All posts by rizorl

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On The Road Again

Ready to go!
Ready to go!

 

Today was our travel day to Rio Grande City.  We started our day with a smorgasbord for breakfast, trying to finish up all of our leftovers before we hit the road.  Our breakfast consisted of breakfast tacos, lunch meat, a leftover Southwest chicken wrap, and leftover taquitos.  After breakfast, at around 10am, we bid farewell to San Marcos and began the five hour trip to the border.

 

Water station along the highway
Water station along the highway

The drive went smoothly, and thankfully, our van has a DVD player so we were able to watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Pretty in Pink to pass the time.  The further South we drove, the more rural it got.  At one point, we went an hour and a half without seeing any towns, houses, or buildings.  In our past seasons in Texas, we have heard stories from different individuals regarding their crossing experiences.  Many of these stories indicate that people travel for hours and miles without any more direction than “head towards that tree for about three miles.” It is one thing to hear these stories, but to see the routes and terrain these individuals travel is truly an eye-opening experience.  If it takes over an hour and a half to drive between towns, it is unimaginable how people can walk these distances in the heat of the Texas sun without direction, food, or water.  Along the way, we saw a few water stations placed along the highway.  It was really wonderful to see these water stations, because not only do they indicate a life-saving resource for these individuals, they were built by Eddie and other volunteers at the South Texas Human Rights Center.  So even at the border, we have reminders of the incredible people we have met and wonderful experiences we have had the past five years in Falfurrias.  I think these little reminders are a good sign for our new beginning in a new county.

Rio Grande City Cemetery
Rio Grande City Cemetery

After we arrived at the hotel, we unpacked our belongings  and took a shopping trip to HEB to get essentials for lunches in the field.  Afterwards, we headed to the cemetery to meet the Texas State team and see what we are up against in the week to come.  We pulled up to the cemetery and it was HUGE!  It was not only larger than Sacred Heart, but also contained a greater variety of graves, including mausoleums and large fenced-off enclosures.  We did a walk-through of the four different sites that UIndy and Texas State plan to excavate this trip and were told that the UIndy crew will begin in Area 2.   After the Texas State team left, we stuck around the cemetery for a bit to formulate a game plan for tomorrow.  Area 2 is covered in debris, rocks, and broken glass, so the first task we will tackle tomorrow is clearing off the surface.  Next, we plan on taking measurements of surface markers for the maps I will create, and we will then begin the excavation process.  I am anxious to start excavations tomorrow, but after devising these plans, I feel confident in what we will be able accomplish the next five days.

Area 2 - UIndy's first excavation area
Area 2 – UIndy’s first excavation area

 

 

Leann

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Day one at ORPL

Day 1 (Lab) – at ORPL

This morning, the team awoke for a warm breakfast made by Dr. Latham.  We had breakfast tacos and potatoes, and they were wonderful!  We knew today would be a long day at the Osteology Research and Processing Lab (ORPL) so we needed full stomachs to fuel us for the day. ORPL is located on 26 acres of the Freeman Ranch and opened in 2008.  ORPL is part of a larger multi-purpose facility that is used for teaching and training purposes, as well as for conferences and outreach services.  Specifically, ORPL is utilized for forensic anthropological casework as well as the processing of skeletons donated to the Texas State Donated Skeletal collection.    ORPL is where the skeletal analysis portion of this trip takes place before we depart for Rio Grande City on Sunday.

Texas State Osteological Research and Processing Laboratory
Texas State Osteological Research and Processing Laboratory

When we arrived at ORPL, we got a brief tour of the facilities by Dr. Tim Gocha.  We got to see their processing room, multipurpose classroom, osteology laboratory, and the room where donated and OpID skeletons are stored.  Their processing room was AMAZING!  At UIndy, we use different tools and technologies.  So while we use two burners and small cooking pots, ORPL has a vat that an entire skeleton can fit into!  It was very interesting to see these new technologies and different pieces of equipment that the students at Texas State have access to.

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Leann taking photos

The first thing we did after our tour was figure out the best way to take photos in the space we had.  Photography is an integral part of the documentation process, so ensuring photo quality was one of our first priorities.  At UIndy, we have a photography station, with plenty of lights and various lenses to achieve the desired photographical results.  At ORPL, we did not have control over the lights whatsoever.  In addition, the lights were luminescent which can affect the coloration of the photo unless you account for these light sources in your settings.  However, to account for luminescent lights, I had to change the settings too much which made the shutter speed too slow and all of the photos blurry.  After much fidgeting and about four different table positions, we were able to find the optimal photo settings for the room and skeletal analyses could begin.

