No Bone Unturned: The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle for America's Oldest Skeletons - Jeff Benedict (2003)


The book you are about to read is not the one I set out to write when I began my research in the summer of 1999. At that point I was planning a book on the landmark lawsuit Robson Bonnichsen et al v. U.S. et althat had been filed by a group of scientists against the federal government. The suit arose after one of America’s oldest complete human skeletons—the 9,800-year-old Kennewick Man—surfaced in 1996 near the Washington-Oregon border. Scientists from the Smithsonian Institution wanted to study the remains. But the federal government seized the skeleton and prohibited study.

After reading up on the background of the case, I traveled to Portland, Oregon, to conduct research at the law firm that was representing the scientists. I spent hours interviewing attorneys and poring over stacks of legal documents. At the end of my visit, one lawyer said, in passing, “Sometime you ought to get to know some of our plaintiffs. They are really interesting people.”

I asked what was so interesting about the plaintiffs. The attorney talked almost exclusively about Dr. Douglas Owsley, the Smithsonian scientist who was the driving force behind the lawsuit. The lawyer said that Owsley was probably the world’s top expert on human skeletons. The federal government relied on him like a special agent. The FBI had sent him to Waco after the Branch Davidians died in the fire. The State Department dispatched him to the Balkans after the Bosnian War. The U.S. embassy in Guatemala called him in after two American journalists were murdered there. And the Armed Forces Medical Examiner called on him after American pilots died in the Gulf War.

The more I listened, the more Dr. Owsley sounded like the most famous person that I had never heard of. He was deeply involved—after the fact—in the most notorious mass disasters, wars, and crimes of contemporary times. But his role, and what he knew and saw, was shrouded in secrecy. When traditional forms of human identification—fingerprints, facial features, or clothing items—were absent, Owsley was brought in to identify people by looking at bones, from which he could ascertain a person’s age, sex, race, and cause of death.

He honed his bone-reading skills at his day job as a curator for the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, where he was responsible for studying and preserving America’s historic and prehistoric skeletons. In that capacity he uncovered crypts, visited tombs, excavated graves, and traveled to archaeology sites all over America and beyond.

Weeks after hearing about him, I visited Dr. Owsley at the Smithsonian. His office had all the earmarks of an ordinary science lab: X-ray lights, microscopes, magnifying glasses, and textbooks. But my eyes were drawn to the un-ordinary. The shelves along his walls were packed with what appeared to be oversize shoeboxes. Each one was nine inches wide, nine inches high, and thirty inches long.

“What are in these boxes?” I asked.

“Human remains,” he replied.

The boxes seemed too small to hold a human skeleton.

“They will fit a human skeleton without crowding,” he said, taking one off the shelf and removing the lid. It was my first glance at a real human skeleton. To me it looked like a collection of porous, brown-stained bones. To Owsley the skeleton was a human being, an intimate friend whom he knew almost as well as a family member. “You can learn more about a person from his bones than from anything else,” he said.

Each box represented a treasure more valuable than gold or silver. The bones, he explained, were caches of knowledge.

He gave me a quick tour of the skeletons he was working on at the time: a recent homicide case, a Jamestown burial, a Plains Indian, a cowboy from Texas, some nineteenth-century pioneers, and a Civil War soldier. His work touched virtually every era of American history.

I felt as if I had slipped into a time warp and my escort was a real-life Indiana Jones. I asked him to elaborate on his job.

“I work in different kinds of worlds,” Owsley began.

Those seven words convinced me that I was writing the wrong book. Rather than write about a lawsuit, I wanted to write about the man whose job is to visit other worlds, worlds of the past.

Over the ensuing three years I interviewed Owsley more than fifty times. I traveled with him to look at skeletons and mummies at various sites in the United States. I hiked with him in the West. I visited museums with him in the East. I observed him in his office and laboratory. The more I saw him in action as a professional, the more I wanted to know what made him tick.

At my invitation, he agreed to meet me in Lusk, Wyoming, the place of his childhood years. Armed with a video camera, a tape recorder, and a 35-mm camera, I had Owsley take me to the places of his childhood and introduce me to the adults who had most influenced him as a boy. I met his high school science teacher, his Sunday school teacher, and his Cub Scout den leader. They all pointed to his unquenchable curiosity as a boy. Each of them had felt early on that he would grow up to do something great, something most unusual, as a man.

Owsley and I even went to his childhood home and got permission from its current occupant to go inside and look around the basement where Owsley used to go to use his first chemistry set. I wanted to know everything about the climate and environment that helped produce Dr. Doug Owsley.

This book is not an anthropology textbook. Nor is it a scholarly treatise. It is instead my best attempt to show readers Doug Owsley’s world through his own eyes. I hope that this book will give readers the feeling that they are in the Waco compound after the fire, in a Colonial crypt when the coffins are opened, or at the examination table when America’s oldest mummy is unwrapped.

Arguably, no one in the world today has handled more skeletons than Owsley, more than 10,000 in all. He reads bones like most people read books. His vision is extremely rare. While we may see just a bone, he sees a story, a glimpse into the past.

In one of my numerous stays at Owsley’s rural Virginia farmhouse, I sat at his dining-room table typing on my laptop. One evening, as I struggled to come up with words to convey to readers his ability to see things when most people would be in the dark, Owsley went outside to cut his grass. I got immersed in my writing, and hours later it struck me that Owsley had never come back inside. It was well after 10 P.M. It was pitch-black outside. Then I realized that the tractor motor was still running. He was cutting the grass in the dark.

The next morning I went outside, and the lines in the grass were straight.

July 31, 2002