All posts by campbellj

Stepping Towards Repatriation

As we gear up to return to Falfurrias, I can’t help reflecting on the past year.  Our first trip didn’t end with our return to Indianapolis, it was just getting started.  If you had asked any of us at this time last year, before we traveled south, if we truly knew what we were getting into, we of course would have answered “Yes!”  But the truth is we didn’t have a clue.  The magnitude of the project floored all of us. Picture5Even with Baylor University and Texas State University also working towards identification of the exhumed individuals, there were far more unidentified than what we anticipated.  So, after last year’s trip, we received thirteen individuals from the 2013 exhumations at the UIndy Archeology and Forensics Laboratory (AFL).  The AFL is a dedicated working and educational lab for the analysis of skeletonized remains.  Dr. Latham organized a formal class that would train us in every aspect of the process, which for many of us was an opportunity to put all of our previous training to use from start to finish.

In the AFL, we train on forensic cases when they are received, and we share the process with all graduate students.  For the thirteen individuals from Texas, we had no idea what we were going to receive.  With five advanced graduate students and Dr. Latham overseeing each case, we were each assigned two or three individuals to focus on.

After cleaning, we each went to work on establishing a biological profile which would hopefully provide an indication of age, sex, ancestry, and stature.  These factors can help to initially narrow down a search by eliminating the people who don’t fit the specific combination of traits.  We also looked for any other factors that could help in the identification process.

AFL LogoThis was also the first time for many of us to take case photographs, which turned out to be more challenging than we expected.  We even participated in a special two part photography workshop to train us on lab photography. The pictures had to be clear and capture every unique feature that might potentially aid identification.  With so little to work with, every detail matters.

After the full analysis was completed and reviewed by Dr. Latham , we compiled a report for each individual.  This report served as our “final exam” for the class, and it also would serve as a template for Dr. Latham’s official reports that would be submitted for each case.

Recently, we also scored stress indicators that could help us to understand a bit more about the health history of each individual.  We also cut samples for DNA and stable isotope analysis that will be sent to the University of North Texas and Chico State University, respectively.

Through all these collaborative efforts,  plus a few more I haven’t mentioned yet, hopefully we are a step closer to the identification of the exhumed individuals, and a step closer to returning them to their families and loved ones. We are grateful that we have the skills, resources, and support to move progressively towards this goal.

ThankYou Borders

Jessica Campbell


5 more minutes, Mom!

Our team has worked together previously on cases, on projects and on presentations. But never like in Falfurrias. We work with unidentified human remains, and we do it not because we like it (we do) but because there is nothing else we would ever want to do. And most of us would have a difficult time explaining why, exactly, this type of work means so much to us.

Still, with the experiences we’ve had, we were wholly unprepared for Texas last year.  The heat to start. It was over a 100° easily, every day. Then there was the sun that banished all the clouds that might have offered a respite. I don’t remember any clouds in Texas.  Definitely just sun. But it was the humidity that did us in. Isn’t Texas supposed to be dry?

Additionally, our team had not worked a case of this magnitude either. Indiana has primarily individual casework. Our human rights mission in Falfurrias was quite a bit larger. We were expecting it and we were prepared for it, along with the intensive work that comes with it.

HolesFrom this point, I can tell you about our strategy last year. Or perhaps measures we took to overcome the climate. I can tell you about some of the things that changed us in the short time we were there. I can tell you more about the climate, and perhaps something about what the migrants crossing the area on foot might have encountered. But I want to tell you about our team, because they amazed me.

They amazed me because of the commitment (though the word seems inadequate) and the energy that was given every day, to every burial we encountered. I know how much and what this work means to me, and now I have an inkling of how much it means to all of us.

Get out of the hole!

I’ve got to tell you, traveling and working with five type-A personalities is rarely a pleasure.   Everyone has an opinion, but I’m always right (just kidding—sometimes). If they’d just listen we could do this faster. That is typically what you encounter and observe, just a group butting heads. How in the world can they work together, let alone be efficient, speedy, and thorough?

That was one of my biggest concerns last year. Not only would we be working together in volatile conditions, but also living together, with no escape for ten days.  A case in Indiana would last a day, maybe two, but everyone could go home after or to class, or to work.  Not so in Texas.  I was sure this trip was going to be interesting, in more ways than one.

Seriously, get out. Get some water. Sit down. Get out!

The tone was set for us immediately the first day we arrived at the Cemetery. Justin was a great leader in this regard (he always is, but shhh! don’t tell him!). Remember the heat and humidity I mentioned? It started well before 6 a.m., and only increased throughout the day.  We were even told we couldn’t work past noon because the heat got so bad. We usually pushed that “suggestion” to around two without fail, everyday. How could you stop working when you can see the casket and know that if we can just get this last individual out for the day, that’s one more person that can start the identification process? Seriously.

Work sweatsBack to the climate, Justin was our voice of reason, which may be the best way to put it. If we would have worked like we do in Indiana, we would have passed out from heat exhaustion or heat stroke. He was the first one to start yelling at us all to take breaks.

We realized very quickly that we needed a work rotation, in which everyone worked 10 to 15 minutes and switched out. That 10 to 15 minutes may seem so little, but in the humidity our energy and hydration levels plummeted. We drank Gatorade during these forced rest periods in order to replenish the mass quantities of fluids we didn’t realize were just floating off us, or running down our shirts.

By the end of the first day, we were all insistent about that imposed break for whoever was digging. Such a simple thing, but yet another factor that pushed us together so seamlessly. I wouldn’t trade this experience or the team for any other.

TeamBut five more minutes, that’s all, then I’ll switch out… I’m so close!

That never worked.

Jessica Campbell