“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.” (E.O. Wilson)

Critical thinking applies not only to forensic science but also to the design of facilities where forensic science transpires. In this article, we explore how anthropology has evolved along with facility design over the years from academia to popular culture and from a single case to mass graves. How has anthropology in forensic science changed and how has facility design responded?

Thirty years ago when law enforcement professionals or criminal prosecutors needed assistance with cases involving human skeletal remains, they found themselves traveling to the halls of academia or museums. Answers to basic questions pertaining to the identity of a skeletonized individual and what happened to them was needed before any meaningful criminal investigation could begin. At that time, these institutions were the only places you could find individuals possessing expertise with the recovery and analysis of human skeletal remains. However, forensic cases represented an interruption to their already demanding schedules, which consisted of teaching, research, and maintaining collections.

One can almost see a dimly lit dean’s office at an Ivy League university with dark wood and leather wrapped furniture. The office had a musty smell of 100-year-old books stacked from floor to ceiling and a skeleton’s skull sitting on the corner of the desk. Walking into the dean’s lab, it looked like an old tuberculosis ward with ceramic tile floor, glazed wall tiles in white, and high ceilings with very large double hung windows. The perimeter of the lab was lined with dark wood casework and black soapstone tops. On the bench top, one could find natural gas, vacuum compressed air with a deep black sink, and hot and cold water. A porcelain table was located in the center of the room, ripped right out of the hospital operating room with a surgical light mounted overhead. This was the original haven of the academic anthropologist.

The volume of cases brought to some academic anthropologists eventually led to the establishment of laboratories and personnel dedicated solely to forensic anthropology casework and research. Today, anthropologists can still be found in university and museum settings, but an increasing number of forensic anthropologists work full-time in medical examiners’ offices and both federally and state funded forensic laboratories. As is the case with most forensic sciences, the core discipline of anthropology did not originate solely to provide answers to questions related to modern death investigations. To truly understand what a forensic anthropologist does, it becomes necessary to examine the larger field of anthropology. In doing so, one arguably emerges with a sense of how difficult it can be to attempt “scientific” study of complex problems concerning human interactions and the reconstruction of human events. Furthermore, one may develop a better understanding of the theories and methods employed by forensic anthropologists and what other forensic practitioners can draw from that.

Simply stated, anthropology is the study of humans. Despite this simplified definition, the breadth of its scope is complex. The emergence of this academic discipline represents a varied process that began in universities across the globe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and is a discipline that is constantly reinvented still today. One of anthropology’s most distinguishing features as a field of inquiry is that it considers information from multiple aspects of human existence. Anthropologists frame and answer questions pertaining to human behavior across both living and past human populations. In doing so, anthropologists’ research may collect information by means of interviews and participant observation as well as analysis of building structures, tools, writings, or even the skeletal remains of the people themselves. Beyond data collection methodologies, anthropologists also develop theories that attempt to explain the complexities of human interaction.

Anthropologist uses osteometric board.

Anthropologist sketches excavation site.

From the 1930s into the 1970s, the field of anthropology as it related to forensics broadened. In the beginning, forensic anthropology was still practiced within the realm of academia as collaboration with forensic investigators. As the field grew and was further defined, forensic anthropology started to cohabitate with the forensic field, which led to emerging architectural solutions for forensic anthropology. Laboratory space that was neither purely forensic nor academic nor medical in nature began to develop. The application of physical anthropology to forensic applications required new facility design solutions to address the handling and security of evidentiary information. The evolution of the anthropologist working as part of the larger team of forensic scientists also began to take place during this era.

A criminal investigator or forensic scientist reading this might be asking themselves why they should even be concerned about the history and development of the field of anthropology. Every forensic discipline has a specific role to play in an investigation. We live in a hectic world with increasing caseloads, backlogs, training, and budget concerns. Why should we be concerned about anthropology beyond information related to the recovery and analysis of human skeletal remains? In other words, what can other areas of forensic science learn from anthropology?

Most practitioners will acknowledge that one of the main trends during the last 20 years in law enforcement and forensic science has been the specialization and accreditation of investigative and scientific services. This process has been instrumental in improving both the quality and reliability of services supporting the criminal justice system. Viewing this trend in the light of the vast technological developments seen in recent years, it makes even more sense that specialization of personnel becomes essential. To expect a single law enforcement professional to serve as investigator, forensic scientist, and criminal intelligence analyst would only prepare that individual for failure. The educational, professional, and technical requirements of each position represent too large a burden to place on a single individual. Moreover, there simply are not enough hours in the day for one person to accomplish so numerous and varied tasks. The movement away from a holistic approach and towards specialized approach has taken place both in anthropology and forensic science.

Today, anthropology has found a home in many jurisdictions within the broader whole of a forensic facility. Anthropology suites are built to take into consideration the specialized requirements of both remains that still require the removal of soft tissues as well as the fragility and careful handling required of remains that have been compromised by fire or decay. Now there is increased awareness given to the security of evidentiary information as well as the blended interactions of shared samples with forensic biology/DNA, latent prints, and trace units. How a forensic facility is designed to nurture this crosspollination of forensic science has evolved into a greater need for modern facilities that provide the ability for all sciences to reside together.

