Friday, January 28, 2005


For Forensic Scientist, Bones Can Hold Many Clues


The Day
By Bethe Dufresne
January 28, 2005

Civil War Submariners And Kennewick Man Are Among His Projects

Photo Chip Clark: Doug Owsley, right, confers with
artist Sharon Long while working on facial reconstructions
made of each sailor's remains from the Civil War submarine
CSS Hunley.

Doug Owsley, right, confers with artist Sharon Long while working on facial reconstructions made of each sailor's remains from the Civil War submarine CSS Hunley.

What intrigued Doug Owsley most about the 19th century submarine, raised from its ocean grave in the 21st century, was the position of eight skeletons inside.

“These men didn't scramble to the back hatch before they died,” says Owsley, a renowned forensic scientist from Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution who is at the University of Connecticut in Storrs this week. “They died in their positions.”

Owsley helped analyze the remains of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, which sank during the Civil War. “It's a very calm interior,” he says. The ship fired a torpedo into the Union sloop Housatonic to sink that vessel in Charleston harbor in 1864.

The Hunley was the first submarine to sink a ship in combat, but its crew didn't get to celebrate for long. The Hunley sank before it could return to shore.

Owsley has a theory about the sinking, but says he's “not at liberty to divulge” it. He'll tell more Saturday in Glastonbury, during an illustrated lecture hosted by the Friends of the Office of State Archaeology, the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History and the Connecticut Archaeology Center at UConn.

Owsley is a celebrity in forensic circles. He has examined thousands of human remains, working on such high-profile sites as the Pentagon after Sept. 11, 2001, and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, after it was stormed by federal agents.

His is not a household name around here, however, like Jeff Benedict, the author who made Owsley the hero of his non-fiction book, “No Bone Unturned.”

In the earlier book, “Without Reservation,” Benedict challenged the legitimacy of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe. He followed that with “No Bone Unturned,” the story of the legal battle over a 9,600-year-old human skeleton that washed up in 1996 on the banks of Washington state's Columbia River.

Owsley was called in to study what came to be known as Kennewick Man. But before he could begin, the Army Corps of Engineers seized the skeleton on behalf of local Native American tribes that wanted to bury it.

The Army acted under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), designed to return to tribes some of what had been stolen from them over centuries – bones, artifacts, et cetera.

But this skeleton was special because of its age and its Caucasian-like appearance. It is so old, Owsley and other scientists argued, there is no way to connect it to any existing tribe.

Eight scientists, including Owsley, sued the U.S. government for custody of the bones. It took years of legal maneuvering, but the scientists won. In December Owsley finally got together with Kennewick Man.

“Right now I'm working on refinement of a detailed study plan,” says Owsley, “who will do it, how long it will take, what we want to learn.” The project will involve “very elaborate imaging techniques.”

Contrary to what some might assume, Owsley says he's not a persona non grata among Native American tribes. All the letters and responses he has gotten because of the book have been positive, he says.

Kevin McBride, chief archaeologist for the Mashantucket Pequots, hoped Owsley could visit the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research center this week, but it appeared Owsley wouldn't have time.

“He's one of the best researchers in the field,” says McBride, who has “a million questions” for Owsley.

“No Bone Unturned” isn't sold at the museum bookstore, says McBride, but not because of bitterness toward Benedict. “The bookstore is abysmal,” he says, and needs an expanded and updated inventory.

As an archaeologist, McBride says, he's thrilled by the decision allowing study of Kennewick Man. His concern, he says, is that it could undermine NAGPRA in other instances.

Owsley says not to worry.

“I've been doing analyses of human remains for 30 years,” he says, “of European ancestry, African American and Native American. On a number of occasions I've analyzed human remains at the request of tribes for the purpose of repatriation.”

“You have to know how to read those bones,” says Owsley, adding that tribes don't want to bury other people's ancestors.

Most Native Americans, like most everyone else, are “very interested in the past,” says Owsley. “There are a lot of different views out there,” he says, even among Native Americans, about Kennewick Man.

It's been generally accepted that the first humans migrated to this continent from Asia via a land bridge across the Bering Strait. But many now believe, and Kennewick Man could support, that people came by boat from other continents.

Modern techniques can reveal Kennewick Man's diet, his health, and other clues to his origins and how he came to be in what is now the American Northwest.

“We're intensely interested in the story of this man,” says Owsley, “not because we want to damage it (the skeleton). This man lived his entire life and not a word was written about him. His bones are his legacy.”

Owsley says he wasn't trying to circumvent NAGPRA when he sued to study Kennewick Man. Bones clearly linked to an existing tribe should be returned, he says, as you would return any human remains to a family.

“The problem,” he says, “is that when a skeleton is 1,000 years old, or 5,000 or 9,000, the story really belongs to all Americans.”

The law states that if no other relation can be determined, bones or artifacts found on Native lands are assumed to be Native. But in this instance, Owsley says, “The Corps of Engineers was over-interpreting the law.”

People will always be curious about those who came before them, says Owsley, and therefore scientific research will always flourish.

Connecticut state archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni, who arranged Saturday's lecture, helped Owsley solve a mystery involving a sailor on the Hunley.

This week the two men were working on UConn's collection of Euro-American remains, using bone samples to reveal what they ate and thereby determine if they came from Europe or colonial America.

Saturday's 2 p.m. talk is at Smith Middle School, 216 Addison Road in Glastonbury. Admission is $10, $5 for students. Snow date is Sunday.

Owsley will tell how he and others used forensic techniques, including DNA analysis and facial reconstruction, to identify human skeletal remains excavated from the Hunley. “It's an amazing time capsule,” he says.

Based on their diet, says Owsley, four of the sailors were from the United States, two from England and two from Germany.

One sailor carried an I.D. plate issued to Connecticut Private Ezra Chamberlin of Killingly, who disappeared in battle and was presumed dead. “It was a real shocker,” says Owsley. “You had a Union soldier, and now you have a Confederate sailor. Could he effectively have gone over to the other side?”

The man turned out not to be Chamberlin. “We really don't know how he got the name plate,” says Owsley, adding coyly, “but we know who he is.”

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