All posts by rockh

Reflecting on Texas

I have been home from Texas for approximately a week.  In the first three nights, I found myself waking up partially from a restless sleep thinking I was still in Texas digging in the field with my team.  The first night I woke halfway, sat up in my bed and thought I was waiting my turn to mattock.  While I truly do love mattocking, at 2am, I could hardly keep my eyes open while I was “waiting my turn.”  The second night I woke halfway and I again thought I was waiting my turn to dig.  The third night I again awoke thinking that we were digging and this time it was as if there was a pit between me and Erica and I had to get out of the bed and across the pit to help dig.  Each night I have found myself barely able to keep my eyes open and in my stupor, I feel badly because I feel like I am letting my team down as a result of not being able to keep my eyes open.


While in Texas, the UIndy team worked at ORPL, the Osteology, Research and Processing Lab at Texas State University to analyze the remains of 9 individuals who were recovered by the UIndy team in January.  We also traveled to Rio Grande City, where we recovered the remains of 5 individuals from the Rio Grande City County Cemetery.

I am distinctly aware that the work we did in Texas does not put an end to the crisis at the border, but I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been a part of the work.  It was such an incredible experience and an emotional one indeed.  When we drove from San Marcos to Rio Grande City, we drove for roughly 4 hours on a road where we passed 1 or 2 cars our entire trip.  On either side of our vehicle were ranches where the brush, cacti and reddish-brown sandy dirt were overwhelming to onlookers.  Temperatures ranged from high 90s to low 100s.  We passed a border patrol checkpoint, and we saw water stations and paths where tires have been drug by border patrol so they may see any footprints of individuals trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States.  During this road trip, it quickly became apparent why individuals often die when attempting to cross the border.  Heat exhaustion sets in quickly and individuals often do not have a clear idea of how long it will take them to cross from Mexico into the United States.  When we were working in the field on our last day in Rio Grande City, it was a heat index of 117 degrees Fahrenheit.  We each worked for 2 minutes mattocking and shoveling, and then we each took an 8 minute break.  To some this will sound absurd.  However, I can assure you that there was no way we could have worked for more than 2 minutes at these tasks without quickly finding ourselves in an emergency room at the nearest hospital.  We each drank incredible amounts of water to keep ourselves hydrated.

Our experience working in the field at the Rio Grande City County Cemetery and driving to Rio Grande City was an incredibly eye opening experience.  On our drive to Rio Grande City, I looked out the window from the back seat of an air conditioned van and my heart was heavy for individuals trying to cross into North America.  The journey seems terrifying from an onlooker perspective.  I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been able to be a part of this work.  Growing up in Michigan, I was not exposed to any happenings at the border.  This trip has grown my awareness tremendously.  I really enjoyed being able to tour the Texas State University facilities and getting to meet the graduate students and some of the faculty of the university.  Overall, this trip has had an incredible impact on me personally.  There isn’t a day that goes by now that I don’t think of those individuals who are lost or trying to cross the border.  I hope this work will continue for years to come to identify individuals lost in this crisis.





Learning is Doing


I think my learning style has always been hands-on.  I wonder now if it is because I compensated for my vision problems when I was a child by using my hands or if that is just naturally how I learn.  Regardless of the reason, I am so thankful for the opportunities the University of Indianapolis offers us, to use the knowledge we learn in our classes and implement that knowledge in a real world situation.  It is my goal to become a forensic anthropologist.  I know this will be a tough journey, but I am determined to get there.  I feel so thankful to have two board certified forensic anthropologists to learn from at UIndy.  It is interesting to see how both Dr. Nawrocki and Dr. Latham do things, and how while they both practice forensic anthropology, each professor does certain things slightly differently because that way works best for them.  I really appreciate being able to observe both of their styles, enabling me to gain multiple perspectives of the field.

