The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

Human remains processing for skeletal collections using laboratory “burials”


Maxwell Museum and Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico

Thursday 67, Plaza Level Add to calendar

Museums, laboratories, and law enforcement agencies curate the skeletons of contemporary humans for research, teaching, and medicolegal purposes. However, the process of rendering a human from body to bone can be challenging, especially when dedicated tracts of land are not available to allow remains to decompose naturally. Without burial, marrow fat can remain in bone and, over time, become destructive to bony tissues. Our experiments with non-toxic methods of maceration for long-term stable curation of twenty-eight human skeletons have yielded a process that involves mechanical tissue removal, serial hot water baths with enzymatic detergent, and laboratory “burials” – the placing of bones for three months in plastic tubs filled with dirt. This procedure derives from the observation that taphonomic burial processes naturally remove marrow fats from bone over time. While in soil, these laboratory burials have no special temperature or humidity requirements, and are stored in a space where other anthropological cases are also stored, processed, and analyzed. Our process is relatively simple and inexpensive, which allows bones to be housed in perpetuity with minimal space requirements. This method can be useful for anthropologists developing museum collections as well as for forensic anthropologists, medical examiners, and coroners so they may maintain collections for forensic analysis and identification.

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