Unearthing the Secrets of Human Remains

Tuesday, 18 July, 2000

Police stand to benefit from research at Adelaide University that aims to find the best methods for detecting human skeletal remains. The results will assist in murder cases that remain open because no body has been found. The research is significant because it focuses purely on locating bodies in Australian conditions.

Early findings from a mock gravesite maintained at the University's campus have been encouraging. Researchers buried dead kangaroos and pigs at various sites to test mineral exploration technologies from around the world, including ground-penetrating radar and 3D laser imaging devices.

Many of the geophysical instruments that have potential are used primarily for mineral exploration and are not constructed for shallow burials. Researchers hope to adapt them for this purpose.

A critical component of the research is the time it takes for bodies to decay. Scientists are detecting skeletal remains, and not decomposing bodies. Changes in the soil surface are also being monitored to see if they give a reliable indication of graves.

Preliminary findings reveal that in Australia there is little compaction of the soil, which in turn leaves no telltale depressions in the soil. Seasonal factors are also important as in winter, vegetation regrowth makes it difficult to detect potential skeletal remains. More definitive findings will become available as the kangaroo and pig remains decay further.

Researchers plan to respectfully bury some human cadavers in a cemetery, studies of which will improve the accuracy of the research.

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