Science students helping families of war crime victims

The skeletal remains of a grandfather executed by soldiers more than 30 years ago during Guatemala’s brutal internal armed conflict have been exhumed and analysed by science students on a unique field trip.

The group of postgraduates from the University of Lincoln, UK, were accompanied by programme leader Gillian Fowler and forensic anthropology technician Marco Perez.

Gillian previously spent six years working for the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) where she was involved in the exhumation of graves containing innocent victims of the uprising against the military dictatorship of the 1980s. Marco spent 12 years working for the FAFG as the Head of the Social Anthropology Unit.

The team travelled to a remote region in the highlands of Guatemala to carry out two exhumations, both graves containing victims extra judicially executed by the army.

Accompanied by archaeologists from the FAFG, they exhumed the body of a man in the village of Batz Chocola, a three hour drive from the town of Nebaj. Family members were present as the remains of the grandfather were uncovered.

The second exhumation took place on an ex-military base, on the outskirts of Cotzal, near to Nebaj, where the students spent three further days digging trenches. On the third day one trench revealed clothing and further careful excavation uncovered a grave of six individuals. They had been thrown into the grave and all had their hands tied. Ballistic evidence was also recovered from the grave, indicating the victims had been shot.

Back in Guatemala City, the group of students from Lincoln’s MSc Forensic Anthropology programme returned to the FAFG laboratory to analyse the remains. Their findings will add to evidence being collected by the country’s state prosecutor to bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice.

Postgraduate student Ryan Austin said: “The field trip gave us the opportunity to experience first-hand the demands of being a Forensic Anthropologist and both the practical and mental challenges that ensue. Comparatively, on a personal level to work on human rights issues and know that we have contributed in some small way to the families in their pursuit of closure and justice while still on our Masters is a remarkable privilege.”

Fellow student Stephanie Morgan said: “It was an honour to be able to meet the family of one of the victims, and to see how the community deals with the disappeared was a humbling experience. To witness how the FAFG helps the community and what it means to the families shows how important this work is.”

On the students’ work Nancy Valdez, FAFG Field School Coordinator, said: “During the two week field school the students demonstrated an excellent performance in both the development of professional and sociocultural activities. They displayed huge interest in the work and were eager to learn, as well as showing respect and thoughtfulness towards the families.”

Gillian Fowler, Senior Lecturer in the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, leads the MSc in Forensic Anthropology and established the student field work with the FAFG. Recognised internationally for her work on mass grave exhumations, she has also been involved with the Afghan Forensic Science Organisation (AFSO) from its inception in 2010 and contributed to a special report which outlines steps Afghanistan can take to help identify the victims of the country’s 35-year conflict.

She said: “The students have been well-trained throughout their course to carry out complicated analytical tasks taking instruction in Spanish and the FAFG were very impressed with their abilities. The final day was spent in the FAFG’s DNA lab where they worked on family reference samples and prepared bone samples for DNA extraction and analysis.

“This was a real test for the students who had to prove themselves and work in very difficult conditions. I am extremely proud of how they handled themselves and they are a credit to the University of Lincoln. We are the only Masters programme to incorporate this type of experience within the course in the UK and I believe this hands-on experience is essential to anyone wishing to develop their skills in forensic anthropology.”

Guatemala 1 Guatemala 2 Guatemala 4 Guatemala 5 Guatemala 6 Guatemala 7 Guatemala 8 Ryan Austin

Dr Dawnie Steadman will kick off inspiring lecture series

The director of the first natural human decomposition laboratory in the world, Dr Dawnie Steadman, is launching the University of Lincoln’s Be Inspired lecture series on 7th April, 2014.

The programme, which is free and open to the public, will see world-leading female scientists deliver high-profile research lectures.

Dr Steadman is the Director of the Forensic Anthropology Centre (FAC) at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, US. The FAC contains the Anthropology Research Facility – the first of its kind to permit the systematic study of human decomposition.

Dr Steadman is a skeletal biologist who specialises in forensic anthropology, bioarchaeology and human rights investigations. She is a Board Certified Forensic Anthropologist and consults for medical examiners and law enforcement across the US.

Her recent bioarchaeological work includes a National Science Foundation-funded study of warfare and community health in prehistoric Tennessee and she has been involved in human rights investigations in several countries, most recently in Spain and Uganda.

Dr Steadman’s talk will focus on her career path as a woman in the US scientific field and she will also be presenting her research including current research at the Forensic Anthropology Centre.

