Written in Bone: Hidden Stories in What We Leave Behind 
by Sue Black.
Doubleday, 359 pp., £18.99, September 2020, 978 0 85752 690 8
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IanHamilton once recounted in the LRB (22 October 1992) that ‘when William F. Buckley Jr sent a copy of his essays to Norman Mailer, he pencilled a welcoming “Hi, Norman!” in the index, next to Mailer’s name.’ The index discloses a lot about the nature of a book, and the passions of its author, more than is sometimes realised (‘acknowledgments’ are similarly illuminating). And as a reader, what you look for in the index reveals something about you, maybe even something you didn’t particularly wish to know.

The entries under ‘S’ in the index of Sue Black’s new book, Written in Bone, include ‘Stevanin, Gianfranco, Monster of Terrazzo’ (seven page mentions); ‘stillborn babies’ (six); ‘strangulation’ (six); and ‘strappado’ (two). In the section for ‘D’ I found the sequence ‘diploic bone’ (five); ‘disaster victim identification’ (two); ‘disfigurement’ (two); ‘dismemberment’ (fifteen). Those fifteen page mentions reflect Black’s special interest in dismemberment, though she claims no particular skill at dividing limb from limb: ‘The inexperienced dismemberer, and let’s face it most of us are, will probably attempt first to cut through the long bones. If they do, they will very swiftly find that this is an extremely difficult task. It requires the right tools, plenty of time, a suitable location and a good deal of stamina.’ The entry following ‘dismemberment’ is ‘Disney’.

Written in Bone, like Black’s previous memoir, All that Remains (2018), is a personal and professional account of a life spent working in forensic anthropology – thirty years rootling through human remains to find the ‘hidden stories in what we leave behind’. The book isn’t just about the horrible things human beings are capable of doing to one another; there’s plenty of forensic and anatomical science here too, as well as the occasional joke. The entry for ‘Disney’ isn’t a joke, but refers to her use of cartoons to understand neonatal skull anatomy: ‘A cute and non-threatening figure, such as Elmer Fudd … [is] essentially paedomorphic, or childlike, in appearance. By contrast an evil or threatening character – Jafar from Aladdin or Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty – would be tall and thin with a relatively small head [and] small sloping eyes.’ Where there is humour, it’s often very dark. Black tells of an old lady murdered for her pension by her carer, who turned herself in to the police twenty years later. She told them where to find the torso and limbs, but confessed she’d kept the head wrapped in plastic in her potting shed. ‘Most cases end up with a nickname,’ writes Black, ‘and it was inevitable that this one was going to become known for ever more as the “head in the shed”.’

When the police bring Black a bag of bones and ask what she makes of them she starts out with four questions: Are they human? Are they of forensic interest? Who was this person? Do they tell us anything about the cause and manner of death? With some bones the first question can be a challenge. Many years ago I considered applying for a role as an anatomy demonstrator at St Andrews, and was invited to meet one of the lecturers to learn more about the job. She received me with courtesy and curiosity, and took me on a tour of the department. It was only when she ushered me into a dissection room practical that I realised I was part-way through an extended interview. After the session was over she presented me with a small cuboid bone. ‘What do you make of that?’ she asked, after I’d turned it over in my hands for a few moments. ‘It looks like a carpal of the wrist,’ I said, ‘but weird, bulkier than any I’ve ever seen.’ She took it back, and I had the sense that I’d just failed a test. ‘It’s from a seal’s flipper,’ she said. ‘I found it on the beach this morning.’

To tell the difference between human and animal bones can require an expert eye: a pig’s ribs look almost identical to human ones, and horse-tail bones look like human phalanges. ‘If you think about how often a police search includes a dump or landfill site,’ Black writes, ‘and the quantities of spare ribs sold in our restaurants and takeaways, it will give you some idea of how often forensic anthropologists are called upon to distinguish between them.’

Black’s second question, about the forensic relevance of bones, speaks to the difficulty of assessing how old a bone may be (as she says, ‘setting up a murder investigation based on Roman remains is not likely to result in a solved case’). The speed with which the flesh of a corpse melts from the bone varies greatly depending on temperature, soil type and scavenger activity. It isn’t all that unusual for the police to find an unburied body with its hands torn off. In the UK, this is usually the work of a fox – foxes cache their food in scattered locations, to hide it from badgers. And of course the abundance and industry of insect life vary with climate, and have a large bearing on speed of decomposition: the profile and seasonal activity of insects found in the Highlands are very different from those in Cornwall. It’s only recently that the species tables used by pathologists in the UK to gauge time of death have been adjusted for the variation in location.