The team beginning skeletal inventory
The team beginning skeletal inventory

Skeletal analysis started out pretty slow, as we had multiple tasks occurring at once and we had not yet found our “groove.”  To begin, Erica, Jessica, Haley and I laid out the skeleton in anatomical position.  Next, Erica and I conducted dental analysis and scored cranial suture closure, while Dr. Latham, Jessica, and Haley worked on inventory, discrete and taphonomy observations.  While Haley and Erica were measuring the skeleton, I began taking photographs of the various skeletal elements.  We worked in these different groups simultaneously, ensuring efficiency so as to analyze as many sets of remains as possible and start the identification process for these individuals.

Erica conducting dental analysis
Erica conducting dental analysis

By the end of the day, the team began to get into a groove and we nearly completed two full skeletons.  Today was a day of adaptations and flexibility as we learned to navigate the unfamiliar lab space we were working in.  We now have a better idea of what to expect and the challenges we will face, so I believe the remaining days at ORPL will run much smoother.  Overall, today was a great day filled with new challenges and learning experiences as this was Jessica, Haley, Erica, and I’s first experience with the skeletal analysis portion of this humanitarian mission in South Texas.  I am excited to continue working on skeletal analyses and learning the different ways the casework is conducted at different institutions.  I can’t wait to see what new challenges tomorrow brings!

 

Leann

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Grateful to Return

The semester is finally over.  All of my papers are turned in, projects are done, and exams are over.  I have been so busy the past few weeks that it has not hit me until now that we leave for Texas in only a few days. While this may seem like an adequate amount of time, there is still so much I have to do before we leave.  I still need to purchase and gather my supplies, pack my suitcase, and begin to prepare myself physically and emotionally for what lies ahead.

This trip is going to be very different from our previous trip in January, so I am at a loss when it comes to expectations.  While our January trip consisted of finishing the exhumations in Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias, TX, the current trip will include both lab analysis and exhumation components.  Because our trip in January marked my first involvement with this project, the lab analysis portion is completely new to me. My analysis duties will consist of various aspects of skeletal inventory, dental charting, aging techniques, and photography.  While I have participated in these aspects of skeletal analysis at the University of Indianapolis Human Identification Center, I have never had to complete several analyses in one day.  I think that this will be the most challenging part about the lab analysis portion of this trip – completing as many analyses as possible to begin the identification process and homeward journey for as many individuals as possible.  This coming week, I plan on brushing up on my photography and osteology skills to ensure I am prepared for this endeavor.

Despite the fact that we conducted exhumations during our previous trip in January, I do not feel any less anxious about the exhumation process because it will be taking place in a completely new county.  Rio Grande City (Starr Co.) is about 1.5 hours SW of Falfurrias, and it is situated right along the US-Mexico border.  Because this is a new and unfamiliar area, I do not have any ideas or expectations regarding what we will encounter upon arrival.  I am unaware whether the burials are marked or unmarked, whether they are in a specific part of the cemetery or scattered throughout, what the soil conditions will be like… we are basically going in blind.  Much like our last trip, I will again be creating all of the maps of the areas we excavate.  The unfamiliarity with this new cemetery makes me anxious, as I do not know what to expect and/or how to prepare.  In addition, the weather will be very different this trip. In January, some days had a windchill of only 20 degrees, and there was only one day that I considered “warm.”  My most recent weather searches in Rio Grande City indicate the temperature will range between 95 and 100 degrees with between 50 and 60% humidity.  The heat will be a new obstacle we will have to face, and will surely impact us in unimaginable ways.

I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to travel back to Texas and continue to aid in the humanitarian efforts occurring at the border.  I am lucky to get to be a part of such an extraordinary effort, made up of numerous agencies and countless hours, dedicated to identification and spreading awareness regarding the crisis occurring at the US-Mexico border.  I discovered within myself a passion for humanitarianism on my last trip to Texas, and I can’t wait to continue to give all that I have to this incredible effort.  I am grateful for every single experience I had on my last trip to Texas, but I am even more grateful to return.

Leann

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