Written by: Katy Meyers Emery
Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie
When examining arson or domestic fire deaths, forensics specialists have a careful job to do in determining manner of death, and the relationship between death and the fire. There are five primary goals of forensics specialists examining fire related sites with human remains: 1) determine the identity of the deceased, 2) determine whether they were alive or dead at the time of the fire, 3) determine why the individual couldn’t escape the fire or why they were in this location, 4) determine the cause of death was fire-related, and finally, 5) determine manner of death (Forensics Resources 2007). The goal is to determine what the chain of events leading up to the fire and death of the individual are, and whether the two were related or if the connection is incidental. The way the investigation proceeds and the questions are the same for both modern and prehistoric deaths related to fire, though the methods vary slightly due to the evidence available.
For any fire related or fire associated human remains, there are a few basic pieces of evidence to examine. The first is the location of the body. It is necessary to determine where the individual was, and how this relates to the overall structure, including any obstacles that would have trapped the individual. If the individual is in an area of the house where someone wouldn’t be found, such as a basement closet, then it is important to determine why they would have been there. It is also necessary to determine where the fire started and how the deceased relates to this location. Position of the body is also important. If the individual was found in a bedroom lying on their back, they may have asphyxiated in their sleep versus someone who was found face down in a hallway who may have been trying to escape. However, these can also cause problems as location can be shifted as the house is burned, and the muscles and flesh can react to the fire by causing spasms and contractions which may put the body into a pugilistic pose rather than being an indicator of actual position of death.
In modern forensics cases there are a number of tests they can do on remaining flesh that we cannot do for prehistoric cases. A blood test can determine the amount of carbon monoxide in the individual’s system. Burnt flesh can further aid in revealing fire and trauma patterns. The lungs can reveal soot present if the individual was breathing during the fire. Clothing is also important- if the individual was found in the basement dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, but the house burned down in winter it would lead them to believe the death occurred months prior to the fire. Further, with modern technology like smoke detectors and alarms, it is more likely there will be survivors or the fire department available to make statements and provide further evidence.
Interpreting a domestic fire in the Iron Age proves an interesting challenge, though modern advances in fire related forensics deaths can aid greatly. A new article from the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology by Harvig, Kveiborg, and Lynnerup (2013) examines human skeletal material found within a burnt down house from Early Iron Age Jutland, Denmark. The human remains were excavated carefully in order to determine the body position of the individuals, and whether they were dead prior to the fire. Numerous animal remains were also found and were investigated to determine whether they were alive prior to the fire or were the refuse from dining. In total, they recovered the remains of six humans and 15 animals. The human remains consist of an adult male and adult female, and four sub-adults between 8 and 18 years old. The animal remains included 7 cattle, four sheep, three horses and a pig.
The examination of posture and body location was an important part of the study of the Iron Age fire. None of the remains were in the domestic or sleeping areas of the house, suggesting that none died from asphyxiation in their beds. Two of the individuals were lying face down, likely in order to protect themselves from the fire and smoke. The other three were in crouched positions, two of which were likely due to roofing material collapsing on them based on fracture patterns. The color of the bones was variable and went from tan to black, but none had the bright white indicative of high heat cremation. The bone colors indicated firing temperatures from 200 and 800 °C suggesting the fire was not for cremation purposes.
Based on their analysis, they argue that the individuals were part of a small single family household, and all died within the house during the fire. Based on their locations within the structure and body positions, they were not asleep during the fire. Due to the presence of the animals and lack of individuals near the entryway, the archaeologists argue that they might have been trying to save the animals from the fire and died in their attempts.
Just like modern forensics, they 1) determined the identity of the deceased as a family unit based on the context of the house, ages and sexes of the individuals 2) determined that they were alive when the fire started based on the color of the burnt bones, 3) determined they didn’t escape because they were rescuing their cattle, though the collapsed roof may have played a part in preventing escape, 4) determined the cause of death was fire-related due to lack of other obvious trauma, and finally, 5) determined manner of death as fire though this is more circumstantial and may have been asphyxiation as well. Their analysis occurred in a similar fashion to modern forensic guidelines, with careful examination of context, positioning and the bones. It is interesting to read the article and follow the argument- though the determination that they were rescuing their animals may be a slight stretch from the evidence, though still possible.
L. HARVIG, J. KVEIBORG, & N. LYNNERUP (2013). Death in Flames: Human Remains from a Domestic House Fire from Early Iron Age, Denmark International Journal of Osteoarchaeology DOI: 10.1002/oa.2335
Interfire Online 2013 Fatalities at the Fire Scene. http://www.interfire.org/features/fatalities.asp
Forensics Resources 2007. Fire related deaths. https://sites.google.com/site/eforensicmed2/approachtofiredeaths