Murders, Mysteries, History Revealed in Bones

Aug. 1, 2003 -- — There are people, dead for thousands of years, who still cast their shadows in Doug Owsley's office.

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Owsley can read history, picture life-and-death struggles, solve mysteries, and understand how nature has changed — all from the study of bones. "There's nothing in the archeological record that can tell you more about people of the past than the skeleton itself," Owsley says.

Climbing Into a Time Machine

"One of the first things he said to me was, 'I work in different kinds of worlds,'" author and journalist Jeff Benedict remembers. "It was like climbing into a time machine."

That time machine is one with seemingly never-ending corridors where Owsley walks daily. He is one of the most prominent scientists in the world in his specialty, and his workplace at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History contains the nation's largest collection of human remains — approximately 30,000 skeletons, each one a unique story.

Benedict got so wrapped up in Owsley's world that he wrote a book about the discoveries Oswley has made and the mysteries he has solved called No Bone Unturned.

"He can tell you what kind of diet [a] person had by looking at the bone structure and other indications on the bone, and on the wear of a person's teeth," Benedict said. "And once you've figured out diet, you can start to figure out geography. Where did this person live?"

Owsley teaches visitors willingly how he begins to read the stories of the bones. For instance, there are sutures, like junction lines, in a skull that grow together as we age. "It's a fast way of looking at whether you're dealing with a child or a younger person versus an older adult," Owsley says.

He can also determine race and gender from a skull. Males have well-defined brow ridges, he says — "more slope to the forehead. Females tend to have less brow ridge development."

Civil War-Era Mystery

One of Owsley's latest projects was the mystery behind a Civil War-era cast iron coffin — a rarity to people in Owsley's line of work. The coffin was discovered when contractors excavated a site on which they planned to build an industrial park in Pulaski, Tenn. There was no grave marker, and no one was absolutely sure who the man in the coffin was.

But because other members of a family named Mason were buried at the site, there was speculation that the occupant may have been a Civil War soldier named Isaac Newton Mason, whose final resting place was unknown.

"I hope that it's Isaac Newton Mason," said Fran Mason, who accompanied the coffin to the Smithsonian with her husband Guy, a homicide detective in Houston, Texas. "[Then] we can take him back to Tennessee, and they'll put a marker on his grave, and it will bring it full circle."

The 150-year-old coffin, which weighed 686 pounds including the water that had seeped into it, came with a viewing plate. In the days when the coffin was made, said Owsley, the plate allowed family members to view the body without being exposed to odor or possible disease.

Because the coffin was waterlogged, the plate didn't reveal much to the team Owsley had assembled. First, they drained the water; then they drilled out the rusted bolts and lifted the lid. There was only a slight odor because the coffin had not remained air tight. Among the first objects onlookers saw were the boots in which the occupant had been buried.

‘I’d Work … I’d Throw Up’

It's not always easy to maintain an emotional distance from his work, Owsley said. "But you have the ability to numb it out. I had a case that involved a lady … when I was a graduate student … She was a heavyset woman, and in advanced decomposition. And it was one of those situations early on, where I'd work for 10 minutes, I'd throw up for 10 minutes. I'd work for 10 minutes, and I'd throw up for 10 minutes. And it just burned it out of me.

"You just have to keep your perspective, be documenting what you see, and numb it out. You just do it."

The investigators methodically began their documentation, hoping to match what was known of Isaac Newton Mason with the skeleton in the coffin. They knew quickly that the man had been in the cavalry, not the infantry. Evidence of stress on his bones told them.

"Bone changes … occur with horseback riding," said Owsley's assistant Karin Bruwelheide. "A slight indentation on the femoral head, which is called a Poirier's facet, is due to that pounding."

The bones also showed that the cavalryman didn't do regular physical labor … and since a large majority of Confederate soldiers were farmers and laborers, eliminating them narrowed the pool of candidates even further.

A check of the skull and other bones set his age at 35 to 39. He had brown hair. A microscopic examination showed it had been cut just before he was buried. Even the skeleton's dental condition was taken into account. Wealthier families like the Masons consumed more sugar and were more prone to tooth decay.

The investigation produced a 13-page report of details, all of which supported what was known of the history of Isaac Newton Mason: the age when he died, the time he spent on horseback, his height (5 feet 10 inches), his dental condition, and the clothing in which he was interred.

"He will add to the other skeletons that we have [investigated] from that time period," said Owsley, "and help us understand the harsh times that these men faced."

Uncovering Hidden Stories

Owsley, who is 52, is so involved in solving those mysteries that he sleeps on the floor of his office two or three nights a week. He took up gardening as a hobby at the suggestion of his wife. And he rarely watches television. His version of Biography comes from bones that tell stories that otherwise might forever be hidden.

