During the lock-down in 2020, I decided to watch some series that I had not seen for a while. One of these was Silent Witness which I do enjoy even if it is a bit far fetched  (It amazes me that the pathologist can also do the work of the police and go out investigating and interviewing witnesses).

I had never seen the first episodes and so went to the iplayer to get the earlier series. The first three series were no longer available and so I started at series four which was first broadcast in 1999. The original series was first broadcast in 1996 and has been running for 23 series.

The main character was Sam Ryan,  professor and forensic pathologist, played by Amanda Burton, a gentle Irishwoman who was very caring and sensitive to the dead and their families. There were lots of long lingering thoughtful looks into the distance.

As these episodes were twenty years old it was interesting to see well-known actors when they were just starting out, such as Jack Dee, who played a love interest for Sam, but turned out to be a bad man and this brought much soul searching for Sam.

The later episodes involved other characters who came and went or stayed on. After Amanda Burton’s character had left the series to go back to Ireland.   Her place was taken by Nikki Alexander played by Emilia Fox who was very young and fresh-faced when she started as a volunteer in the lab in 2004.

In the earlier episodes, the producers were very careful not to show anything too shocking or distressing – there was a lot of work on bones and the post mortems were very low key. Today however we see everything in graphic detail including inner organs and lots of blood – not for the squeamish. Although I am not keen at looking at blood and body parts I have always found the forensic aspect of the programs very interesting not always being sure whether they were accurately portrayed or over sensationalised to get the viewers.

Another thing I decided to do during lock-down was to learn some new things. I had started a course with FutureLearn** when I retired and decided to pick this up again. I completed Spanish for beginners which I had started in 2019 and then decided to look for something else that would interest me.

I found a course entitled Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology which would take six weeks studying for a few hours a week. This tied in with my interest in Silent Witness perfectly.

The course, run by Durham University, was fascinating and really well presented and organised. The course instructions said it would take 3 hours a week for six weeks but I found myself doing much more than this as it was so interesting. There were lots of links to further reading. At the end of each week, there is a quiz to test what you have learned – you don’t have to do this but it’s useful.

We started off looking at excavating ancient grave sites and then looked at using bones to identify age, sex and diet of the people recovered. I found some of this quite hard as there was a lot of technical language in it and names of body parts that I’m not familiar with… We had to look at 3d images of bones to see if we could age them. We looked at trauma and the impact on bones – I learned loads of things I didn’t know about bones such as that your bones keep on growing and you can tell if a bone was broken before, during or after death by the colour.  We learned about DNA testing and how using teeth is the best way to identify people as the DNA stays in the teeth longer than in other bones. It was interesting to read about the new techniques being developed and this made me critical when watching Silent Witness as well as understanding the terminology more. The last week of the course was really interesting and pulled together many of the elements from the previous weeks.

We looked at mass graves and the formation of Humanitarian Forensic Action. There were some very thought-provoking case studies, looking at scenarios in different parts of the world, such as people trying to cross the border from Mexico to the United States and the conflict in Bosnia. We also looked at up to date stories of refugees trying to flee war zones making their way across Europe to The United Kingdom.

The Missing Migrants Projects “tracks incidents involving migrants including refugees and asylum seeker, who have died or gone missing in the process of migration towards an international destination.” The project pulls in data from official and media sources to track key routes and allows us to understand the dangers of these population movements. They show that in 2016 at least 3,194 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean sea with numbers dropping to 1,519 for most of 2018.

The ICRC (International Committee For The Red Cross) has been actively working with local authorities and forensic practitioners to develop standardised procedures and protocols, and to improve communication and cooperation strategies, for dealing with all aspects of forensic humanitarian needs. There are organisations all over the world from Argentina, Mexico to Cyprus and Bosnia, Syria and Afghanistan all looking for missing migrants and trying to identify bodies in mass graves. One of the agreed protocols is to ensure that the remains of dead migrants are handled with dignity and they take all possible measures to facilitate their immediate or future identification and to support the families of missing migrants throughout the search and identification process.

This highlighted  the challenges faced when applying forensic archaeology and anthropology in the real world.

  • Forensic archaeology and anthropology are not simply a series of scientific methods. The context of the bodies is crucial to interpretation and each context presents a unique set of challenges.
  • Forensic work takes place within complex political situations and there can be external pressure which constrains activities. However, forensic archaeologists and anthropologist need to work impartially and engage with the latest research and technical developments.

This was very thought-provoking and made me reflect on how the stories we see on the television news reflect the fact that these migrants are desperate people with families and friends who may never know what happened to them. The last episode of Silent Witness I watched was about a group of migrants from China who drowned trying to cross the English Channel and the role of the pathologist in trying to find out what happened.

I shall continue watching Silent Witness – I am on series 10 at the moment so I’ve a few more yet to go. I’ve finished my course which was really interesting and I learned a lot of things I didn’t know; as well as reflecting on the lives of people today.

**Futurelearn are on-line courses that are free. They cover a wide range of topics and allow you to do as much or as little as you want. The learning is presented through text, videos, audio, activities and links to further reading. You are encouraged to post comments on learning each week – I have been communicating with people all over the world. You can go at your own pace and have a couple of extra weeks to finish the course after the last week.

 You can find more information as well as see the range of courses on: futurelearn.com

Author: Barbara Kenny