Students learn forensic archaeology skills at gruesome “crime scene” on campus

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Forensic anthropology students are excavating mock crime scenes on campus this week. Photo: Kevin Hampson
Forensic anthropology students are excavating mock crime scenes on campus this week. Photo: Kevin Hampson

Forensics students are using CSI skills to unearth human remains on campus this week. Well, plastic human remains, anyway.

Students are excavating the replica human remains in the courtyard between the bookstore and the gym as part of a fieldwork assignment for their forensic anthropology class, taught by instructor Stanley Copp.

The veteran archaeologist also uses the site for his summer archaeology field school, in which students learn forensic archaeology skills.

“I thought, a couple of years ago, how can I make a field school more local? And I was walking past the gym one day [and] I noticed this big sunken court yard . . .  and I got the bright idea, maybe I could make my own archaeology site and crime scene at the same time.”

Copp’s novel excavation site gives students a hands-on introduction to a relatively new and growing field. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences only officially recognized forensic anthropology as a discipline in 1972.

The need for forensic anthropologists and archaeologists was demonstrated last year, when a condo development project in Marpole was shut down after an archaeologist discovered human remains on the site. Developers are required by provincial regulation to hire an archaeologist to check for human remnants.

As well, when someone finds unidentified human remains that are older than 50 years, police call forensic anthropologists, Copp says.

“In forensics, what we deal with is not only how to retrieve human remains, but also how to determine their age, their sex, their stature, cause of death—all kinds of things,” Copp said.

Some of Copp’s students go on to finish their degrees at SFU

Instructor Stanley Copp talks to a student at his forensics archaeology field site on campus. Photo: Kevin Hampson
Instructor Stanley Copp talks to a student at his forensic archaeology field site on campus. Photo: Kevin Hampson

Copp says that by using plastic human remains, he can give his students the “real life skills they would need if they got a job right out of field school.” Some of them do just that.

“Quite a number of my students are working in the consulting field.”

Others go on to finish their degrees at Simon Fraser University’s innovative Centre for Forensic Research. The centre was established in 2007, as “a hub of sophisticated research in forensics—raising the bar on solving crime,” SFU said at the time.

Copp’s courses draw students who are interested in forensics

“I like gross things, I like watching CSI and Bones,” said Kai Li, a first-year anthropology student.

Li doesn’t worry about encountering anything too stomach-turning, though.

“[A forensic anthropologist] is not like a coroner or a medical examiner, but more like an archaeologist, dealing with bones rather than flesh,” she said.

Fellow student Sarah Michelin came to forensics by the same route. “You watch a show called Bones, and you think, I can do that, and suddenly you can,” she said. “[Forensic anthropology] is fascinating — you learn everything about where we came from. And you can figure everything out from it.”

Reported by Judy Chern

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