Birthday cake and forensics

14032836084_f0601b005f_oSo, what did you do for your last birthday? I became a forensic scientist…but for one evening only.

Several months ago I noticed that the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London ran really interesting looking evening events, one of which was their extremely successful and award-winning Crime Scene Live. I mentioned an interest in going to Ryan and within seconds he had booked us on the April 2014 date, just in time for my birthday.

We arrived after the NHM had closed but there were still quite a few people in the galleries as they were running several evening events at the same time, with one of them involving a fascinating talk on cannibalism. I was rather jealous of the other groups but I knew that I had a forensics session to go to with my name on it!

Once signed in, we were given some attractive disposable white overalls, a face mask and some plastic blue booties to cover our shoes. There was also a bar, cue lots of staggering around trying to get into overalls while also buying bottles of cider for the evening. I think Ryan and I looked quite fetching really!14029329601_909e96c2a7_o


The event was fully booked and so when everyone was ready, all 150 of us shuffled (or rustled in our booties) into a lecture theatre to have our Crime Scene Live briefing from the Metropolitan Police‘s own Detective Sergeant Paul McGough. We were informed that human remains had been discovered in the grounds of the NHM and that we will be assisting in what has been classified as a ‘Category B’ murder investigation. I won’t give away too many details of the crime so I don’t spoil anything for anyone booked on a future event.

Bugs ‘n stuff

We were split up into teams, more for practicality reasons rather than any form of competition, and off we went to start investigating. First up was Forensic Entomology. We were briefed by Dr Martin Hall, who gave us a fascinating (yet speedy) insight into how insect were drawn to human remains, their various life cycles and what we can learn from this. We heard about how to calculate Accumulated Degree Hours which would help us determine the minimum Post-mortem Interval, useful for a murder investigation.

To do this, we collected live maggots and pupae from leaf matter, tested whether the pupae sank or floated in water (this helps with determining how developed they are) and pouring boiling water onto our maggots so we could identify them under a microscope. All of mine were Calliphora vomitoria which told us a lot. Once we had gone through our various investigation stages, we all had to tick a chart to indicate when we thought the victim was first found by insects, or the minimum Post-mortem Interval.



Bones…but not that one from TV

Our second session was Forensic Anthropology, something I get rather excited about. We all moved in to the beautifully designed Attenborough Studio to listen to Dr Heather Bonney talk about her fascinating work. Using an interactive table, Dr Bonney walked us through a real skeleton that had been CT scanned and made three-dimensional for the purposes of teaching. We heard about the various ways in which anthropologists determine who the remains belong to, such as various skull measurements and features, lifestyle wearing on the bones, and estimating height by measuring the leg bones.

A blurry Attenborough Studio

A blurry Attenborough Studio

I was especially interested in the CT scanning issue seeing as we had heard about this at Death Salon. Dr Bonney told us that this form of scanning is accepted in UK courts but we could appreciate some of the challenges that CT scanning also presents, given that some of the finer features such as skull sutures and certain bone damage was simply not visible in the scan. Dr Bonney also briefly covered the tricky past of anthropology when it came to the issue of identifying race through skull features. However, there is a lot that the profession learned during this time and while race identification is no longer done in the historical sense, forensic anthropologists still need to be able to determine someone’s ancestry so that they can describe was the person looked like for the purposes of matching the remains to any missing persons reports.

“Beating the meat”

After that engrossing talk, we moved on to our final workshop: blood spatter analysis! We were guided through the various types of blood spatter by some brilliant forensic experts from the Metropolitan Police. I found this really thrilling as we had already spoken to scientists who consulted on cases, and now we were talking to people who do this sort of thing every day as part of a police force.

We learned about lots of different blood patterns, such as those caused by arterial damage, centrifugal spatter from a weapon being swung during an attack and blood caused by someone coughing up blood. We had a chance to test some blood spattered clothing using the Kastle-Meyer test which meant that if blood was present, the testing paper that we were using would turn bright pink once the necessary chemicals were added. We got some hits on our sample clothing which was rather exciting. The specialist who looked after my small group was actually a fingerprint specialist but he was very knowledgeable about all sort of forensics.

We were also show how voids are created in blood and what this can tell us. After being shown several bed sheets with sample blood patterns on them (some of which were very similar, highlighting how expert an eye you need to tell some types of spatter apart), we had a chance to clobber a slab of meat with a rolling pin to see what kind of blood spatter we could create ourselves. I should clarify that this was using fake blood but it was all rather exciting!

Several hours had passed by this stage so we all headed back to where we started the evening. Most of our workshops had taken place in the gorgeous Darwin Centre, and we had to walk through the main museum to get back to our lecture theatre, which meant that all the other evening visitors were gawping at us in our suits with real curiosity and amusement. It was a rather surreal experience and I think some of us enjoyed it quite a bit!


Once back in the lecture theatre, we stripped off our overalls, got a drink from the bar and sat back to enjoy an extremely entertaining court scene, played out by real life Crown Court barristers. They obviously really enjoyed taking part because they were hilarious yet serious at the same time. We saw some of the experts that we had met earlier give testimony, some of which included what we had found in our earlier investigations. I won’t tell you what the judge found but it was a fantastic end to a riveting evening.


All I can say is that if you like anything remotely to do with death, science or forensics, and you can get to London…do this event! It was amazing and really inspiring. The scientists, legal and police experts were all fascinating and you could talk to them freely throughout the evening, which was a real treat and an honour.


Can I just say how much I love this NHM promotional poster? Isn’t it fantastic?


[Correction: the section on forensic anthropology was corrected to better reflect what was said about legal standing of CT scanning and identification of race vs ancestry. Dr Bonney got in touch via Twitter to clarify details.]


4 thoughts on “Birthday cake and forensics

  1. Pingback: Burials and cannibals and flints, oh my! | Deathly ponderings

  2. wearing those suits and masks for a few hours, would you recommend to wear thin clothes underneath as it might get really hot? thanks for your reply.

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