Grave Whisperer

As a forensic anthropologist for the Smithsonian Institution, David Hunt learns about life from the bones of the dead.

David Hunt in the dry collections pod. (Brittany M. Hance/Smithsonian Photo)
As a forensic anthropologist for the Smithsonian Institution, David Hunt learns about life from the bones of the dead.

It was the first of the month in the spring of 2005, and members of a utility crew installing a gas pipeline between two Washington, D.C., apartment buildings were hoping the metal object they had just struck was an April Fool’s joke.

“Look here,” says David Hunt ’80 LAS of the Smithsonian Institution, “you can see it right under the gas line, and these guys over here are saying, ‘What do we do with this?’”

A forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., Hunt is holding a photo and pointing to a small cast-iron coffin, rusted but intact, at the bottom of an 8-foot-deep gas-line trench. The coffin is shaped like a mummy, its top cast to resemble the folds of a burial shroud.

Although its shape seems to belong in Egypt, rather than a site two miles from the White House, Hunt assures me the funerary box is American-made: an original Fisk iron coffin dating between 1851 and 1853. A rarity, Fisks were manufactured between 1848 and the late 1850s, and Hunt knows the one in the photo is one of the earliest models. Expensive, these coffins were reserved for the wealthy or for the remains of people shipped to a distant burial site before embalming became common practice. Water- and airtight, these caskets preserved their contents—clothing, even bodily tissue—indefinitely.

To Hunt, the coffin unearthed by the construction crew amounted to a time capsule from another century.

“The medical examiner’s office had quickly ruled out foul play, so when George Taylor, the detective at the site, called to ask me if Smithsonian wanted it, I said ‘Heck, yeah!’” Hunt recalls. “If I hadn’t been in Minneapolis at a forensic sciences conference, I would have driven over that day.

“They speak to us,” he quickly adds, accustomed to the queasy reaction that his enthusiasm for the dead and their remains often elicits. “If you know how to read them, they tell us stories about the past and about their life.

“And the most compelling question we had in this case—of course, besides ‘Why are you here?’—is ‘Who are you?’”

Cataloguing the past
Hunt is a gentle bear of a man with a halo of brown hair and darkly circled eyes that attest to long hours spent in the lab. His primary role at Smithsonian is managing what amounts to the nation’s premier assemblage of human remains—casts, molds, busts, hair, tissue and, of course, bones. Just eight miles from downtown Washington, the collection is housed in a facility comprising five storage buildings, each the size of a football field and 3 stories tall, where specialized cabinetry holds 30,000 sets of remains from around the world. At the core of the collection are 7,500 skeletons of men, women and children of known age, ancestry, cause of death, and medical history—used, says Hunt, “to set the standards of, say, a white female of 40 to 45 years with arthritis.”

As the collections manager, he assists 100 to 120 researchers who visit each year with myriad interests—for example, investigators who are examining orthopedics or pediatrics for medical research, some who are viewing early 20th century Native American plaster face casts, and still others comparing the effects of climate—moderate to arctic to tropical—on human pathology. Some investigators may use the collection forensically—that is, to help answer questions of natural or wrongful death. For example, one skull, slashed by a saber during the Zulu wars in Africa in the early 1900s, has been used as evidence in cases of other deaths linked to machete wounds.

As to the body in the iron coffin, what started out as research ultimately became personal.

Hunt holds up another photo showing a group of men and women gathered at a table in what looks like an operating room. He rattles off the experts’ specialties: pathology, physical anthropology, period clothing, historical archaeology, paleomicrobiology, coffin analysis, DNA analysis.

The photo was taken four months after the coffin was found, and the team of researchers, largely from Smithsonian, is gingerly examining the contents. The museum’s machinists had opened
the coffin only minutes earlier after spending two hours gently prying the two rusted halves apart with hammers and screwdrivers.

Over the past few decades, iron coffin studies have become somewhat of a specialty of the museum, which receives inquiries from families who have unearthed remains when a family plot or cemetery has been moved. Other times, as in this case, the caskets turn up unexpectedly with no one to claim them. If Smithsonian accepts possession, its staff tries to identify the individual and any living relatives; that’s because linking human remains to a name and a family history opens other avenues by which researchers can learn about the health and living conditions of the individual, more than is possible from just studying bones.

But improved research isn’t the only motivation. Finding an identity is about compassion—especially for Hunt. So says Deborah Hull-Walski, an historical anthropologist who has worked with him since 1992 and describes him as “driven.”

“Anthropologists talk about people being ‘lost in time,’” she says. “None of us wanted this boy to be buried again without a name. Everybody wants to have somebody remember them, in one way or another.”

