All posts by Isabel Melhado

Returning & Reflections

Two team members setting up the datum
Establishing our datum

Our trip to Eagle Pass felt like it was over just as quickly as it started. It was so good to see Don, Eddie, and Dr. Spradley again. This was my first real forensic archaeology experience with manually excavating and exhuming burials. There were distinct moments during this trip when I’d be working, sit back, and think “Wow, I have learned so much today.” and each day that feeling only grew stronger. I noticed during the later days of the week how much the team had grown together and were able to work as a cohesive unit. We became so skilled with a trowel that, when we left, our hands stayed formed to holding a trowel (dubbed trowel claw). It was also a new experience to learn how to do this work with the media present. It was a bit daunting, but it did not deter our work ethic.

In my pre-trip post, I said we read about what we may encounter but nothing could truly prepare us for what we’d see and learn, and I can confidently say I was right about that. While providing forensic anthropology in Indiana, there is a lot we are removed from, especially in regards to the border crisis. I have never dealt with death at this scale. In our last debrief, I discussed how many more layers of the forensic anthropology field and the border crisis this trip has exposed me to. It has caused me to recognize and connect these different levels of our work that previously felt disjointed. We work with the individuals brought to our lab under many different circumstances. We have searched the Texas Borderlands and seen evidence of migrant travel, ranging from food wrappers to clothing items, leaving me constantly thinking of where these individuals are and if they are okay. We searched for burials and found individuals discarded alongside miscellaneous trash. We examined the personal belongings of these individuals and their bodies for identifying characteristics. This, especially, is something I am not used to as I am more familiar with analyzing mostly skeletal remains. It can feel invasive to do some of these things, but its to be able to give these individuals their best chance at getting home to their families. I saw their IDs and what they looked like to their loved ones. I heard the family member of one of the individuals previously exhumed speak about their loved one they lost and a bit of their background. To hear them say “I was waiting for them to tell me he opened his eyes, to tell me he’d take another breath.” It’s heart wrenching. So many people are sharing this experience, and so many people don’t even know what is happening besides what is being shown on the news.

View of the Rio Grande
Rio Grande

This work is heavy. These are hard things to have on your mind and definitely aren’t things that will fade. These trips allow us to meet some of the individuals working often daily with this border crisis, ranging from activists groups and media to cemetery workers and forensic scientists. Regardless of the motivation or background, each person I met has the same goal, to do the best we can to care for these individuals, and that is one great piece of solace, knowing there are more people out there who care. No one deserves to be treated in the manner we found these individuals in. No one deserves to have to experience the treacherous journey these individuals endured. Each trip reveals so much that we don’t know is going on or don’t know the severity of it.

The team taking measurements at the cemetery
Team taking measurements

Annnnnd now I am back home. Preparing for school to start, and It feels like the most extreme 360. I very naively thought that after two trips to Texas my transition back to normal life in Indiana would be easier, and I was very wrong. This trip was such an eye-opening experience for me. I learned SO much in such a short period of time skill wise and even more so about the border crisis. I get to share my experience and help others understand what really is going on. It is a privilege to be able to do so. I am extremely grateful to Dr. Latham for allowing me to be a part of this team and this project. The lessons I learn from these trips, personal and skill-wise, are exceptional, and I am proud to have been a part of the team and the work we’ve done.


Jan 2023 Team

Day 6: Complex but Complete

Team members taking measurements at the cemetery
Taking measurements

Day 6 was quite the day. We started out with some hotel breakfast, including Texas shaped waffles, eggs, refried beans, and a much needed Emergen-C, to get us ready for the day as we knew it was supposed to be the hottest temperatures of our time in Texas. Once we arrived at the cemetery, we set out to work on a burial we had begun yesterday. We rotated in teams of two using a mattock to remove portions of the wall and trowels to remove smaller debris to reveal the edges of the burial. As we learned more about our plans for the day, we split our team to work on two burials. Kaitlyn and Jordan worked on fully exposing the burial from yesterday, while Olivia and I began removing debris and tracing some promising clues to find the individual suspected to be in said burial and Dr. Latham switched between the two.

The team's dirty gloves at the end of the trip
Our glove disposal ceremony

Our communication as a team has grown so much. One of the most repeated comments during our meetings on where we can improve has been spatial awareness, knowing where we are and what we are doing in regards to not only others but the tools, burial, and burial walls. I think Olivia and I bonked heads at least 12 times today, BUT we worked so efficiently with one another we almost didn’t need to say what our next move was because the other was already ready to help. For most of the day, the two of us were working almost upside down, having to take small breaks to allow the blood to go where it’s supposed to after pooling in our heads. As we continued to work, Kaitlyn and Jordan had fully exposed their burial and were ready for measurements. Together, we completed the measurements, composed a strategy for a safe and efficient burial removal, and successfully moved as one. We also learned this individual already has a suspected ID hypothesis.

We then had lunch. Lunch is a good time for us to decompress a bit, stretch, get rehydrated and replenished from our hard work. Today, we took an extended lunch break in an effort to respect a funeral that was beginning in the cemetery. We understand cemeteries are places where people come to honor their loved ones who have passed and would never want them to feel as though our work comes before their grieving. Once the funeral attendees began to leave, we decided to slowly and discretely get back to work.

