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Guest Blog by Katharine Chapman Pope

katMy name is Katharine and I received my master’s degree in forensic anthropology from Texas State in 2007. I’ve done a variety of jobs in the forensic science field, including crime scene investigator, WWII Casualty Analyst for the Department of Defense’s POW/MIA office, and currently, medicolegal death investigator. As a death investigator, I act as the eyes and ears for the forensic pathologist. I investigate all deaths in the state and determine if it falls under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner’s office. I see homicides, suicides, accidents, drug overdoses, and many other scenes and situations. Skeletonized cases or cases where identification is questioned, I use my training in anthropology to help confirm the decedent’s age, sex, ancestry, stature, and anything pathological or traumatic important to the case.

I volunteered for the exhumations at Sacred Heart for two different reasons. Primarily, the mission itself is very important to me. The idea of dying in anonymity seems utterly desperate, like tangible Limbo. Your family never knows what happened to you. They can’t go visit your grave when they miss you. And they never see justice or closure. I believe that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, living or dead, no matter what. Is that crazy?! My second reason for volunteering is less altruistic. I have my own unidentified population at my home office (30 cases since 1965) and I wanted to see how TX State and UIndy handled intake, processing, and curation of their case load. I also need to keep up my archaeology and mapping skills.

Working with death on a daily basis hardened me – in order to get through the tasks required of the job, I numb myself to the emotions surrounding each case. When I arrived in South Texas, as a death investigator, I was still hard and numb. But I emerged from this experience as an anthropologist again, who considers the cultural and emotional story alongside of the human remains, the trauma, and the potential identification. The total picture of this mission is crushing, humbling, immense, and exhausting. I am so thankful to have participated in the process of helping resolve one tiny, but crucial portion of the problem. The families of these people deserve it.



My role down in South Texas is mapping expert.   This means that I am responsible for constructing to-scale maps of Area 3, Area 1, and tying in Areas 2 South and 2 West to the original 2014 map of Area 2.  Before coming to Texas, I met with the former mapping expert, Erica, to go over the best ways to collect data and construct the maps.  She gave me many great pointers that I have found very helpful while down in Texas. One of the most important tips she gave me was to make clear to all teams that measurements should originate from the baseline and not the gridlines.  I have found this piece of advice particularly helpful because it makes clear where the measurements originate from even when I am not familiar with the particular excavation area.

Justing taking measurements
Justing taking depth measurements

Before this trip, I was told that we would be excavating Area 3 and that I would be constructing the maps for this area. However, because this area was finished in three days, both UIndy and Texas State moved to new areas within the cemetery.  UIndy revisted Area 1 to re-check the quadrants now that it’s better understood that there are no patterns to how and where these burials were placed.  Texas State moved to two new areas, Area 2 West and Area 2 South, to investigate land marked with Unknown Remains burial markers.  These additional areas mean that I have gone from constructing maps of one area to constructing maps of three different areas.

There are a number of challenges that I have faced when constructing my maps.  Because so much dirt is being moved in Area 1, the pile is growing too large and is covering the baseline I am supposed to be taking measurements from.  Because of this, I have to use different points of reference and quadrant boundaries to map in the burials and trenches.  Despite taking measurements from different points of reference, in the final map, I need to convert these measurements to as if they are coming from the baseline itself in order to standardize my data.  Math is not my strong suit, so doing the calculations and converting the numbers is challenging for me.  Thankfully, the other members of my team are there for moral support and mathematical help.

Jessica taking measurements for the map

Another challenge I have faced while mapping is that I am only present for the collection of measurements from the areas being excavated by UIndy.  Because I am familiar with the orientation of the burials, determine what points to take, and am present during the collection of all data, it is easy to recognize mistakes and construct accurate maps.  Because we are so busy and are working in different areas of the cemetery, I do not have the chance to see all of the areas that Texas State is excavating, the orientation of their burials, or the way in which they are collecting their data points.  This has proven very difficult for me, as I do not have a mental image to match the measurements to which makes it difficult to recognize mistakes.  Thankfully, I have started to catch on to the methods they are using and am better able to quickly check for and correct mistakes.

Despite these challenges, I am so glad that I am able to fill the role of mapping expert for this field season in South Texas.  I believe that I am emerging a stronger mapper, which will continue to help me during forensic cases when mapping a scene is necessary.  The problem solving and mistake-catching associated with mapping, although frustrating at times, is teaching me how to think critically about what I am doing and how to look at data and recognize discrepancies right off the bat.  I am so grateful for this opportunity and am excited to finish the final products!



Collaborative Efforts

We are not the only anthropologists volunteering our time and skills at the Sacred Heart Cemetery for the exhumations. There is a large group from Texas State University and a few other individuals that are volunteering in the migrant identification efforts as well. This is a huge collaborative effort with multiple university, governmental and non-governmental organizations coming together to work towards identification the migrants that died in Brooks County.  While this blog focuses mostly on the UIndy team, we wanted to recognize some of the others at the site with us.

Dr. Kate Spradley & Dr. Tim Gocha –  Texas State University
Dr. Nicholas Herrmann -Texas State University
Katharine Chapman Pope – Delaware Chief Medical Examiner & Forensic Science Laboratory
Texas State University Students & Alums