ALBANY, N.Y. - Forensic anthropologist Thomas Holland helps attach names to unidentified remains, interpreting old bones that tell him their age when alive, their height, gender, race and whether they were buried respectfully.
Even the long-dead tell tales, and Holland advised investigators from the New York State Police and around the world last week how to listen more closely to what they say.
"There's a lot of information in the ground as to how people were buried. The posture of the body, for instance, can tell you whether they were buried by friend or foe," Holland said. "Whenever you see a time investment, it generally equates to respect."
THOMAS HOLLAND, forensic anthropologist
So, he says, look to see if the hole is big enough for the body. Is the person buried on their back? Are their arms folded over their chest?
The skeletons of the disrespected dead look like they were simply dropped or shoved unceremoniously into the ground.
Still, it's not like television's popular forensic police procedurals, shows where cases are solved in an hour. Holland chuckled when asked about them. "It's sort of like asking an astronaut what they think of 'Star Trek,' " he said.
Holland, with a doctoral degree in anthropology, is the scientific director of the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii that finds and identifies U.S. military dead from past wars. They identify about 100 a year, often with fragmented bones, a pace Congress wants accelerated.
Unidentified military remains include about 8,000 from the Korean War, 1,700 from the Vietnam War and 20,000 to 30,000 that are recoverable and identifiable from World War II, Holland said.
"The major problem is finding them. If we can find them and get the remains into the laboratory, our success rate in terms of being able to achieve an identification is over 90 percent."
Also a consultant to the New York State Police, his work is an amalgam of archaeology - finding and recovering remains - and anthropology - analyzing and interpreting what happened to them. New York has more than 700 unidentified dead out of about 40,000 nationally, according to state police investigators, who said they identify four or five every year.
In a high-profile case, Holland and a colleague were called in to help with the investigation of Kendall Francois, a serial killer whose Poughkeepsie home contained the dismembered bones of several women he had killed. They reassembled the skeletons of eight women out of nine who were missing, gleaning information about how and when they were dismembered and ultimately helping identify them.
Holland advised a few hundred investigators last week about fundamental clues and methods when searching for buried bodies. Technology like ground-penetrating radar hasn't lived up to its hype, he said, emphasizing the old-fashioned method of interviewing witnesses and then looking for indicators like mounds or depressions along the ground, areas of softer soil, differing patches of vegetation, animal or insect activity, then flagging suspicious areas and returning with systematic probes to determine the shape of the soft spots.
"Weeds pioneer disturbed soil faster," Holland said. "It means something has disturbed that soil."
Most flagged sites get ruled out, but some lead to digging in 6-inch layers. Soil at burial sites is darker, looser and richer than surrounding ground because of oxygenation from digging and the organic material. That difference lasts thousands of years, he said.
"Excavate inside that stained area, and eventually remains will start to turn up." It needs to be done carefully, to avoid disturbing the burial site, not just pulling bones out. "You've got to be aware of bone fever. Everybody gets it."