In the tropics an unburied body can be reduced to bones within a fortnight, while in a cold and dry climate bodies can lie preserved for many decades (it’s the preservative power of permafrost that made it possible to recover still active samples of Spanish flu virus from a graveyard in Alaska). Black tells of a barnacle-encrusted skull found on the harbour wall of a port in the West of Scotland, no doubt left there by a fisherman who’d trawled it up from the sea floor and couldn’t face the paperwork involved in telling the police. Forensic analysis drew a blank until the carbon dating results were in. ‘This man had been dead for six to eight hundred years,’ Black writes. ‘Whoever he was, bless him, he was not of forensic relevance.’ Carbon dating isn’t much use for estimating the age of bodies less than five hundred years old, but the advent of nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s has given the forensic anthropologist another tool: strontium-90. This isotope doesn’t exist naturally, but our bodies are now soaked in it because of the food we eat and the water we drink. Its presence in bones is a reliable indicator that death has occurred within the last sixty years or so.

When it comes to the third question – ‘Who was this person?’ – it takes just a few bones to help Black narrow the demographic possibilities. Bones, hair and facial contours provide a lot of information about ethnicity. She writes about a decomposed young woman bound in tape and folded into a suitcase, who she could confidently say was of East Asian origin: ‘Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, Japan or China. I didn’t think she had the facial characteristics that would take her south into Malaysia or Indonesia.’ She turned out to be a Korean exchange student, murdered by her landlord. From the long bones and spine Black can accurately estimate the height of the body, and from the pelvis, among other bones such as the vertebrae, shoulder blade and sternum, its sex. The ribs tell a story too, as with advancing age their cartilages ossify in a pattern that depends on whether the dominant sex hormone in the body is testosterone or oestrogen. Many years ago, assessing a body found in woodland, Black was able to tell the police to make their initial inquiries among the local transgender community: the rib cartilages seemed to have ossified through early adulthood in a pattern associated with high levels of testosterone, then shifted in later adulthood to a pattern indicating a preponderance of oestrogen. She can determine shoe size, gait, how many pregnancies someone has had, whether they were left or right-handed. Where there’s a joint replacement among the remains, she can often work out which hospital it was done in; sometimes the serial number on a hip or knee prosthesis will point straight to the victim’s medical records.

Information of this sort is invaluable to the police, and Black explains that even the most prosaic set of identifiers – in one recent case ‘male, aged between twenty and thirty years, white, between 6ft and 6ft 3ins in height’ – can shrink the pool of identities to investigate to about 1500. DNA evidence is now crucial in securing convictions, and maybe Black shouldn’t have given out her advice to murderers: wash any clothes worn during a killing in biological detergent, because it contains enzymes that destroy DNA. In one case Black inspected a suspect’s washing-machine filter and recovered a tiny shard of bone that came from the sphenoid – a central part of the skull which can be splintered only by blows of barely imaginable brutality. DNA analysis proved that the sphenoid belonged to the suspect’s wife, though he was subsequently convicted only of culpable homicide, and spent just four years in prison. ‘I heard recently that shortly after his release he had moved down to the Blackpool area and remarried,’ Black writes. ‘A woman’s capacity for trust and forgiveness never ceases to amaze.’

Black’s final question – what can bones tell us about the cause and manner of death? – takes us into the dark territory that for her is a daily reality, but the rest of us usually visit only in fiction. She describes sifting through a collection of bones from at least three babies, taken from under the floorboards of a cottage in the North of Scotland. Through a combination of analysis and local rumour it was established that the babies had been drowned at birth by their grandmother, who had been pimping out her daughter. In another passage, Black reconstructs an old man’s final moments, as he was bludgeoned to death in his own home by a murderer who enjoyed immunity from prosecution because he was an informer. She also describes the final hours of a young man tortured, then murdered, by the serial killer William Beggs; the man’s body parts were found, wrapped in plastic and sunk in Loch Lomond, by police divers who thought they were on a training exercise.

The stories come relentlessly; at times I had to put the book down and make myself think about something else. In one case, she points out to a colleague conducting a post-mortem the stripes – ‘Harris lines’ – visible on the X-rays of the skeleton of a boy who had killed himself. Harris lines are caused by periods of intense stress, as if the child’s body recognises that although obliged to continue growing, it has priorities other than laying down bone. That they recurred ‘three or four’ times suggested a cycle of distress. Her momentary observation led to the conviction of the boy’s grandfather for sexual abuse; he had come to stay once a year when the boy’s parents went on holiday, and the distress had left an imprint on the boy’s bones the way foul weather leaves its mark in the rings of a tree.