While visiting the University, Dr Steadman will also validate the new MSc in Forensic Anthropology, which begins in September 2014.

Gillian Fowler, Forensic Anthropologist and Senior Lecturer within the School of Life Sciences, said: “We are privileged to have such an eminent forensic anthropologist who has worked all over the world and who is now leading the research at the Forensic Anthropology Centre at the University of Tennessee.”

The talk is the first in a series which will see eminent female scientists deliver free public talks.

Professor Mary Stuart, Vice Chancellor of the University of Lincoln, will give a welcome address on Monday, 7th April at 5.30pm which will be followed by the lecture at 6pm and a question and answer session.

To book a place for the event, which is being held in the EMMTEC, call 01522 837100, e-mail or via website:

Forensic Anthropology students to aid investigations of war crimes

A new postgraduate programme will be the first in the UK to offer students an overseas field module where they will contribute to investigations of war crimes.

As part of the new MSc in Forensic Anthropology at the University of Lincoln, UK, students will have the opportunity to participate in exhumations and see first-hand the work of forensic anthropologists in Guatemala.

Forensic Anthropology involves the analysis and identification of human remains.  People with these skills are becoming increasingly valued during mass grave investigations and disaster recovery.

Specialists Gillian Fowler and Dr Lucy Easthope from Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences will train students in techniques required for effective fieldwork. The course will place particular emphasis on the role of the expert witness and presentation of evidence. The programme also focuses on human rights and the value of forensic anthropology in international criminal investigations.

Gillian is a Forensic Anthropologist with extensive experience working in post-conflict mass grave exhumations, initially in Guatemala and more recently in Afghanistan.

She spent six years with the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala. While there she was involved in the exhumation of mass graves containing victims of the country’s uprising against the military dictatorship in the 1980s.

More recently, Gillian contributed to a special report by the group Physicians for Human Rights’ (PHR) outlining steps Afghanistan can take to help identify the victims of the country’s 35-year conflict.

Gillian said: “The skills that forensic anthropologists possess are becoming increasingly valued in international criminal and mass fatality investigations. This MSc is responding to the need to train a new generation of anthropologists who can make an important contribution to future investigations of this nature.”

As an expert in mass fatality disasters Dr Easthope has advised governments, corporations and relief agencies in the aftermath of major incidents, including the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand, as well as developing contingency plans, training programmes and exercises with a number of international organisations.

She specialises in mass fatalities planning, disaster victim identification (DVI), community recovery and the care of survivors, the bereaved and the deceased after disaster.

This programme consists of lectures, seminars and practical laboratory sessions with hands-on experience of working with the University’s extensive skeletal collection. Simulated crime scene investigations (including a large mass grave exercise) and ‘mooting’ (simulated court proceedings) also feature. Students will have exclusive use of a dedicated bone laboratory where they can work independently on the University’s extensive skeletal collection to enhance their osteology knowledge, which underpins the work of a forensic anthropologist.

The course makes use of state-of-the-art equipment in the laboratories of the College of Science, including the new multi-million pound Joseph Banks Laboratories which will open in summer 2014.

For more information go to or contact Gillian Fowler on 01522 886648 or e-mail

Lincoln experts invited to international conference

Two academics from the School of Life Sciences have been chosen to attend a unique conference focussing on missing persons.

Dr Lucy Easthope and Gillian Fowler are in The Hague for the convention hosted by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).

Running from Tuesday, 29th October to Friday, 1st November The Missing: An Agenda for the Future will see experts from around the world discuss the issue of missing persons in all its facets.

Dr Easthope’s work focusses on mass fatalities planning, Disaster Victim Identification (DVI), community recovery and the care of survivors, the bereaved and the deceased after disaster. She also has a special interest in the care and return of personal effects.

Gillian is a Forensic Anthropologist with extensive experience working in post-conflict mass grave exhumations in Guatemala and more recently in Afghanistan.

Globally, there are millions of cases of missing and disappeared persons from armed conflict and human rights abuses. In addition, thousands of persons go missing every year as a result of disasters, migration, human trafficking, organised crime and other causes.

During the last two decades there has been a striking evolution in how the issue of the missing has been addressed, particularly following conflict and disasters.

The primary objective of the conference will be to review the dynamics of these advances and to explore how the issue of the missing should be addressed in the future.

As such, the conference will focus on global initiatives to account for persons who go missing for any and all involuntary reasons.