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A Grave Situation

April 21, 2014

Katie Corcoran (l) and Amy Mundorff (r) prepare a test grave for the three-year research project at UT's Forensic Anthropology Center. Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess/News Sentinel

By Whitney Heins

Decades of deadly conflicts in Africa and the Middle East have claimed thousands of civilian lives. Alleged reports of bodies disposed en masse permeate the media. In most cases, families of these victims have no idea where their loved ones are buried and are unable to seek justice from those responsible.

Human rights workers do their best to monitor suspected mass gravesites from afar, waiting patiently until it is safe enough to enter the area. But finding mass graves is an arduous task. In addition to being in dangerous locations, many sites are just too old or small to find. Sometimes culprits move the bodies to confuse authorities when they get too close.

Amy Mundorff and Dawnie Steadman are forensic anthropology professors at the University of Tennessee. They have both encountered challenges like this firsthand in different corners of the world. Steadman has searched for mass graves in Argentina, Cyprus, and Spain. Mundorff has investigated them in Canada and the United States.

Currently, there is no simple way to detect these clandestine cemeteries, but Mundorff and Steadman are developing new methods to aid in the discovery process and make it much safer.

Today, human rights workers use word of mouth or—in situations where graves hold hundreds or thousands of people—satellite imagery. But both methods are inexact and workers still end up venturing into harm’s way to dig holes at dozens of sites.

“I have colleagues who have worked on excavations where there are unexploded ordinances,” Mundorff says. “One of my friends who worked in the Congo had United Nations guards protecting him from armed insurgents.”

Common Ground

Katie Corcoran measures the study area for the experimental grave placement where six bodies will be analyzed over a three-year span. Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess/News Sentinel

Katie Corcoran measures the study area for the experimental grave placement where six bodies will be analyzed over a three-year span. Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess/News Sentinel

Several years ago, Mundorff learned about a technology that uses lasers to scan land from the air and map topographical changes. Known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), it has the potential to pinpoint mass graves, no matter the size or age, without sending people to dig in hazardous conditions.

Mundorff was eager to test the efficacy of LiDAR on mass grave detection when she arrived at UT. She eventually partnered with Steadman, the director of UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center, and Katie Corcoran, an archaeologist-turned-doctoral candidate, who happened to have the same research goals.

Together the scientists designed a project that combined LiDAR with other methods to identify if lives lost, no matter how long ago or in what situation, lie beneath the surface. Steadman would oversee the project, Mundorff would lead it, and the results would be the focus of Corcoran’s dissertation.

“The whole point of the project is for people like me who are looking for mass graves to spend less time in dangerous situations on the ground and more time in the lab looking at computer data,” Steadman says.

Truly Groundbreaking

The project finally broke ground on a cold and rainy Valentine’s Day in 2013. After months of planning, a secluded site on the banks of Fort Loudon Lake was prepared to be the resting place for ten human cadavers donated to the Forensic Anthropology Center.

Mundorff, Steadman, and Corcoran lead the way as dozens of other faculty and graduate students trekked down the sloping riverside with shovels in hand. They proceeded to dig four large holes in the previously uncontaminated land.

They placed six bodies in the first hole, three in the second, and one in the third. Some keys, wallets, and gun casings were also added before the bodies were covered. The fourth hole was refilled with only dirt so it could act as a control. For the next three years, the team will use light and heat to monitor the burial sites using a combination of technologies.

Lidar illustrationLiDAR is being used from the air and ground to scan the surface and detect elevation changes. Graves sink after a burial because all of the dirt is not replaced. After the first rain, there is typically an indentation of the entire grave. Depressions also form where the decomposing bodies lie. This technology will generate a three-dimensional model of all the objects present.

“LiDAR scans produce extremely high-resolution data,” Corcoran says. “These data sets can be viewed with specialized software as 3-D models, similar to what you’d see in a gaming environment. We can compare the results with other scans taken at different times to see how grave surfaces change over time”

Multi-spectral imagery is supplementing the LiDAR data to see how light is reflected across different spectra such as green or red. Since plants and soils reflect light differently, the resulting images will allow scientists to distinguish any extraordinary disturbances, such as buried bodies.

“Everything has nitrogen, from plants to people,” Mundorff says. “As people decompose, the nitrogen should be released into the grasses and surrounding vegetation. This release impacts how light is reflected from the objects. We are looking to see how much of an increase there is in nitrogen release, how far from the burial site, and how long it persists.”

To complement this data, Mundorff collects and analyzes plant samples each month to see how isotopes, which are different forms of the same element, change over time.

Thermal readings, another technique the team is using, are taken at night to best capture the heat generated by decomposing bodies as the surrounding soil cools. And every other week, Corcoran and Mundorff alternate taking photographs to produce a time-lapse image of the graves and vegetation that may provide visual cues of changes to support the other research methods.

“We want to know what the threshold of the technologies’ utility is. If I have a grave I am looking for, this would let me know that ‘x’ technology won’t be useful because the grave is too small or too old,” Steadman explains.

The researchers are also working with others to ensure the first-of-its-kind study is robust. They are receiving support from ORNL and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency through a cooperative research agreement.

“This agreement allows us to do what we wanted to do with this project. It gives us access to cost-prohibitive data,” Mundorff says.

At the conclusion of the study, the researchers plan to host the first-ever mass grave excavation training program for international workers. They will demonstrate how to identify human remains based on evidence gathered from the site, such as keys and wallets, and determine what occurred to help identify victims and bring justice.

“When perpetrators can walk around with impunity, it shows others that they can get away with it,” Mundorff says. “We hope our work will bring about change.”

Mundorff, Steadman, and Corcoran believe their research is the first step to quickly, safely, and effectively locating victims and proof of war crimes. But to the families of the fallen, the next step cannot come fast enough.