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How the centuries-old bones of Australia’s historic shipwreck can help solve crime

This is a bone sample that contains small microfossils. These microorganisms can provide researchers with a treasure trove of information.Credits: Edda Guareschi, author courtesy

Death and crime scenes occur frequently in rivers, lakes and the sea. When a corpse is pulled out of a watery grave for reasons such as drowning, floods, tsunamis, shipwrecks, aviation accidents, murders, etc., we use specialized investigative techniques to stitch together what may have happened.


Known as aquatic forensic medicine, this field is underwater archeology, anthropology, Marine biology And marine science. But it’s still in its infancy and there’s a lot to learn.

Examination of the body recovered from water is difficult enough, so much evidence has been washed away (or eaten!), And the chemistry of the decomposition is very seriously affected by water. However, if only the victim’s bones and teeth are found, it becomes almost impossible to solve the mystery.

To fill this knowledge gap, we have studied archaeological bones collected from historic shipwrecks that have been moored on the ocean floor for centuries. We are looking for ways to better understand the time spent in the ocean using the recovered bones and teeth. And the whole journey of the mortal remains.

Our findings are more recent, such as one day when a complete or partial skeleton (human or non-human) is recovered from a sea, lake, or river, or placed on a beach on the coast. May be useful for forensic examination of bones.

Rebuild the chain of events

Bone and tooth studies can help researchers learn about a person’s gender and age and identify a particular individual by studying dental restorations and DNA. In the best scenario, face reconstruction is possible.However, in some cases you can only determine if you are not human. Bone After all, it’s more of an animal.

How the centuries-old bones of Australia's historic shipwreck can help solve crime

Relics recovered from the site of the Dutch ship Vergulde Draeck include a pile of silver coins.Credits: Western Australia Museum

However, the special properties of bones and teeth, and the organisms connected to them, help researchers reconstruct a series of events that occurred after death and before recovery. This reconstruction is the subject of taphonomy research.

Taphonomy is a scientific term coined in 1940 that describes the process by which organic matter such as bones and teeth is transformed over time and transferred from the biosphere (the world of life) to the lithosphere (the world of rocks and dust).

Shipwreck bone

Our team has analyzed sheep, pig, and cow bones found in rotten wooden barrels during underwater archaeological excavations of historic shipwrecks off Western Australia.

The bones and teeth of this study are part of the collection. WA Shipwreck Museum..

They belong to the following underwater archaeological sites:

  • the BataviaThe Dutch East India Company ship wrecked in 1629
  • the Vergulde Draeck A Dutch East India Company ship wrecked in 1656
  • the ZeewijkA Dutch East India Company ship wrecked in 1727, and
  • the rapidAmerican and Chinese traders wrecked in 1811.
How the centuries-old bones of Australia's historic shipwreck can help solve crime

An example of a bone surrounded by marine concrete from Rapid (1811).Author provided, author provided

The first three were wrecked during the voyage to Jakarta. Blower routeMeanwhile, Rapid was sailing from Boston to Guangzhou (now Guangzhou).

Shipwrecks were discovered by recreational divers and underwater archaeologists in the 1960s and 1970s, by chance and after lengthy research. The wreckage contained many other artifacts, including a pile of silver coins.

Our research has examined bones submerged in seawater and surrounded by seafloor sediments between 169 and 347. Work is underway, but so far we are doing the following:

  • Special chemical clues identified Or the “geochemical fingerprint” of a process known as diagenesis (meaning the changes that occur in the skeletal material over time).
  • report New insights into how marine unicellular organisms called foraminifera affect the dissolved space inside bone in water. These microorganisms are primarily used in ecological and paleontological studies and can provide a treasure trove of information for researchers seeking to figure out how long they have passed since their death.
  • Built a better understanding of how Bioerosion by colonizing animals such as bacteria and barnacles Affects bones in the water.

Bones can only be found in the sea for a long time if they are contained and protected by hard structures such as the hull of a ship or the cabin of an aircraft. Otherwise, marine animals will attack, scatter, and fragment them. Other animals use them as shelters.

For a long time in the wreckage of the wreckage, the bones can become surrounded by stones formed by the iron objects on board the ship. Over time, the chemical elements of bone change, adding chemical elements that are not normally present in living bone.

The combination of everything added and removed to the bone during a long rest in the water helps researchers reconstruct post-mortem events.

This knowledge important of Forensic research..


Identify old bone by scanning those collagens using mass spectrometry


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How the centuries-old bones of Australia’s historic shipwreck can help solve crime

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