Kimberlee Moran instructs members of Navajo Department of Transportation in the identification and recovery of human remains.
Kimberlee Moran, forensic archaeologist and assistant director of the Forensic Science program, recently spent a week in the Navajo territory of Window Rock, on the New Mexico/Arizona border, training the Navajo Department of Transportation in the identification and recovery of human remains.
“On the reservation, in the course of improving the road network and sometimes due to weather conditions, it is not infrequent that skeletal remains are encountered,” said Moran. “Remains may be incomplete, damaged, or weathered. Regardless, it must be determined whether the remains are human or not, and if human, whether the remains are archaeological (older than 70 years since death) or forensic (death within the past 70 years). If archaeological, human remains, according to Navajo tradition, must be reburied and cannot be handled or photographed. Only if there is danger to the remains may they be moved. If the remains are potentially forensics, they become the jurisdiction of the police.”
Navajo archaeologists, ethnographers, and criminal investigators who respond to reports of remains usually have no formal training in their identification. Thanks to Moran’s involvement with the Society for American Archaeology, the Navajo requested that she design a brief training program. The difficulty, though, was that death is a highly taboo subject for the Navajo, and images of human remains, as well as the handling of remains, is practically forbidden.
“How can individuals learn to identify bone without handling or seeing bone?” said Moran. “The solution required quite a bit of creativity and hours of replacing images with sketches and line drawings. Bone was presented in more of a medical sense rather than as a result of death and decomposition and the role of context in determining ancient vs. modern was emphasized through hands-on activities.”
In total, about 20 Navajo, consisting of archaeologists from the Department of Transportation, police, park rangers, and criminal investigators, attended the training. After receiving positive feedback, Moran said she will likely return to train more Navajo personnel.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Moran. “It was a privilege to be invited and a pleasure to work with their officers and staff.”