Skull may be from family burial

Christopher Gooding
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Archeologist discusses behind-the-scenes science

PARRSBORO - When a human skull was discovered beneath a Parrsboro church in November, Nova Scotias medical examiner called upon the same expert used by the Miami Dade Police Department.

No, its not the fictional Horatio Caine.

Skull may be from family burial

PARRSBORO - When a human skull was discovered beneath a Parrsboro church in November, Nova Scotias medical examiner called upon the same expert used by the Miami Dade Police Department.

No, its not the fictional Horatio Caine.

Every two years the real Miami-Dade Police call upon Halifax?s Saint Mary's University to send forensic anthropologist Dr. Tanya Peckmann and her graduate students to the Florida city to assist with the excavation of suspected crime scenes. As the tapes roll nearby on another episode of the popular TV show CSI Miami Peckmann is handling the real cases.

"Sometimes they're filming just two blocks away from us," Dr. Peckmann said. "I wish things were as fast as they are on television."

Contracted by the medical examiners office to conduct excavations and forensic investigations in Nova Scotia, Dr. Peckmann arrived in Parrsboro in November to handle the excavation of the human skull found beneath the church with four of her grad students.

Driving to the scene, she said, is when the forensic work begins.

"Usually the four of us talk about terrain; if there's water near the burial, if it's a clandestine burial. All of it relates to how long it will take us."

The Parrsboro skull, however, posed a unique challenge and a career first for Peckmann.

"I've never excavated underneath a church before. It was really neat. It was an interesting case because of the history of the site."

Along with the skull, the forensic team discovered wood fragments and galvanized nails. While a 20th century process, galvanizing began in the 19th century and by analyzing the empirical data, Peckmann began to conclude she had an archeological investigation on her hands and not a forensic investigation.

"If the individual has been deceased 50 years or more it becomes an archeological investigation," she said.

Built in three phases, Peckmann said the Parrsboro United Baptist Church was first constructed in the 1800s with additions in 1945 and 1967. It was underneath the 1945 section of the building the human skull was found by construction workers. She estimates the skull dates to between the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Prior to her arrival in Nova Scotia, Peckmann worked in South Africa's Cape Town where millennia of civilizations are buried beneath the soil.

"It's a really old, historic city. It's not uncommon for someone to dig a pool and find human remains."

And therein lies the mentality of western civilizations response to finding human remains. With North America being a relatively new civilization Peckmann said it is natural to assume the worse.

From previous experience, the Parrsboro skull mystery, she said, could be less nefarious than some would assume.

"No one is going to dig underneath the church to bury a body," Peckmann said. "It was underneath the basement, which was about 10 feet down and quite far from the edge. No one would tunnel like that.

"What happens - and it happens often in rural communities that were farmland - someone says, 'I want to be buried under the oak tree,' and the site goes without a tombstone. We've had a couple of cases [like that]."

Students in Peckmann's forensic anthropology program graduate with a Masters of Science in Applied Science. Through a co-operation agreement with the Nova Scotia Medical Examiners Office, students receive eight months of hands-on experience in excavating potential crime scenes as well as autopsies. The only program of its kind in Canada, students intern with Peckmann every second year in Miami.



cgooding@springhillrecord.com



Organizations: Parrsboro church, Miami Dade Police Department, Halifax Saint Mary's University Parrsboro United Baptist Church Applied Science Nova Scotia Medical Examiners Office

Geographic location: PARRSBORO, Nova Scotia, Nova Scotias Florida South Africa Cape Town North America Canada Miami

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