Unearthing the secrets of human skeletal remains

Ms Kathy Powell at a mock gravesite at the University's Roseworthy Campus.

Ms Kathy Powell at a mock gravesite at the University's Roseworthy Campus.
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Monday, 17 July 2000

Police stand to benefit from new research at Adelaide University which aims to find the best methods for detecting human skeletal remains in Australia.

The work conducted by PhD student Ms Kathy Powell and her colleagues in the Department of Anatomical Sciences has enormous implications for police. The results will assist police to locate missing people who may have met with foul play, such as in murder cases which remain "open" because no body has been found.

Ms Powell's research is believed to be among the first of its kind in Australia, and is significant because it focuses purely on locating bodies in the unique Australian environment.

Early findings from a mock gravesite maintained at the University's Roseworthy Campus have been encouraging. Ms Powell buried dead kangaroos and pigs at various sites to test the latest mineral exploration technologies from around the world. These have not been developed to detect bodily remains, but could be adapted to do so.

"Ground-penetrating radar has become very popular recently but it has its limitations, with tree roots being virtually undistinguishable from skeletal remains," Ms Powell says. "I'm also examining the usefulness of 3D laser imaging, among other technologies."

Changes in the soil surface are also being monitored to see if they give a reliable indication of graves.

"Preliminary findings reveal that, unlike overseas police case studies, in Australia there is very little compaction of the soil, which in turn leaves no telltale depressions in the soil," she says. "In winter, vegetation regrowth makes it extremely difficult to detect any potential skeletal remains, so seasonal factors are important."

More definitive findings will become available as the kangaroo and pig remains decay further. Ms Powell also plans to respectfully bury some human cadavers in a cemetery, studies of which will greatly improve the accuracy of her research.

"There are no studies of this kind here in Australia and no reliable detection schemes developed based on scientific research. Hopefully our work can help to bring some closure to police working on open cases, and to the families and friends of the victims involved," Ms Powell says.


Contact Details

Dr Kathy Powell
Email: powell.kathryn@dpc.sa.gov.au
Website: http://www.anthropologyforensicresearch.com.au
(now based at Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation, SA Government)
Business: +61 8 8226 8937 (direct)
Mobile: 0402 841 459

Mr David Ellis
Email: david.ellis@adelaide.edu.au
Website: https://www.adelaide.edu.au/newsroom/
Deputy Director, Media and Corporate Relations
External Relations
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 5414
Mobile: +61 (0)421 612 762