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

Chapter 38. IN DEMAND

April 2002

Nearly a year had passed since Judge Jelderks heard oral arguments in the Kennewick Man case. The twenty-two-thousand-page administrative record, and the judge’s promise to study every page, had bogged him down. Barran and Schneider were itching for a decision. So was Owsley. But he had plenty to keep him busy in the interim. His star had risen. His services were in demand from agencies and organizations all over the country.

The National Park Service had sent him a molar that had been discovered on the Manassas National Battlefield Park, the scene of the First and Second Bull Run, two of the most famous Civil War battles. A visitor who was hiking along a trail at the park in May 2001 spotted a human jawbone fragment indented in soil, thinly buried. A park ranger filed a report with the Interior Department. Naturally, the Interior Department presumed the remains were of a Civil War soldier, a discovery that might merit a historical marker at the park.

The jaw fragment contained a molar, which had been sent by the Interior Department to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology for examination. The Park Service sent it to Owsley for a second opinion. Owsley had exhumed or studied more Civil War skeletons than any scientist in the country—more than 150—from Gettysburg, Antietam, Port Hudson, and a host of other battlefields.

As soon as he saw the molar from the Manassas battlefield he knew it was not from a Civil War soldier. It was too recent. The tooth had a metallic filling. Although it was not unheard of for teeth to have fillings in the 1860s, the type of filling in this tooth was not from the Civil War era. It was too advanced. And the preservation in the tooth and the bone was too good. Owsley had seen enough fillings to know this was a post–World War II filling. But it was no more recent than the 1980s. He estimated the tooth was evidence of a missing person, someone who disappeared between 1940 and 1980. How the remains ended up at Manassas was another question, one that might require further excavation at the park.

Besides owing a report to the Park Service, Owsley had a report due to a Maryland state archaeologist on a case involving one of the nation’s first Supreme Court justices, Gabriel Duvall. A delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Duvall was chosen by President James Madison in 1811 to serve on the Supreme Court. Duvall died in 1834 and was buried in Maryland. Over time the graveyard, because of neglect and overcrowding, had become overgrown with brush, and rundown. In the 1980s some of Justice Duvall’s descendants decided to have his body exhumed and reburied at another gravesite. To assist them, the family hired an archaeologist, who found an elaborate coffin in the area where the judge had been laid to rest. The skeleton was identified as Justice Duvall’s and reburied with an appropriate land marker at a Maryland historical site.

A Maryland archaeologist called for Owsley’s assistance when the Duvall family subsequently decided to relocate other deceased ancestors from the overgrown cemetery to the new graveyard where Justice Duvall had been reburied. Owsley’s role was to identify one of the family members' remains. To get up to speed on the case, Owsley reviewed the file from Justice Duvall’s reburial. In it he found pictures of Justice Duvall’s coffin and the family-retained archaeologist holding the skull of Justice Duvall.

Owsley immediately noticed a problem. The skull purported to be Justice Duvall’s had a full set of healthy teeth. Yet Justice Duvall lived into his nineties. In the early 1800s, people who lived into their nineties simply did not die with a full set of healthy teeth. Owsley noticed another inconsistency. The coffin hardware was not of the early-1800s vintage. It was much more recent. The Duvall family had exhumed and reburied the wrong guy. Owsley promised the state archaeologist a report for the Duvall family.

Besides a backlog of cases to report on, Owsley had something more burdensome pressing on him. His work on the Pentagon victims from 9/11 caused him to contemplate his own mortality. Despite spending a lifetime working at death scenes, exhuming graves, and handling lifeless human remains, he had rarely considered his own death. Now he did.

Raised Episcopalian and serving as an altar boy, he had been taught as a child to believe in God and the afterlife. Long before he became a scientist, however, he had stopped believing in both.

But he kept his true feelings to himself. He felt that religion served a critical purpose in American society, from teaching children moral values to helping solidify strong families. Owsley did not want to contribute to what he perceived to be a national trend, particularly among some scholars, toward diminishing the importance of religion. He had another reason for withholding his personal views. He routinely worked with family members who were mourning the loss of loved ones. Religion or a belief in life after death helped people cope with loss, pain, and the fear of dying.

Death did not scare Owsley. The unpredictability of the timing, however, suddenly had him anxious. In one respect, he was at peace with his own mortality; his personal relationships with his wife and daughters were excellent. Nothing was wanting in terms of his family. But from a professional standpoint, he had not achieved his desires.

