Move over Gil Grissom and Horatio Cane, Sue Black is in the building!

How glorious was the weather yesterday? And where was I?  At the National Museum of Scotland, in a windowless lecture theatre, listening to a talk on forensic anthropology by a university professor. Was I mad? No. Because Professor Sue Black was worth it!

Okay, if you are a CSI, Dexter or Silent Witness fan, look away now. Sue Black says such programmes (and books of the same ilk) are the bane of her life. They depict the work of the forensic anthropologist in a totally unrealistic way (no, forensic scientist do not carry guns) and they make us, the public, very forensically unaware.

This isn’t a problem unless we are required to do jury service or we are officers of a court. Why? Because our unrealistic expectation of what forensic science is, makes it all the harder for professionals, like Sue Black, to do their job. Such misunderstanding also leads to an awful lot of young people applying to do degree courses in forensic science without actually realising they’ll have to study science!


So what does a forensic anthropologist do? Well, I’ve just counted the pages of notes I took last night. There are ten of them. Yikes! This is way too much for you, dear blog reader, too wade through (especially as I am no way near as entertaining as Sue Black), so here are the highlights.

Your name has nothing to do with your identity: there are 301 other James T Kirks in the UK; 12,546 other John Smiths, and 20 Elvis Presleys.

The job of a forensic anthropologist is to speak for the dead and return the identity to a person when he or she can not do it for him or herself.


Only young people, 17 years or younger, have the right to an identity. (The Geneva convention applies only to those who have died in conflict.)

A decomposed seal flipper looks remarkably like a human hand. There are 300 to 350 cases of reported findings of human remains a year, which turn out to be non human.


Two and a half thousand people are reported missing every day.

A quarter of a million people lost their lives in the 2004 Sumatra earthquake. The majority of them were never identified because it was simply too difficult to do.

Forty percent of bodies are found by people walking their dogs. Be careful out there!

The job of a forensic anthropologist is to identify a human being, or what remains of a human being, for medical purposes. This includes identifying:
a) asylum seekers and refugees, who have no documentation and the person’s true age needs to be determined – someone older than seventeen receives different help from someone younger.

b) the recently deceased (as in a mass fatality caused by a terrorist bomb or a natural event)

c) a decomposed body

d) pictures of people used in photos used by paedophiles

e) skeletal remains

f) fragmented remains.

In Britain today forensic  anthropologists are preparing for a mass fatality event during the Olympics (they, of course, have all fingers and toes crossed their wont be one)

One out of every six children don’t live with their biological father – and many of the children involved are unaware of the fact.

A cold wash cycle and non biological soap power do not remove DNA!

In hot countries a corpse can turn into a skeleton within a week, making it very difficult to identify.

Interpol says: humans have a right to an identity and to have it returned to them for legal reasons i.e.: for effective prosecutions, to facilitate an estate etc.

Sue Black says: giving back someone their identity is giving dignity and respect to the deceased, and offers closure to the family of the deceased.

This brief summary has not done Sue Black’s lecture justice by far. She enthralled a packed house of all ages, including my daughter (also choosing to forego the sun!). If you ever get a chance to listen to Sue Black, grab it! I was lucky enough to get free tickets from the National Museum of Scotland (one of my favourite places in Edinburgh, even without the fish ponds. I blogged about this wonderful museum only a few months ago). The tickets came via Clicket, with whom I have a sort of a barter arrangement: I blog about an event in exchange for a free ticket or two. That said,  I would have gone to this Edinburgh Lecture event anyway. As a crime writer and as a human being, I found Sue Black’s talk fascinating and very moving.

Oh yes, and I also spied the lovely Sara Sheriden in the audience, crime writer of the new Brighton Bell series of novels (no doubt, like me, enjoying doing a little bit of research).

Last but not least, Prof Sue Black is looking to raise A Million for a Morgue!  It’s a great cause! Why not check it out?




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12 Responses to Move over Gil Grissom and Horatio Cane, Sue Black is in the building!

  1. Louisa says:

    Great overview, Marianne! Wish I could have attended! I went to a similar type of talk a few months ago, given by someone who takes photographs at crime scenes. These types of jobs are fascinating and so important. It’s great that the museum is giving these talks!

    • Marianne Wheelaghan says:

      Thanks, Louisa. The museum really is fantastic. They offer so much now – and an awful lot of it is free. We are really spoiled in Edinburgh!

      • Kate Adamson says:

        When I was helping to organise Institute of Physics talks down in Worcestershire, we had a guy come and talk about road accidents are investigated, it was absolutely fascinating what you can get from looking at the scene.

  2. Kate Adamson says:

    Sounds amazing, I wish I’d been able to go (although I did have great fun at the McGonagall tour).