This semester I took Human Osteology with Dr. Nawrocki, and then I was able to apply the knowledge I gained in his class during our lab days in Texas.  While applying this knowledge, I was also able to observe how Dr. Latham conducts skeletal analyses.  I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to apply my knowledge while observing Dr. Latham because I learned so much in the process.  We each develop methods for doing things that work best for us.  It is often the case that we model our own work after our mentors.  I appreciate being able observe both Dr. Nawrocki and Dr. Latham as they work because they each had different mentors in their time as students learning the field of forensic anthropology.  It allows me to develop my own methods modeled after each of theirs, as I find my way as a student studying to become a forensic anthropologist.

I am so thankful to have had this amazing opportunity to test my knowledge and to further gain knowledge on how to conduct skeletal analyses.  It is one thing to learn in a classroom, but it is a completely different thing to apply what you learned in the classroom to a real life situation.  My time doing lab work in Texas has enabled me to see the areas where I need to further study but also the areas where I feel most comfortable.  It has helped me gain a better understanding of the field of forensic anthropology and it has helped me understand that developing your own style within this field is perfectly acceptable.  I am so glad the University of Indianapolis offers experiences such as these because I feel it was incredibly beneficial to me on so many levels.


Day 3 Group Picture

Day 3 (field)- Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Today was our third day in the field.  Our mission today was to uncover two more burials.  We started bright and early at 6:30am, the coolest part of any day in Starr County, Texas.  We had a slight cloud covering and a cool breeze to start our workday, which was incredibly motivating and refreshing, not to mention the gorgeous sunrise that occurred this morning.

Starr County rising sun

We began our work by removing the tarp we used to shade the 1st burial from the sun and any passersby.  The tarp worked nicely to protect the burial from the rain last night.  After removing the tarp, we began our exhumation process.  Because it was cool this morning, we each took 10 minute turns working in the pit.  We decreased our turn time to 5 minutes as the day wore on, due to the hot sun.

Removing the tarp


We removed 2 burials from the pit today.  In the morning, the dirt was softened from the rain making it much softer in consistency and easier to remove.  As we dug deeper into the pit, the soil was much drier and more difficult to get through than the top muck layer.  As we got closer to the burial, the stratigraphy took on a clay layer, which was most difficult to get through.  A mattock has proven to be completely essential in this process due to the clay layer.  It is also very fun to use.

The burials we removed today were much easier to remove than the one from yesterday.  Yesterday’s burial (the 1st) went deep into the eastern wall of our pit, making it extremely difficult to remove.  Today’s burials did not extend deep into either the eastern or western walls, making them much easier to exhume.

Shoveling down

After removing the 3rd burial from the pit, we decided that we needed to move further toward the north end of our area.  We asked Silvestre to come back with his backhoe to fill in the pit most of the way while digging the northern most wall back several inches allowing us to continue our exhumations.  As he filled in the pit with the dirt that had been removed previously, we asked him to create a ramp for us so that we could safely enter and exit the pit since our stairs were destroyed when he took down a portion of the northern-most wall.  After Silvestre finished with our pit, we cleaned up our area and cracked open our bottles of Coke.  We decided yesterday when we were at H-E-B to get one Coke for each of us for each of the next three days.  It has become our tradition to crack open a cold bottle of Coke when we finish our work for the day.  There is something truly wonderful about a glass bottle of Coke at the end of a long day.  We did a quick toast and then our group picture for the day.  Today we decided to do our group picture in the van in the A/C.

Silvestre filling in the pit

Today was an extremely successful day.  We worked efficiently and very well as a team.  This allowed us to uncover two burials and work safely.  We implemented a 5-minute work time followed by a 5-minute break.  On each break, we would drink a lot of water and reapply sunscreen.  We implemented these rules to avoid anyone having heat stroke.  These rules will be essential in the coming days as the temperature increases steadily.

I am truly amazed by my teammates.  I appreciate so much the communication they have with each other and me.  When something needs to be done, we are not offended by instruction from another person.  When we are in each other’s way, we are not offended by a “move.”  It is amazing what can be accomplished by teamwork.  I am very much looking forward to the next two days of field work.  We have experienced both trials and tribulations, but we continue to move forward, finding new and improved ways to do things along the way.  Tomorrow is a new day and I am looking forward to seeing what it brings.