Whenever someone doesn’t have the common god damn decency to die in front of a camera, their death may have to be examined by forensic anthropologists. They are sort of like CSI investigators because they too use science to solve crimes and are apparently never portrayed accurately on TV. I reached out to Hannah Woodford and Dr. Elizabeth Miller to confirm that their real-life professions rarely include sassy banter with FBI agents and chasing cannibalistic serial killers through abandoned museums. This is what I’ve learned:
Shows Like Bones Can’t Even Get The Basics Of Forensic Anthropology Right
Bones is the Fox crime procedural about forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan who, for reasons I’ll never understand, does NOT work with anyone nicknamed “Spock” or “Kirk.” Get your act together, Fox.
Another thing Dr. Brennan doesn’t do is use actual forensic science in her work. Dr. Miller, an internationally-recognized forensic anthropologist would know all about it, having been hired by Fox as a technical advisor during the show’s first season. She explains:
“It was very frustrating because as a scientist, I couldn’t stand the fact that the entire show really didn’t seem to care about the science of forensic anthropology at all. I would suggest compromise ideas to keep the science realistic; unfortunately, almost none of my suggestions were taken and I was ‘let go’ part way through the first season because of my ‘attitude’ … For example, I tried to tell the directors and producers that a ‘forensic platform’ was just silly.” I assume “silly” is just fancy academic talk for “fucking dumb.”
In the show, remains of victims are usually laid out on a raised platform where they can be showed off in a way that can only be described as pornographic. But that’s not the only gross thing about this idea.
“Dead people smell really, really bad,” Dr. Miller explains. “You would not work on them on a platform in the middle of a museum. Also, it takes days, sometimes weeks, to clean a skeleton for analysis.” But it’s what Dr. Brennan does later that really pisses off forensic anthropologists. (Which seems to mainly consist of making out with David Boreanaz.)
According to Hannah Woodford, who’s worked extensively in the field of forensic anthropology, “In the episode ‘The Don’t in the Do’, Temperance uses so-called advanced fusion of the sacrum [bone at the base of the spine] to compose a profile with identifiers such as age at death, height, and sex; yet fusion of the sacrum is regarded as largely irrelevant because fusion occurs anywhere from ages 18-30 and has essentially no bearing on sex. As for height, I am currently unaware of any methods used to determine height from the sacrum. In ‘The Secret in the Siege’, Dr. Brennan identifies the time of injury to a middle-aged adult with Harris Lines [signs that a bone has suddenly ceased growing] despite Harris Lines forming in childhood.”
In summary, Bones’ “science” dialogue might as well say: “The fecal staining on the bones tells us that the show is full of shit.”
Not Every Case Turns Out To Be A Thrilling Murder
“As a forensic anthropology consult in a coroner’s office in Illinois,” Hannah recalls, “I received a request to participate in a scene excavation after a curious individual vertebra was uncovered by a hiker.” So, what did it turn out to be? An Amish piano prodigy? A death metal musician killed by his bandmate? The victim of a serial-killing hacker?! These are all actual plot points from Bones, by the way.
“The vertebra and other bones that turned up were identified as bovine,” Hannah explains. “And thus is the plight of the forensic anthropologist, for this is frequently the case for rural or suburban scenes.”
And even when forensic anthropologists get to work with actual human remains, their findings are often equally anticlimactic.
“One time,” Hannah told me, “portions of a decedent’s skull were discovered lodged beneath a BNSF freight in Chicago by an employee of the company. Although some soft tissue remained, the condition and amount was so poor that forensic anthropology was the most practical option for investigation. Months of cranial analysis and investigation across the country later, it was confirmed to be a male vagabond with confirmed relatives who had attempted to hitch a cross-country ride on the rail car, but had for whatever reason lost his positioning and been pulled under the train.”
Even if you gave that case a snappy episode title like, let’s say, “The Clickety-Clack Corpse,” it still wouldn’t make for very entertaining television.
Forensic Anthropology Can Be Unbelievably Gross
Forensic anthropologists never work with flesh; only skeletal remains. Dealing with the meat is the job of the medical examiner, and might include turning the deceased’s scrotum into a flamethrower. But that doesn’t mean FA is any less hardcore.
To get to the bones, forensic anthropologists usually start with boiling the body, then laboriously snipping, scraping, and pulling all the flesh off it.
The skeletal striptease is known less-childishly as maceration, and it’d be a soul-cleaving experience even when dealing with a fresh corpse of someone who bullied you in high school. But forensic anthropologists mainly deal with corpses that have spent a lot of time in the death oven and came out smelling worse than a sewage leak in a fart factory. To Bones’ credit, they did sort of get into this on the show but visuals alone could never prepare you for the olfactory horror of working with actual human remains. Hannah elaborates:
“Forensic scientists resort to maceration when a decedent meets certain requirements: the decedent is in advanced decomposition and/or has been in this state for an extended period of time (months), the decedent has gone unidentified for an extended period (months), and attempts to identify the decedent through DNA, dental, or finger print analysis has proved unsuccessful. It is an unspeakably rancid task. It is said in forensic groups that decomposition smells different to everyone, but for myself I would describe it as the oldest and moldiest cheese you could attempt to fathom — and even then that cannot effectively capture the extent of the stench.”
And you might be thinking that you will just breathe through your mouth once you become a FA but here’s the thing about that: Apparently, maggots are the most common squatters on bodies and can leap off the table and straight to your mouth, causing you to vomit rapidly and voluminously. After that, the Bones intro usually starts playing.