  3. Jamie Hamilton says:

    Prof’ Black gave an engaging and well structured Edinburgh Lecture last night at the National Museum of Scotland. She set out her stall with very well defined parameters and presented pretty harrowing case studies – to illustrate aspects of her profession – with robust sensitivity and a welcome directness. Her point about the popularisation, and very much dumbed-down nature of media misrepresentation of forensic anthropology, was well made. As an archaeologist, Indiana Jones and Time Team have played a similarly disruptive role in my career. But that said, I couldn’t escape a growing feeling of concern as Prof Black got into her stride.
    Was I alone in thinking there was an undertone of self-promotional glee in sharing her wonderfully interesting occupation with a rather saturnine Edinburgh audience high on the oxygen of the extraordinary Professor Sue Black? Did she seem overly pleased with herself? Could it be argued, while presenting a very much more accurate account of forensic anthropology, there was a patronising dumbed-down tone tempered with gruesome pictures to titillate the the goolish and add gravitas for the dissenters? The sort of techniques you might see used on TV productions, perhaps?
    Maybe these are the reasons people attended this event. Undoubtedly a lecture of this nature would present difficult issues and bleak imagery. Clearly there would be moments of sombre self-reflection at man’s inhumanity to man. Folk enjoy engaging in the forensic pleasure of a good murder and like to moralise about the seemingly just, or unjust, outcome. We love the subject matter.
    I, for one, expected more. While the Edinburgh Lectures are not the Royal Society Lectures, I had anticipated something less sensational and more cerebral. I didn’t need to see pictures of helecopters and tanks. Serra Leone is a dangerous place. We all know that.
    My companion, and host, of the evening thoroughly enjoyed Sue Black’s presentation style and lecture content, accusing me of intellectual snobbery and possessing a tainted world view. Perhaps she’s right, but I don’t find photos of shallow graves stuffed with the recently dead very interesting. Tragic and moving but not really very interesting. The mechanics of an occupation are of some interest. But missing, in my view, was the third part. The essential, illusive and intriguing mystery and magic of the human condition that teases the mind and connects the disparate elements of an occasion to make us think about the less obvious. The nearly attainable.
    Ah well. My tainted world view.

    • Marianne Wheelaghan says:

      Hi Jamie
      thanks so much for your honest thoughts about the lecture. Wow! Your experience was so different to mine. I suppose it’s that thing to do with managing expectations – I had none. Interestingly, I didn’t notice glee or self promotion in Prof Sue, nor did I think she seemed pleased with herself. Was she dumbing down? Well, I was hoping not to get a dry lecture on the study of forensic anthropology. I simply (yikes … wrong choice of word maybe!) wanted my interest to be held in an engaging way while at the same time getting an overview of a subject I wasn’t familiar with. Okay, I had guessed programmes like CSI were guff, but most of the rest of the lecture was new to me. I liked the powerpoint pictures – not because they titillated but because an hour is a long time to listen to anyone on a subject that is unfamiliar to you and the pics illustrated her points in an engaging way. To be honest, I thought the pics were rather tame (thank goodness), you can find far worse pics on the net any day. And, for me, she talked about the harrowing aspects of the job of an FA respectfully and in a non sensational way. Perhaps it wasn’t a particularly cerebral lecture, but for me, a non scientist, it made the study of forensic anthropology interesting in an accessible way and was worth giving up an hour of sunshine. And, interestingly the lecture did make me think about the illusive and intriguing mystery and magic of the human condition. I came away wondering about life and death and about nature and what’s it all about when a quarter of a million people can lose their lives in one act of nature, or why human beings continue to do such despicable things to each other, and why it is so, so important to give someone back their “an identity”: to be anonymous in death seems even worse than to be anonymous in life. Thanks again, Jamie. You’ve made me think some more ;0) Were you the gentlemen who asked ‘Prof Back’ the tricky question?

      • Jamie Hamilton says:

        Hi Marianne,

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my slightly unmannered rantings. You make good points about the illusive and intriguing mystery and magic of the human condition. Upon reflection you’re right, it was there, just illusive.

        Further thoughts and musings have bubbled to the surface while out walking and enjoying the Leith sunshine today. I’m not sure I entirely agree with your interesting position that it is;

        ‘so, so important to give someone back their “identity”: to be anonymous in death seems even worse than to be anonymous in life.’

        I was wondering about the very many societies and nations across the world that are without the benefit of forensic anthropology services. The near unimaginable multitude of brutalised poor people – as inconsequential as the billions of ephemera that live and die each day and have absolutely no consequence. The silent, anonymous, vast majority – anonymous in life and in death and will never be anything else.

        The West encourages the cult-of-the-individual which I reckon is misinterpreted as showing an appreciation of humanity and therefore accrediting the West with the moral high ground. Having said that the West does have a wonderfully eclectic and contradictory mix of moral values that are a joy to behold. Our competing belief systems help to further muddy the waters with marvellously artificial consequences.

        With this talk of anonymity I’m reminded of an amusing cartoon in Punch magazine. A woman is talking to the Invisible Man (swathed in bandages) and said, ‘You think your invisible, you should try being a middle aged woman.’

        No, I wasn’t the gentleman who asked the ‘tricky’ question. I am no longer inclined to that type of questioning in lecture theatres. I thought he was rather rude, actually.

        Your blog was the only place I could find a review of the Edinburgh Lecture so my apologies for saddling you with my outpourings. Nonetheless, I have enjoyed our exchange (and your blog) and I might even read The Blue Suitcase.

        • Marianne Wheelaghan says:

          Hi Jamie, nice to hear from you again. And so much to think about, again 😉 Yes, there are millions of brutalised poor but who are we to say whose lives are of consequence and whose lives aren’t? Although, that said, I agree with what you’re saying. We seem to live in a very, very unfair world. As for the cult-of-the-individual, oh, absolutely! It’s like some mass obsessive compulsive, ugly addiction. It’ll end in tears. Loved the joke – (speaking as a middle aged woman – ha ha!). And no apologies necessary whatsoever. I have also enjoyed the exchange. If you do read The Blue Suitcase, I hope you find it interesting, I’d certainly welcome hearing your thoughts on it.
          Hope you’re still enjoying the sunshine in Leith:)

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