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I seldom have nightmares. When I do, they are usually flitting images of the everyday things I see on the job: crushed and perforated skulls, lopped-off limbs and severed heads, roasted and dissolving corpses, hanks of human hair and heaps of white bones all in a day's work at my office, the C. A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida. Recently I dreamed I was in a faraway country, trying on shoes, and the leather in the shoes was so improperly prepared that the laces and uppers were crawling with maggots. But there was a simple, ordinary explanation for this phantasm: one of my graduate students was raising maggots as part of a research project.
I have gazed on the face of death innumerable time, witnessed it in all its grim manifestations. Death has no power to freeze my heart, jangle my nerves or sway my reason. Death to me is no terror of the night but a daylit companion, a familiar condition, a process obedient to scientific laws and answerable to scientific inquiry.
For me, every day is Halloween. When you think of all the horror movies you have seen in your entire life, you are visualizing only a dim, dull fraction of what I have seen in actual fact. Our laboratory is primarily devoted to teaching physical anthropology to graduate students at the University of Florida, and is part of the Florida Museum of Natural History. Yet, thanks to the wording of the 1917 law establishing the museum, we often find ourselves investigating wrongful death, attempting to dispel the shadows surrounding murder and suicide. All too often in the past, under the old coroner system, the innocent have died unavenged, and malefactors have escaped unpunished, because investigators lacked the stomach, the knowledge, the experience and the perseverance to reach with both hands into the rotting remnants of some dreadful crime, rummage through the bones and grasp the pure gleaming nugget of truth that lies at the center of it all.
Truth is discoverable. Truth wants to be discovered. The men who murdered the Russian Tzar Nicholas II and his family and servants in 1918 imagined that their crime would remain hidden for all eternity, but scarce sixty years had passed before these martyred bones rose up again into the light of day and bore witness against their Bolshevik assassins. I have seen the tiny, wisp-thin bones of a murdered infant stand up in court and crush a bold, hardened, adult killer, send him pale and penitent to the electric chair. A small fragment of a woman's skullcap, gnawed by alligators and found by accident at the bottom of a river, furnished enough evidence for me to help convict a hatchet murderer, two years after the fact.
The science of forensic anthropology, properly wielded, can resolve historical riddles and chase away bugbears that have bedeviled scholars for centuries. Reluctantly but carefully, I examined the skeletal remains of President Zachary Taylor, who died in 1850, and helped lay to rest persistent suspicions that he was the first of our presidents to be assassinated. The sword-nicked skull of the butchered Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, came within my field of inquiry, and I have held in my hands the bony orb that once enclosed vast dreams of gold, blood and empire. The gargoyle-like skull and skeleton of the Victorian-era "Elephant Man," Joseph Merrick, furnished me with pictures and impressions so poignant and vivid that I almost seemed to be conversing with the man himself.
But I do not seek out the illustrious dead to pay them court or borrow their fame. To me, the human skeleton unnamed and unfleshed is matter enough for marvel. The most fascinating case I ever had involved a modern, love-struck couple with very ordinary names: Meek and Jennings. It fell to me to extricate their bones, burned and crushed and commingled in thousands of fragments, from a single body bag, and put them back together again as best I could. When I was finished, after a year and a half's work, what I had was what lies deepest within all of us, at our center; that which is the last of us ever to be cut, burned, disassembled or dissolved: that which is strongest, hardest and least destructible about us; our firmest ally, our most trustworthy companion. our longest surviving remnant after we die: our skeleton.
Chapter Two: Talkative Skulls
One of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most amusing short stories, "Crabbe's Practice," deals with the desperate attempts of a young doctor to set himself up in the world and acquire patients. Hoping to burnish his academic reputation, he publishes a deep and erudite paper in a medical journal, with the bizarre title, "Curious Development of a Discopherous Bone in the Stomach of a Duck." Later he confesses to a friend that the paper was a fraud. While dining on roast duck, the young doctor discovered that the fowl had swallowed an ivory domino, and he had turned the experience into a research paper. "Discopherous" is just a Greek term for "circle-bearing," and refers to the circular dots on a domino.
