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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 October, 2004, 23:13 GMT 00:13 UK
Listening to the 'silent witnesses'
By Caroline Ryan
BBC News Online health staff

A US investigator said bodies were bulldozed into the grave
Forensic anthropologist Sue Black has spent her career uncovering the secrets of the dead.

Professor Black's career has involved investigating war crimes - and dealing with crimes closer to home.

The idea that a body can be a 'silent witness' to a crime increasingly features in fictional and real-life investigations.

The BBC drama Silent Witness and the crime novels of Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs have provided the public with an insight into the field.

You have to have a clinical detachment, however horrific it might be
Professor Sue Black, University of Dundee
But experts such as Professor Black show how forensic anthropology - the study of human anatomy and bone - also reveals the secrets behind real-life crimes.

Professor Black, who is based at Dundee University has examined mass graves to find evidence of how people died in other formed war zones.

On one occasion, Professor Black and her team went to Krushe e Mahde, a village in Kosovo, where it was said 30 men had been rounded up and shot in an outbuilding.

When the experts arrived, months later, they were faced with the gruesome task of studying the bodies to find out exactly what had happened there.

They had to examine the war crime scene to see if the forensic evidence corroborated witness statements about the massacre of Kosovan Albanian by Serbs.

Professor Black told BBC News Online: "We were there to do two things - to see if the evidence corroborated or refuted the witness statements.

"Then, if it was possible, we would hope to assign an identity to the bodies."

She added: "These deaths had occurred around February, so the bodies had been lying around for four to five months in 40C heat, partially buried in rubble.

"It was like a jigsaw puzzle.

"But we were able to say, 'this is an arm from a man aged 25 to 30', and 'this leg is from someone who was aged 50 to 60'."

Professor Black said it was just one of hundreds of war crime scenes she visited in Kosovo.

Bone fragments

Professor Black was called in after the partially burnt remains of a body were found at a scrapyard in Wolverhampton in 1999.

Amanda Burton stars in the BBC drama Silent Witness
Dramas such as Silent Witness have raised the profile of forensic work
There was nothing to identify the body, and Professor Black had to use her skills to garner as many clues as she could.

She said: "The body had been burnt. We had 2,500 fragments of bone, no bigger than a thumbnail.

"We had to look at every fragment to get as much information as possible."

She said: "We had to look at certain areas of the body which grow differently."

Fragments from key bones revealed the body was that of a young woman who was less than five feet tall.

But it was a tiny piece of ankle bone which told experts most about the body.

"It was an area where two areas of bone fuse together. In this woman, it had begun to fuse but had not fused completely.

"We know that this area begins to fuse when a person is 17 and closes when they are about 19.

"So we knew she must have been around that age. But we could only give that information because we had that particular fragment of bone."

Emotional detachment

The information Professor Black was able to glean from the body was able to help identify teenage prostitute Marcella Ann Davis, 19.

Professor Sue Black
If we know that this work is going on out there, then the supporters of Saddam Hussein will also know
Professor Sue Black
In July 2000, Paul Brumfitt, 44, was convicted of her murder and given a life sentence at Birmingham Crown Court.

Despite the horrific nature of her work, Professor Black, who recently launched what is believed to be the UK's first degree in forensic anthropology, says it is crucial to remain emotionally detached from the work.

"If you cannot be objective, you're no use to anybody. You have to have a clinical detachment, however horrific it might be.

"If you get emotionally involved with a scene, then you're not going to be able to remain unbiased and objective."

But despite all her experience. Professor Black says she is not prepared to go to Iraq.

A mass grave is currently being excavated in the north Iraqi village of Hatra. Nine trenches in containing hundreds of bodies, believed to be Kurds killed during the repression of the 1980s.

The bodies found include those of unborn babies and toddlers.

Professor Black said: "I have worked in some very dangerous situations. But they were situations where the world didn't know we were there.

"What is concerning here is the attention being given to this site in Iraq.

"If we know that this work is going on out there, then the supporters of Saddam Hussein will also know."

She said she also had concerns about the access which was being granted to the media at the site.

"This information will come out in a court-room. It shouldn't come out before the court-room."

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