After lunch, Jordan and Kaitlyn moved down to work with Olivia and I as Dr. Latham was on bucket duty. Excavating burials can be very tricky. Although general direction can be assumed, depth is variable. The ground is rarely level when an individual is placed in the ground, so we must always proceed with caution. As the Texas heat rose, we decided to use our timer and switch out our teams to be able to continue to do our best work and stay healthy. Eventually, we had completely uncovered the burial. We marked our corners and performed our measurements. As Texas State’s team took their measurements, the decision was made to wait to remove the individual from the burial site until morning as it would be too hot for the team in the intake tent. By the time you read this, Texas State’s team will have removed the individual and be working towards collecting information for an ID.

Deputy White  talking to one of the media outlets
Don talking to one of the media outlets

One new challenge we faced was having media present. Individuals from different news/media outlets were on site filming, taking pictures, and talking to some of the site leaders. This creates a few challenges. Having a camera filming your every move or in your face can be off-putting, but in pictures, videos, etc, things can very easily be misconstrued. Not only that but we, as team members, represent our professor, our lab, and our university, so we want to minimize any possible confusion or controversy. We direct all questions to Dr. Latham. She is our team leader and is the appropriate person to answer questions. We also often talk to one another and provide encouragement when a team member makes an accomplishment. We tend to smile, sometimes often depending on what’s going on. We would never want this to be misconstrued as “having fun” or being disrespectful while performing such delicate and important work. We care intensely about what we do, and to have that be misunderstood would be extremely unfortunate.

Since our last work day had now come to an end, we did a final exploration of a possible burial in close proximity to our exposed burial, cleaned our equipment, and had our final ice cold Coke as a team. We also had a little ceremony for our gloves that were definitely not coming back in our suitcases after the week we’ve had. We finished up the day with a great dinner with Deputy Don White, Eddie, and Dr. Spradley before coming back to the hotel to have our final debrief and clean the rest of our personal gear for travel.

Deputy White and team member Izzy
Don and his favorite tourist

Our last day debrief is different from the rest because we have a few different questions than usual, one housekeeping and one personal. Along with saying what we did well and any equipment we may need to change for upcoming trips, we discuss coming back to normal life and how hard that adjustment can be. [I am going to save many of my thoughts for my post-trip post.] We talked about how we are a team even when we return to Indy and to lean on each other when needed.

Saying goodbye not only to everyone we made such great connections with here but also to the work we have devoted ourselves to for our time here is hard. I’m thankful for the opportunity to have helped make even a minute difference.

See ya in the post-trip post!


Team members on day 6
Day 6!

Day 2: Plans & Pickaxes

Dr. Latham getting a stress test from Deputy White
Dr. Latham getting a stress test from Don

Day 2 started with Kaitlyn’s tai chi and the rest of us rolling out of bed to the hotel breakfast. Once we had finished eating, we packed up the minivan [still yet to be named] and headed to the cemetery to continue our work. At the end of the day yesterday, we had fully prepared the second individual in our area to be removed first thing this morning.

As we prepared for this task, the Texas State team continued the work in their area as well. We removed a bit more of the dirt to better expose the individual on all sides and mapped in the four corners of the burial. After, we devised a plan to safely remove the individual. This ended up including the use of the mattock [my new favorite tool!] to create better stairs and footholds for us to use to step out of the burial while carrying the individual. We then implemented our plan and successfully moved the individual to a new body bag on the surface level then to the intake tent. By the end of the day, we had all together exhumated 3 additional individuals.

The backhoe working at the cemetery
Our burial site from yesterday + New sites being dug

Many of these graves are marked with a white cross and some with a marker stating their associated case number and dates. We proceeded to map in the other grave markers where we plan on continuing to work for the next few days. Although we have some information from the workers at the cemetery and Dr. Spradley about where many individuals are buried, there is no guarantee about where they actually are inside the burial shaft. Once all the burials exposed yesterday had been exhumed, the cemetery workers refilled the holes with the dirt we took out and began excavating the dirt above more suspected burials with a backhoe. This is a very slow process as it is very important to just remove dirt down to the layer above the burials as to protect the individual inside the burial from any excavation damage. Our tools gradually get smaller the closer to the individual we get, from mattocks to shovels to trowels to our hands.

Team members learning about the RES
Learning about the RES

While this was going on, some members from Texas State‘s team taught us about their electromagnetic resistivity device [RES], a device used to survey disturbances in the soil underground. In this context, the RES can be used to identify burials underground. We also got a special knife safety lesson from Deputy Don White [The more you know … with Don!]. Don’s wisdom never fails as he knows just about everything [any anything] we throw at him!

We called it a day early to prepare our plan for the newly uncovered areas. After showers, we went to Laredo Tacos and HEB and came back to our evening debrief. We always go around in a circle and each say one thing we did well and one thing we believe we can improve on, followed by any thoughts and concerns then the plan for tomorrow. This is one of the things I personally believe really helps us as a team. Our communication here travels into the field so we can better work together. Even though it’s day two, it was obvious our meeting yesterday translated to today as the removal of the individual from our site this morning went even better than our removal yesterday.

Team members mapping at the cemetery
Measuring our burial for mapping

Our team focuses a lot on efficiency and procedure of excavation and exhumation, but we are not blind to the circumstances that brought us here. I, personally, have never dealt with death at this scale, even after two trips of searching the Texas borderlands previously. We hear stories about how these individuals came to be in our care. It can be very overwhelming to be literally face-to-face with this tragedy. The urge to do our absolute best for every individual we can is strong and is the biggest motivator any time we feel sore, fatigued, etc. A great example is each member of the team being told once a day [at least] that we must take a break because we only want to keep pushing forward.

Tomorrow will be a long and physically demanding day, but we are all ready to get back to work. Good things will happen!


(also hi Ray)

Team members on day 2
Day 2 Picture!