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Buried on Campus

By Nick Dawe, on 24 April 2012

UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology has launched a new exhibition, Buried on Campus, exploring the surprising find of more than 7,000 bone fragments in the UCL quad.

In March 2010, unsuspecting construction workers, who were digging a trench to enter the Chadwick Building basement, discovered a huge array of bones. The find shocked many: who or what did the bones belong to? When were they buried? And why were they buried in the quad of all places?

Initially, the Metropolitan Police were called in to investigate, who then brought in UCL’s forensic anatomist Dr Wendy Birch for further advice. Through a thorough (and ongoing) investigation, Dr Birch found that the bones comprised 84 individual humans and a variety of animals and, presumably to the relief of many, there was no sign of foul play.

Later, a seven-day excavation of the area ultimately led to a massive 7,394 fragments being found, and Dr Birch and UCL forensic anthropologist Christine King are still working on reconstructing and analysing these.

The exhibition gives a fascinating insight into this work and current ideas about the bones’ origins. To someone who has no background in forensic anatomy or osteology (the study of bones) the idea of making any sense of this huge find seems almost fantastical.

However, the exhibition demonstrates, with the help of a selection of the bones themselves, some of the processes used to understand them further. One intriguing highlight is a skeleton comprising a mixture of the different bones to illustrate how it is indeed possible to determine ages, genders and other issues such as signs of disease.

But why were there so many bones collected together like this? Again, with forensic investigation, it now appears that they may have been part of an anatomical teaching collection. For instance, many bones have been written on, or have been carefully cut with saws or scalpels.

The exhibition also provides clues to the age of the bones. A rather ancient-looking Bovril jar appears to have been buried among these which, with the help of the Bovril Company, has been dated to between 1886 and 1920.

There is still some mystery as to why these were buried in the first place. A great deal of care is taken with such sensitive objects nowadays, and so the idea of simply burying them like this a century ago seems very odd.

Buried on Campus runs until 13 July, and is well worth visiting not just for the bones, but also for the processes used to understand these things.

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