The University of Sydney News - 19 October 2001

Bone detective unlocks secrets of the dead

By Jane Mundy

Retrieving old skeletons and using them to piece together a picture of the lives of people long dead is painstaking, sometimes gruesome and frequently uncomfortable work, which often goes unacknowledged by the rest of the scientific community.

But a well-travelled forensic archaeologist from Sydney has achieved the rare distinction of being named this year"s Unsung Hero of Australian Science by the Australian Science Communicators group.

She is Dr Estelle Lazer, an honorary research associate in the departments of Anatomy, Classical Archaeology and Architectural and Design Science at the University of Sydney.

Dr Lazer's career began with an "apprenticeship" at the Sydney morgue where she trained in the application of forensic techniques for archaeological skeletal studies the subject of her honours thesis.

She did her PhD at Pompeii in Italy, characterising the population of the ancient city before it was suddenly buried by a volcano. Her work involved determining the sex, height, age at death and population affinities of the inhabitants from statistical studies of scattered bones. She is now completing a book entitled Victims of Vesuvius about her findings.

Alas, poor Yorick: Estelle Lazer examines a skull found among human bones in an ancient bathhouse in Pompeii.

As the archaeologist for the AAP Mawson's Huts Foundation, she has been involved in assessing, documenting and conserving the site of polar explorer Douglas Mawson's historic base camp in Antarctica. She has spent a summer taking part in an archaeological investigation of sealing sites on remote Heard Island, and is currently working on an archaeological dig much closer to home in Broadway, Sydney.

Earlier this year she worked in Cyprus with Professor Richard Green, looking at non-human bones found in the medieval layers of soil above a Roman theatre.

Dr Lazer describes the work of a forensic archaeologist as "a sophisticated kind of voyeurism".

"Human bones are plastic and they are remodelled in the healing process after injuries and by activities throughout a person's life. A huge amount of information about a person and their lifestyle is stored in their bones," she said.

"For instance, you can tell from wear marks on people's teeth that they smoked pipes. You can see from a bad fracture or indications of disease that a person must have suffered considerable discomfort. Bones can tell you a great deal about how people lived and how hard their lives have been. They don't have to be alive for you to empathise with them."

Work as a forensic archaeologist is not without its hazards.Dr Lazer has been spat upon by tubercular goats in Bahrain, locked up daily with thousands of human bones in Pompeii, and lashed to the mast as the iceberg spotter in the Southern Ocean. She dislocated a shoulder while working in freezing temperatures at Mawson's Huts, survived charging elephant seals in the sub-Antarctic and worked in snow-filled colonial graves in NSW.

When a cemetery at Cadia, near Orange, was relocated, Dr Lazer was part of a team called in to excavate and analyse the site. There were more bodies than headstones, and they had to be identified before the skeletons were re-interred.

"I spent many days lying face down in a grave, carefully retrieving old skeletons," she said. "It was about then I realised that this is clearly not a job for everyone."

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