Not all students at the University of Victoria can say they spent their summer digging up a body, but the students from Stephanie Calce’s Forensic Anthropology and Death Investigation course can.
Calce’s Anthropology 394 students spent the last six days of class working in groups out in the woods on the edge of campus at mock burial scenes searching for evidence and clandestine graves.
Calce, who has worked as a forensic anthropologist in B.C. and Ontario, created three different fake missing person cases for her students and buried animal remains procured from animal control to simulate the bodies of the missing people.
The students attended 10, full-day classes over the course of three weeks in July. The first four days were focused on learning the field methods that a forensic anthropologist would use in collaboration with the police. The practices are used in both professions, Calce explained, and forensic anthropologists work closely with police on these kinds of cases.
Students in the class are doing some of the work that would be done by police as well as what would be done by the forensic anthropologist to give them the experience, said Calce.
“On an actual crime scene, forensic anthropologists would be in charge of the search itself, not necessarily to collect evidence,” she said.
The anthropologist would also be tasked with the excavation using archaeological methods to maintain the context of all evidence.
Each group was given a different case related to the disappearance of someone on campus, Calce explained. They also received different information from her based on the questions they asked.
The students had to employ the forensic methods they’d learned in the course to recover all pieces of evidence related to the crimes that Calce made up for them. Evidence included receipts, bullet casing and clothing.
The students started on the path and then expanded their search areas based on relevant evidence and case details. They looked for the body dump site characteristics and used their knowledge of taphonomy and animal behaviour to determine the position of the burials, Calce explained.
Saanich Police also participated in the course and in the simulations which was exciting, said Calce.
The smell at the scenes was overpowering as the animal remains had been buried earlier this year in preparation for the course, but that didn’t bother Hanna Bohnm, a fourth-year anthropology student. Bohnm took the course because she is interested in pursuing a career in forensics and because she enjoyed Calce’s courses in the past. Field courses are great for hands-on learners, she said.
She was working as the communications person for her group that day, but each member took a turn filling the different roles to get experience and, as Calce put it, to not get too comfortable in one role.
Bohnm’s group had just uncovered the point of interest — the body — at their site. Shouts of joy rang through the forest as the carcass was uncovered by the group and Calce ran over to look. She had buried an 80-pound cougar that was shot in Goldstream. It brought down to the campus by animal control for students to use.
At the end of the day, a huge clean up is done, Calce explained. The animal remains from the other two sites will be incinerated as the campus already has cat and goose bones in their collection, but the cougar will be processed and its bones will be added to the zooarchaeology collection, says Calce.
The students’ final project is a summary of their cases with a conclusion about what they think happened based on all of their work.
The goal isn’t to get all the students to pursue a career in forensic anthropology, says Calce, but rather to have them learn valuable communication and team building skills, time management and how to work under stressful conditions.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether they get it right, it’s the process of conducting fieldwork and the process of working together as a team,” says Calce.
The field course was last offered in 2017 and it alternates with the forensic lab course which focuses on other aspects of the work done by forensic anthropologists.