While reality has moved in this direction, popular culture insists on idolizing the concept of “CSI.” These heroes are experts in multiple fields of forensic science, possess the deductive reasoning powers of Sherlock Holmes, conduct superior interviews and interrogations, and are also sworn police officers. While entertaining, most practitioners express annoyance when questioned about these popular culture icons. It is fair to argue that people like that do not even exist. These fictional characters assume roles typically filled by several personnel and specialists. The technical requirements and responsibilities related to these tasks are far too numerous for one person to maintain. Criminal investigations have evolved into a system that relies on the team, not the individual. While these popular culture perceptions of “CSI” potentially create misconceptions about the law enforcement and forensic science communities, at the same time it has raised expectations. A fair question to ask is if we have reserved a spot on this team for the multi-disciplinary synthesizer. Given the complex and multifaceted aspects of a criminal investigations and the necessary division of labor for success, practitioners have to keep in mind the relationship between methods and theory to ensure we do not miss the big picture when focusing on our respective role in the process. The danger of overspecialization in any applied science arises if it limits the ability or motivation for individuals to address the larger theoretical issues and perhaps lose sight of the big picture.

Field investigator dressed in protective gear.

The benefits of collaboration can be illustrated by an examination of the various types of investigations confronting law enforcement and forensic science professionals. Although much emphasis has been placed on the simple application of DNA technology to cold case investigations, one of the most effective cold case or violent crime strategies is to conduct structured case reviews where all the investigators, scientists, and prosecutors meet, review evidence, and discuss investigative strategies. In most cases, the expectation for synthesis of this information falls solely on the shoulders of the lead detective. Some of these investigators perform this task superbly but those individuals are usually the most experienced and have developed their practices and perspectives based on trial and error. The detective can at times be isolated from the scientists and be expected to independently put the puzzle together. In addition, sometimes the scientists can be isolated from each other and not be aware of how various ways they may approach their analysis can affect the investigation.

The key to this synthesis is to provide communication and cooperation across specialties or sub-fields. This approach should be distinguished from the problems that can arise from context bias in forensic science. The danger of context bias arises when a scientist is aware of a certain theory of a case and allows that theory to influence their analysis. The type of collaboration needed for true synthesis to take place allows for the scientist to know the manner in which they need to perform their analysis to answer the questions central to that investigation.

However, simply opening lines of communication between individuals is not enough. Unless each forensic practitioner capitalizes on the opportunity to synthesize their findings into the context of the investigation using the same theoretical model, a true multi-disciplinary approach cannot be achieved. If this does not happen, then the expertise developed within each discipline is not fully leveraged. Facility design of modern forensic structures ties directly to the support of this synthesis and collaboration.

For example, in an unidentified person case, a fingerprint examiner should not know that the investigator strongly believes that the decedent is a certain individual. That could contribute to context bias. Rather, that examiner should tailor their examination and search of fingerprint records with strategies designed to maximize identification of a decedent. This means the examiner should be aware of the nature of the case and provided with enough information to allow them to apply their discipline to its maximum effectiveness. The fingerprint examiner must ask himself or herself how to best leverage their discipline to identify the decedent. They must be allowed to see the “big picture” and be given the opportunity to pursue it. Then the examiner must be allowed to interact with others in the investigation and see how their findings answer questions and create new ones.

How will facilities of the future encompass this need for the relationship between methods and theory? How will it support the need for specialized space without becoming myopic while still nurturing the need for this bigger picture synthesis among forensic scientists? Facility design will continue to push the concepts of collaboration and collaborative space while protecting the need for evidence secure facilities. Facility infrastructure will adapt to the use of new technologies and equipment-driven solutions. The utilization of computer analysis of anthropological finds will continue to drive the design of spaces. Regardless of what the future holds, the core of anthropology research and discovery will continue to guide investigation and drive facility design.

It would be folly to suggest that anthropologists alone can solve this problem or that the answer is to cross-train personnel in pursuit of the fictional “CSI.” Rather, recalling the academic criticism of forensic anthropology may serve as the best guiding light. If we fail to focus our various methods through a coherent, theoretical framework, then we run the risk of not accomplishing what we set out to do. By placing too much emphasis on our isolated roles, we might fail to see the big picture. These themes are not unique to anthropology or forensic science. Indeed, they are rife throughout government, business, and academia. Although technological advancements are wonderful tools, we should not become overly reliant on technology to address complex problems that necessitate the reconstruction of complex human events. Therefore, each member of the team (i.e., investigator, scientist, and litigator) must think like the anthropologist of yore. This approach can only be advanced through conscious effort, continuing education, and communication.

Sgt. Matthew Davis is with Illinois State Police, Crime Scene Services Command. Susan Halla is a Project Leader with Crime Lab Design, which provides full architectural and engineering services for forensic and medical examiner facilities worldwide.

Please contact Matt at and Susan at