skeletal remains. Although a useful tool when needed, controlled burns are almost never used to recover human skeletal remains due to the remains being located in close proximity to occupied dwellings, inhospitable terrain, or adverse climatic factors. In addition, the identification of this individual depended solely on the bone graft between the vertebrae and the sacrum. As this individual had never been reported missing, had these bones not been discovered, she might well have remained unidentified.

Second, a unique pathology, the spondylolisthesis, coupled with medical records that documented the exact surgical intervention observed on the remains made the identification possible.