Conan Doyle was a doctor himself and knew whereof he spoke. Anyone who works in science knows the dull desperation and sharp anxiety of the early days in one's career. Few of us do not look back on those pinched, scraping times without a secret shudder, followed by a pang of relief that they are past. The miserable pay and financial woes; the long nights of study and the battles against sleep; the frightful hurdles of examinations: the climactic defense of one's doctoral dissertation; the hissing, malignant envy that is the curse of university life at all times and in all places; the constant struggle to get published, to win tenure, to carve out a niche and be recognized in one's fieldall these torments are well known in Academe, and have been known to drive some people mad, even to suicide. Some people. Not me.
My early experiences riding shotgun in the funeral parlor's ambulance in Texas had shown me a side of life no book could teach. These dreadful sights gave me a certain balance, along with reserves of strength that I could call on in the ordinary trials of life at the university. When you have seen bodies burned to cinders in fires, or pummeled to jelly under a truckload of bricks, or reduced to empty skins whose bones have been squeezed from them by the terrific force of plane crashes, then the bumps and bogies of academic life l-old few terrors for you. "It could be worse," you tell yourself: and when worse is the thing you saw lying dead in a highway culvert scarcely twelve hours earlier, you know you are telling the truth.
The first time I was asked for my considered opinion about a skull came when I was still in graduate school, still working under Tom McKern in his laboratory. It was a watershed moment for me, because for the first time McKern was treating me I will not say as an equal, but very nearly as a colleague whose independent opinion he valued.
On that morning when I came into the laboratory McKern presented me with a cranium, a skull without the lower jaw. It had been found in Lake Travis near Austin with a fishing line tied around the zygomatic arch, the cheekbone. The other end of the fishing line was tied to a large rock.
As I handled the still damp cranium, my attention was drawn to the palate. More than anything else, the shape of that palate struck me. It stood out, to my eyes, in a very unusual way. Looking at it, I was racked by doubts. I felt very insecure because obviously McKern was going to judge me on my response. More than that. I was insecure because I was about to give him an answer I felt was intrinsically improbable. At last I summoned up my courage and spoke:
"I think it's Mongoloid, probably Japanese," I said. McKern looked at me for a long moment. Then at last he said: "That's what I think too."
Whatever pride I felt was immediately dampened by McKern, who went on to point out all the other things I had missed. With the sure touch of a true master of forensic anthropology, he demonstrated one detail after another, details which I had seen but had not observed. At such times McKern was truly dazzling and I shall never forget those lucid,
decisive moments in which he practically made that old skull speak.
I had not observed that some of the teeth had been glued into their sockets. I had not observed the scorching on the outer cranial vault. I had not observed the very simple fact that the skull had been attached to a fishing line tightly tied to its zygomatic arch, which meant that it was dry, unfleshed bone to start with, when it was plunged into the lake.
After McKern had pointed out all these things, the answer became clear. The skull before us was almost certainly a World War II trophy skull that some serviceman brought back from the Pacific Theater. The scorching had occurred during battle, perhaps by the action of flamethrowers or as the result of a fiery plane crash. The teeth had fallen out as the skull dried out and had been glued back in. Finally, either the serviceman himself had sickened of his gruesome relic, or he had died and his heirs wanted to get rid of the thing. But how to dispose of it? If they put it in the garbage it might be found. Burning it was too much trouble. Burying it would be bothersome and might leave traces. Best to throw it in the lake! Tie a rock to it for good measure! And so the skull went overboard, bubbling down into the depths of Lake Travis, only to be found again by the purest chance.
I am certain that, somewhere in Japan today, there is a family wondering what became of an uncle, a father, a long-lost relative who marched off to war more than half a century ago. They will never know. And the Japanese man whose skull this was, how could he have dreamed that, after great and fiery battles in the middle of the vast Pacific, the bony vessel enclosing his dreaming brain was destined to end up tied to a rock and drowned in a cool American lake, then fished up onto a bright laboratory table at the University of Texas?