Looking at bones found in the bottom of a well, for instance, Owsley recognized that a broken rib actually had been sliced by a knife. It turned into key evidence for a murder conviction 15 years after the crime.

What's the point of all this? Owsley has done much more than analyze remains. He has helped write and rewrite history with his knowledge. In the 1990s, when archaeologists were studying the first permanent English settlement in America at Jamestown Island, Owsley looked at a skull that had been recovered from the site and asked, "Where did you get this African?"

Before that, said Jeff Benedict, "We never had evidence that there were Africans in Jamestown." The skull had been classified as Native American.

Owsley also has contributed to many famous contemporary cases, as well. He worked on the terrible task of identifying victims from the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

When it was first assumed that Branch Davidian leader David Koresh had died by fire in the Waco compound, Owsley helped prove that Koresh took another way out while his followers burned.

"Some of the team that I work with helped us reconstruct that skull," said Owsley, "and we could determine that there was a gunshot wound to the forehead that exited out the back of the skull. And looking at how it was fragmented and the type of burning that occurred, you could tell that it was a gunshot wound that had occurred before the fire reached the body."

From studying the trajectory of the bullet, Owsley also concluded that Koresh had one of his lieutenants pull the trigger; and that the lieutenant then killed himself.

"It enabled him to reach the conclusion that David Koresh, unlike all his followers that died brutally in a fire, didn't — because he was shot," said Benedict. "So you had a suicide-homicide situation that precedes this awful fire."

One of Owsley's most extraordinary feats of detection involved the disappearance of two American journalists, Nicholas Blake and Griffith Davis, covering the civil war in the highlands of Guatemala. Family members of the journalists had offered a reward for proof of whether they were alive or dead. A Guatemalan contact gave the families boxes of remains that were little more than badly burned, gravel-sized bone fragments. No DNA identification was possible.

Owsley not only identified two of the small bone chips as having come from the sinus cavity of a skull. He knew that they represented an unusual deformity.

Then he determined that there was nothing like that deformity in the Smithsonian's immense collection of skulls. So he obtained a skull X-ray of one of the men, Griffith Davis. Owsley knew that if the tiny deformity in the bones he had fit together matched the X-ray of Davis' frontal sinus, it would be as good as a fingerprint.

He got a perfect match. "And that's a moment you just don't believe," Owsley said. "You're just awestruck to see that … It's such a small part of a person, but that's identification."

By establishing the identities of the men, who almost certainly had been murdered by people still unknown, Owsley allowed their families to end what had been a long and agonizing search.

Battling for the ‘Kennewick Man’

"He's a guy, I think, that is so thirsty for knowledge, for figuring out the puzzle, that the morbid nature of what he does doesn't click in," said Benedict.

Owsley has so much passion for his work that he even risked his career for it. He filed suit against his own employer, the federal government, for the right to study bones that were discovered on federal land in the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash.

The government wanted to give the skeleton to Indian tribes to re-bury out of respect for cultural and religious traditions. But researchers were astonished to find that the bones were 9,600 years old. The skull, Owsley said, looked very different from Native American Indian skulls. He said it may indicate that North America was populated by more races of people than previously thought — and by methods other than crossing an ancient land bridge from Asia.

"What we're now thinking," said Owsley, "is that you've got people coming in much earlier, thousands of years earlier. They're coming in by different modes of transportation, by water, perhaps."

The government and Native American groups vehemently opposed the requests of Owsley and other scientists to study the bones. The scientists sued for the right to examine the bones before they were re-buried. They won, but the case is still tied up on appeal. Owsley believes it could have major consequences for future studies.

"Kennewick Man is a case that I was willing to gamble it all on," he said. "It's a situation where you could count on your fingers the number of well-preserved, carefully dated skeletons from that time period."

He said Kennewick Man and other discoveries have "greatly challenged" what scientists thought only a few years ago about how North America was populated.

"This is what scares a lot of people," said Benedict. "It takes us way out of our comfort zone. It suggests to us that what we learned in our history books as students is incomplete if not wrong.

Beating the Mystery

"I think there's a competitive edge that kicks in in the science mode, too. It's not that you want to be better than all the other scientists. It's that you want to beat the mystery."

In the case of the Civil War soldier Isaac Newton Mason, beating the mystery meant that Mason's body could be reburied in a family cemetery in Tennessee, in a ceremony that included people costumed from his era. He was no longer anonymous.

And although Doug Owsley himself may sometimes pass anonymously through the company of the 8 million people who visit the Smithsonian's Natural History museum each year, he is, in his own way, a unique national treasure — a man said to have examined more bones than anyone on Earth, and who has made his own mark on history.

"It's the history of our species," Owsley said. "It's such a rich legacy, and the bones can tell you so much about it."

For more information on Jeff Benedict's work, visit his Web site at