Most of the stories Black tells come from solving criminal cases in Scotland or London. But she has written elsewhere about her work identifying victims of atrocities in Kosovo, and of the Asian tsunami of 2004. She has also done pioneering work identifying paedophiles from the vein patterns, moles and skin creases on the hands and penises visible in confiscated images of child sexual abuse. And in another strand of her research, inspired by a visit to Saudi Arabia, she is looking into the heightened discriminatory abilities of Saudi women who habitually wear a loose, flowing hijab and have developed the ability to identify one another at a distance from the dynamic patterns of body shape: ‘If we get to the bottom of it, understanding and learning how to use this skill could prove extremely useful to organisations such as the security services.’

Towards the end of the book Black shifts focus from the local to the geopolitical. In January 2014 she was part of a team commissioned by the Qatari government to assess a cache of images smuggled out of Syria by a police photographer. Codenamed ‘Caesar’, his job had been to take pictures of dead detainees at two military hospitals in Damascus. There were 55,000 images, apparently of some 11,000 bodies – evidence of starvation, torture and killing in Assad’s prisons. ‘We saw no evidence of torture in the bodies above the level of the jaw,’ Black writes. ‘But 16 per cent of our sample showed transverse ligature marks around the neck. These were inconsistent with hanging, in which the imprint left by suspension generally turns upwards towards the back.’ They were marks left by strangulation, and in one image she could still see the car fan belt that had been used. Five per cent of the images showed ‘tramline’ bruising, which occurs when the body is battered with a long rod, causing marks to appear on the skin in twinned lines. ‘One body in particular showed so many such bruises – over fifty – up and down the torso, that the victim must have been bound at the time, otherwise he would have been trying to curl up to protect himself.’ The bodies were emaciated, and ulcerated on the feet and legs; ‘bones protruded through skin, every rib was visible, and faces were hollow and sunken.’ The team wrote the Da Silva Report on the images while they were still in Qatar; it was released a week later on the eve of peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the Syrian civil war. ‘But as yet, this has led to no obvious resolution.’

How would a lifetime examining such images, and sifting through stories of this sort, affect your sleep, dreams, sense of safety, levels of anxiety, mood? In a recent interview Black said that so far it hadn’t affected her, but she wasn’t ruling out the prospect that one day, some inconsequential trigger might provoke a breakdown, the way her colleague Richard Shepherd, who worked to identify bodies after the Bali bombings, described in his book Unnatural Causes (2018) being undone by the sound of ice cubes cracking in a glass.

Recently Black disclosed her own rape, when she was nine years old, by a transient man delivering goods to the hotel her parents ran in the Highlands. In an interview, the politician Ruth Davidson asked her whether it was this ordeal that led her to work on the identification of paedophiles. ‘I had to think long and hard about this,’ she says, but she is certain that this wasn’t the reason. ‘The images I have to look at are, of course, distressing, but I do so with a detachment that confirms to me that it is work, not a personal crusade.’ She has learned to compartmentalise, she says, and lives her life in accordance with the advice a head of CID once gave her: ‘Don’t own the guilt. You didn’t cause it and you are not responsible for it.’

It’s Black’s skills as a scientist, and her professionalism, that supply the bones of this book, but the gruelling human stories are the flesh of it. ‘The forensic anthropologist’s job is to try to read the bones of our skeleton as if they were a record, moving a professional stylus across them in search of the short, recognisable segments of body-based memory that form part of the song of a life.’ Her stories invite us to imagine the worst that can happen to us, or those we love. But I was also reminded of a pathologist who, on completing her autopsies, would pull off her gloves with a snap and announce: ‘Isn’t it good to be alive.’ There’s redemption here, too, and justice; there’s humanitarianism and compassion. Just don’t expect to find them in the index.

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Vol. 43 No. 4 · 18 February 2021

Gavin Francis’s reminiscence about the difficulty of distinguishing human from other animal bones took me back (LRB, 21 January). Most stories from medical school are apocryphal, but this one happened when I was there fifty years ago. In his viva, a fellow student was handed a clavicle. This is the nightmare bone, because it can be oriented in four different ways, making it hard to know left from right. ‘What’s this?’ ‘A bone, sir.’ ‘Ah. Would you care to try for honours? Which bone?’ ‘A human bone.’

Peter Jones
Witton-le-Wear, County Durham

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