He had looked at more than ten thousand individual skeletons, probably more than anyone in the world. Yet his vast knowledge was locked up in his own mind. He wanted to write it all down. His greatest desire—to publish a written record of the human populations he had studied—had eluded him. Indians, in particular, represented the largest percentage of skeletons he had examined, more than five thousand in all. In addition to publishing a comprehensive volume on American Indians, he wanted to put them into perspective with the other skeletons surfacing in North America, such as Kennewick Man, the Spirit Cave mummy, and the Clovis people.

A sense of urgency overcame him. With tribes filing NAGPRA claims to recover and rebury skeletal collections all over the United States, time was of the essence. He decided to return to Tennessee, the scene of his graduate school studies. The university still had the seven hundred Arikara Indian skeletons from the Larson site, the ones that Owsley had studied as a student. The Arikara had made a claim to recover the collection. Before it went back, Owsley wanted to reexamine it. For his master’s thesis he had analyzed each skeleton to determine its age and sex. That marked the first time he had ever assigned ages to a skeletal collection. With decades of experience now under his belt, he wanted to recheck each skeleton for proper age.

May 2002
University of Tennessee

The older Owsley got, the better his vision became. He wore glasses and had trouble seeing far distances. But when it came to bones, his eyes were sharper than ever. Over a three-week span he analyzed all seven hundred Arikara skeletons from the Larson site, a process that had taken him nine months as a graduate student. He readjusted the age on many of his original assessments. This time he also detected many nuances in the bones that he had missed before, such as projectile points embedded in them. He also found much more evidence of tuberculosis in the children and bone cancer in the adults.

To help enhance the mortality portrait he hoped to document of Plains Indians, Owsley set aside some of the better bone specimens to bring back to the Smithsonian for advanced photography.

During breaks between analyzing the Arikara remains, Owsley spent some time on the Tennessee campus with two of its premier zooarchaeologists—archaeologists who study animal bones. Owsley had brought with him a tooth that had been shipped to him at the Smithsonian by a paleontology firm in California. A construction company that dug up some bones outside Los Angeles had hired the firm, whose paleontologists determined that the excavators had uncovered a seventeen-thousand-year-old saber-toothed tiger den. The den was fourteen feet below the surface and contained the bones of two adult cats and numerous juvenile cats, as well as bison bones and other animal bones presumed to be remains of the tigers’ prey. The discovery of one tooth mystified paleontologists, however. It appeared more human than animal. The firm sent it to Owsley for his expert opinion.

Owsley analyzed it and saw why it would be tempting to view the tooth as a human’s. Upon closer inspection, he detected notches on both sides of the tooth. Corresponding notches were not on the chewing surface, suggesting that something had been inserted between the individual teeth for the purpose of performing some kind of task. In other words, the tooth reflected the wear of a person who had been using his teeth like a third hand, like a fisherman who inserts line between his teeth while using his hands to tie a knot or bait a hook.

But looks can be deceiving, and Owsley was reluctant to conclude that the tooth was human. The presence of a human tooth in a seventeen-thousand-year-old tiger den was hard to fathom. Owsley wanted to make sure that there was not some extinct animal out there that might have had teeth closely resembling those of humans. He asked both Tennessee zooarchaeologists to examine it.

They compared it to teeth from scores of extinct animals from that time period. Nothing matched. They were stumped. Owsley was intrigued, but not convinced. He wanted to consult other zooarchaeologists to be sure there was not some extinct animal that he might not be aware of. They agreed with Owsley. The tooth was human.

From Tennessee, Owsley headed to South Carolina to help the U.S. Navy identify the Confederate sailors from the H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to sink a ship in battle. After ramming a torpedo that downed the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor on February 17, 1864, the Hunley never returned to port, and mystery had shrouded its fate for more than one hundred years. Then in 1995 a dive team discovered the ship off the coast of Charleston. The skeletal remains of eight crew members were inside. In 2001, with the vessel in dry dock, Owsley had gone into the sub and excavated the interior sediments. He saw something no one else saw. Instead of mere scattered bones deposited in sediment on the ship’s floor, Owsley visualized the men dying in 1864. In his mind he could see them at their stations in the tin-can-like iron sub as water penetrated. He could see the men going from life to death to advanced decomposition, and then in the final stage their bones coming apart, sinking to the floor of the sub, and settling in the sediment.

With the bones all removed from the sub, the time had come for Owsley to return to Charleston and rebuild the eight men, preparatory to identifying them and performing a proper burial.