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Day 5 (Field): The Heat is On

And with that, another field season in the books! And it wouldn’t be a Texas trip if we didn’t end it on the hottest and most humid day of the week! Today’s high was a mild 103 degrees with a heat index that reached 112 degrees right around noon. Thankfully, we did have some cloud cover today that made the temperature a little more bearable but we knew that we had to hit the ground running this morning before it got too warm. Fortunately, for a team like ours, this was no problem.

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The beginning of the day involved moving a lot of dirt. A LOT of dirt. We had at least a couple of feet of hard, rocky clay to remove in order to uncover and remove the last burial in the area. Additionally, we had to remove a lot of the extra loose dirt around the burial so that it wouldn’t all just fall back on top and recover it. In our normal, and now very practiced fashion, we were able to efficiently complete this arduous task by utilizing our rotation system so that no one was getting to wiped out early on in the day. By 10:30 am, we had uncovered the final burial in area 2 of the Rio Grande Cemetery.

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By this point, our pit had taken on quite a weird shape. In order to get in and out we had to create a large step in the back of the pit for us to climb up and down. This made removing the remains quite an interesting task. We all got together to come up with a plan for how we were going to go about this. Because of our preparedness, and critical and creative thinking, however, we were able to remove the remains from the pit very smoothly, completing the fifth and last burial in our area.

In order to be thorough, however, it was decided that we should dig a trench in the back wall of our pit in order to ensure that there were no other burials in this area. This was no small task, as the back wall was approximately 5-6 feet high.

Haley fitting perfectly within our test trench
Haley fitting perfectly within our test trench

We decided to rebuild our ramp (more like a slide) and start the trench with the step we had built into the back wall. We resumed our rotation system and each took turns using the mattock (see: awesome pickaxe tool) to dig our trench. After digging to almost six feet again in the heat we felt confident that there were no other burials in this area. And with that, area 2 was closed!

We finished off the day cheers-ing our Mexican cokes and ate our lunch in the air conditioned hotel. Tonight, we will be heading down the road to join our Texas State comrades for a pool party at their hotel! It’s been another great trip here in Texas, and it will be bittersweet to be leaving tomorrow. But I know that all of us are proud of what we have accomplished these last ten days and I am excited to see what the future holds in South Texas. Hasta luego!

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Erica

STAY TUNED FOR MORE POSTS OVER THE NEXT WEEK!

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Day 1 (Field) – Mud, Clay, and Rocks

What. A. Day. We went into today knowing that we had our work cut out for us but, true to form, the day was still full of surprises.

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The flooded hotel parking lot

Not least of all of these surprises, our first night in Rio Grande City was accompanied by severe thunderstorms and flash flooding. As much as I was enjoying sitting by the window and watching the thunder and lightning, as the parking lot of the hotel began to flood, I knew that this likely did not bode well for our work in the morning. Sure enough, upon arriving at our area of the cemetery, it was mud, mud, mud.

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Going into our work in area 2, we were informed that there were five unidentified individuals possibly buried there. According to Silvestre, the man who buried them, all of the individuals were buried 5 feet deep. From prior experience, however, we were doubtful that they were actually buried that deep, as many people often exaggerate or overestimate such dimensions (digging is hard work, after all).

We began the day following the plan that we had set out the night before – clearing trash and debris from the site, measuring and mapping, dsc_0065“shovel-shining” (really just removing the mud and grass, with most of it stuck to our shovels and boots), attempting to probe the ground (somewhat unsuccessfully, due to the very hard cement-like clay that the rain had created), dsc_0108and then proceeding to strategize our approach to uncovering the burials. Digging through the peanut-butter like clay was definitely hard work and we were grateful for the overcast skies during the morning. Later on, we were even more grateful for Silvestre and his back-hoe. He offered to help us out and ended up removing about three feet of dirt. As the sun began to peek from behind the clouds, we resumed digging.

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Silvestre, however, was adamant that these burials were 5 feet deep. So he brought the back-hoe back around and ended up creating a very large and very deep pit for us. dsc_0215And sure enough, it appears that the first burial we uncovered may indeed have been buried 5 feet deep, just as Silvestre said. The day ended up going a little longer than we had originally planned because we needed to be there to monitor the heavy machinery. I know we are all quite exhausted but also very eager to get right back at it tomorrow morning!

Erica

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FARF – The Forensic Anthropology Research Facility

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   When I explain my field of study to friends and family members, the conversation almost always involves mention and questions about the renowned “body farms,” where research concerning the process of decomposition takes place. Until today, the only knowledge I was able to offer about these body farms stemmed from word of mouth and reading about some of the research being conducted there. Today, as a break from skeletal analyses in the lab, my fellow UIndy students and I were able to visit FARF, the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University. And it was even cooler than I thought it would be.

Some of our team members may have been a little excited about the cows on the way to the facility...
Some of our team members may have been a little excited about the cows on the way to the facility…

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Our visit to FARF began with a light-hearted warning about fire ant mounds. Having visited Texas earlier in January, I thought I was familiar enough with the presence of fire ants to be able to avoid them easily (having been stung by one during said previous visit), but boy was I wrong. When the UIndy team was working in the field in Falfurrias, we would come across small ant holes, with fire ants pouring out of them, but they were fairly few and far between. At FARF, the fire ants created large mounds and almost every other step was carefully placed to avoid being swarmed. Needless to say, our eyes were glued to the ground being sure to avoid stepping on any of the mounds. Of course,

Yes, that is a spider.
Yes, that is a spider.

we were  then warned about the large spider webs spanning the trees, so while our eyes were searching the ground for fire ant mounds, we were also conscious of what might be hanging between the trees.

Despite the insect and arachnid activity at the facility, FARF was very impressive. While walking through and observing the numerous research and educational projects being conducted there, I couldn’t help but think of new research questions that could be investigated there. The decomposition process is so highly variable and there are so many factors that may affect it that the possibilities for research are endless.

FARF is also where Texas State University allows their donated bodies to naturally decompose, while protecting them from carnivore scavenging. I greatly appreciated the amount of respect and sensitivity given to the wishes of those donating their bodies to the facility, and the amount of donations that FARF typically receives in a single year was impressive and inspiring, providing more opportunities for research in the field of forensic anthropology.

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The end of the tour took a slightly more serious tone for me. Our final stop was the fenced enclosure in which the remains of the migrants who have perished crossing the border are allowed to decompose until they can be processed and analyzed. This final stop was made even more significant by the fact that the remains currently being held there were those that our UIndy team had recovered during the field season earlier in January. It was very humbling to see the next step in the process that will hopefully lead to the identification of these individuals whose families are still wondering what happened to them. Not only is FARF a very impressive research facility with many important projects being conducted there, but it is also part of the process that has brought the UIndy team to Texas year after year – to help identify those who have perished as a result of the crisis at the border.

Erica

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