a peek inside the fishbowl

12 Jan, 2010

The story of the skull: part two

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Misc. life

I wish I could remember the smaller details of this story. Did I drive or take the bus? Was there an issue with security at the RCMP building where the interview was to take place? Did I have a plan in regards to this interview or was I just going to wing it?

I was working on a series of articles for my science reporting class about forensic anthropology and I was on my way to talk to Peter. (As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I have no idea of how I found him or why I chose to write about forensic anthropology.)

By day Peter worked for the RCMP, by night he transformed into a pottery instructor. Peter was an older man, grey hair, a kind face, and he was genuinely easy to talk to. His specialty was facial identification. If unidentifiable human remains are found (with no identification, no teeth/dental records, no nothing), the skull was sent to him.

At this point, the face, devoid of soft tissue or hair, is rebuilt from the ground up. He recreates it by using various statistical information about tissue depth and nose length and forehead size etc. Here’s a description I found in the National Criminal Justice Service website:

“The statistical information has been compiled over a number of year by using people who have been killed in wars or car accidents. Rounded erasers are then cut, numbered, and glued on various areas of the skull to act as markers for identifying the tissue depth in a given area. Clay is layered from the lower marker to the higher marker, following the contour of the skull, the shape, and also the thickness of the tissue. The reconstruction of the eyes, nose, and lips requires special techniques for each feature. Eye and hair color can only be determined by using clues from the investigation.“

It is fascinating. We don’t really think about how much physical appearance can be dictated by geography. How exactly are Native Canadians different from people in Quebec? From people in Somalia? These are measurable differences.

Once he reconstructs the face, a photo is taken and is sent to missing persons. Computer programs are used to perform age progression for the identification of children who have been missing for years.

Anyway, Peter and I were chatting. I was sitting at a table, writing everything down in my notebook. Peter got up and walked over to a steel locker. It was exactly like the kind of locker that is used in schools to store student textbooks and coats. His back was to me. I watched as he took something from out of the locker. In one smooth and suddent movement he turned and placed it in front of me with a clunk. It was a human skull, completely unadulterated but for a long clear cylinder coming out the bottom. It was a stand. And there it stood.

This, he said, is a 16 year-old girl. She was found in a ditch.

I was a bit taken aback. I wasn’t much older than 16. And I’d never seen a skull. I must have asked him if it was real. It was.

He went on.

“She had an eating disorder,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“She was anemic. Feel up inside her eye socket.”

And so I did. There, up inside the place where her eyeball would have been, right behind the “eyebrow bone” was bumpy. It felt like I was running my finger along a piece of sandpaper.

I’m not sure if I’m correctly recalling the medical reasons for the unexpected texture, but as far as I can remember he said that this part of the skull gets depleted if the body is starved of iron.

What a sad, sad thing. I have no idea who that girl was, or if she was ever correctly identified. I do know that she was somebody’s daughter.

One of the materials he used for facial reconstruction was clay. When he wasn’t building faces he could be found in a pottery studio. He used a pottery wheel to make wonderful creations out of pliable lumps of earth  – elegant bowls and teapots – and he taught others to do the same. I sat in on one of his classes. It got me thinking. I asked him, since he uses the same basic material (that is clay) for both his day job and for his evening job, can facial reconstruction be considered art?

He explained that it is only art if it is created with the intention of being art. Even though he uses artistic materials, the facial reconstructions are not art. The pottery is art, because it is intended to be such.

I asked him, so does that mean that anything can be art?  Yes, he said. Even a pile of sweepings on the studio floor. If the floor is swept and it is meant it to be art, it is art.

I like that. It changed my understanding of art and helped define it in my mind.

I was – and still am – fascinated by people in their workplace. I love hearing stories relating to their work. Why do they do what they do? I am lucky to have the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people in regards to the things I’m writing about now, but I would like to expand my experience a bit. How should I go about it? I don’t think a cold call would work (although I am considerably braver about it today!). Anyone know of any interesting places I can hang out for an hour or two?

Maybe I’ll ask my mailman to start. :)

p.s Remind me to tell you the story about the crematorium sometime.


4 Responses to "The story of the skull: part two"

1 | lacoop

January 13th, 2010 at 6:13 am

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You would have to wait until summer, but I think it would be interesting to work the ‘locks’ for a day…just to talk to the people coming through.

2 | Judy

January 13th, 2010 at 12:07 pm

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There are so many interesting places you could work. I would start with places that offer volunteer opportunities as volunteering for a day might give you a glimpse, and a way to meet other people who could share (and reduce the need for cold calls!)

Also, having worked for various non-profits, they are always looking for ways to get the word out about what they do and many would be open to having you come in for an afternoon to work, especially if you are going to write about it.

Things I would love to try for work, would be photography, something crafty that uses my hands and challenges creativity, something physical and outdoors like landscaping. Secretly, I always wanted to be the zamboni driver.

3 | Josée

January 15th, 2010 at 9:09 pm

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I’ve done lots of cold-calling for various jobs and didn’t mind it at all (as opposed to making telemarketing calls- I did that during university for the alumni association – yuck). When you are calling someone to say “I want to know about you” or “I need your help, you’re an expert in this” they are usually very receptive! I think everyone would like to be considered an expert at something, and if they are an expert they love to share their knowledge. Most people also genuinely want to help you out. That’s been my experience, anyhow.

4 | @WannabeMomErin

January 18th, 2010 at 1:52 pm

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My favorite part of this post is the discussion of what is art. I always have a hard time calling the drawings I make art; and consequently calling myself an artist. I guess the point is not how good it is, how skillfully rendered, how much other people appreciate it. If I made it intending it to be art, then it is art. Plain and Simple.

Thanks for sharing this one.

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our two daughters Emma (18) and Sarah (16). I am the managing editor of our community newspaper, the Kitchissippi Times. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger, and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999... which makes me either a total dinosaur or a veteran, I'm not sure which! The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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