They are not always successful, says Hull-Walski, nor can they often devote as much time to other remains as they did for this body, to which they donated nights and weekends for nearly two years.

“This one was special,” she says of the iron-coffin case. “We gave our essence. Everyone who was involved became affected. Maybe it was his young age.”

Lost and found
The body in the coffin turns out to be that of a young male wearing a pleated, white cotton shirt and a vest with cloth-covered buttons. His pants are flared and his socks darned. His face, albeit leathery, is peaceful.

The researchers take samples of cloth, then tissue and bone, on which they’ll perform isotopic and chemical analyses for environmental and nutritional evaluation. Additional tissue samples are gleaned in hopes of matching the boy’s DNA to a living relative. Hunt notices that the front tooth wings over another—a genetically inherited feature that also may help trace lineage.

Prior to the autopsy, Hunt had taken computerized tomographic radiographic (CT) scans—three-dimensional X-rays that show clothing, body position, location and condition of internal organs, and skeletal morphology. A standard tool in Hunt’s Smithsonian division, CT scans offer a nondestructive way to “unwrap” mummies—Egyptian, Peruvian, animal—as well as other artifacts and specimens. (In 2011, Hunt was invited to the Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois to review CT scans of its mummy that had been performed at nearby Carle Foundation Hospital.) The scans of the iron-coffin boy were used to assess teeth and bone growth, facial features and skull shape—data used to project the boy’s age and ancestry.

Meanwhile, Hull-Walski had unleashed a team of interns to scour local archives. By the time the coffin was opened, the students, who hailed from George Washington University, had determined that the site where the coffin was found had once been a cemetery for Columbian College—the forerunner of their own alma mater. When the college relocated the cemetery shortly after the Civil War, the iron coffin was overlooked—a common occurrence, says Hunt, as during the national conflict, headstones were often repurposed for roads and other needs, leaving graves unmarked and forgotten.

Over the next two years, as the interns dug through newspaper obituaries and genealogical records, the boy’s story began to unfold: A 15-year-old orphan from Accomack County, Virginia, he had been attending Columbian College to be a minister when he died of pneumonia and a heart condition during the unusually cold winter of 1852. He was a person so beloved by his fellow students and the faculty that they used the tuition paid in advance by his deceased guardian to bury him in an iron coffin.

Bred in the bone
Hunt, now 55, can’t remember a time when he wasn’t fascinated with bones. From a young age, he and his sister, Carol Hunt Sherman ’78 LAS, ’80 (UIC), DDS ’82 (UIC), now a dentist, had viewed bone X-rays via the work of their father, James Hunt ’51 LAS, ’52 (UIS), MD ’54 (UIC), a radiologist. Wandering the forests and fields near his Peoria home, David Hunt found and collected animal bones. Fleshier ones, he says, “I’d bury, and go back and dig them up later.”

At U of I, he gravitated to anthropology and trained in archaeology at the Cahokia field school and at Spurlock Museum (formerly the World Heritage Museum), the latter instilling in him a love for archaeology and collections work. For graduate school, Hunt headed for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 1980, where he became captivated by the crime-solving applications of physical anthropology. He arrived just as forensic anthropologist William Bass began placing human remains on a 2½-acre site near the campus medical center to study the effects of temperature, humidity, precipitation and other factors on the rates and processes of decay. This groundbreaking “body farm” helped establish the first scientific standards for human decay.

When Smithsonian announced an opening in 1989, Hunt leaped at the opportunity to combine these passions.

In addition to managing the museum’s physical collections, Hunt often assists authorities in the greater D.C. area and beyond. In 1993, he was among a handful of federal forensic anthropologists dispatched to tiny Harden, Mo., after floods uprooted nearly 800 gravesites and littered human remains across Ray County. Hunched over tables of skulls and bones for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch, Hunt worked to match the bones on his tray with the names of those who had been interred at the cemetery.

Since the mid-1990s, he has been on call to medical examiners’ offices in Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia, analyzing dismembered or severely decayed remains in some 20 to 40 cases a year. If foul play is suspected, Hunt helps authorities determine the cause of death; in addition, he suggests leads, which is why he’s “tremendous,” according to Constance DiAngelo, an assistant chief medical examiner in Virginia. “He helps point us and the police in a direction,” says DiAngelo, who has worked with him for a decade.

Hunt fills a similar role at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, advising the organization on facial reconstructions. The experiences there are the most heartbreaking, he says. In particular, he remembers the murdered 10-year-old boy whose bullet-punctured skull had been mistakenly identified by Las Vegas investigators as that of a girl. When a revised sketch based on Hunt’s analysis was aired on America’s Most Wanted, the father called the television show within 45 minutes to identify his missing son.

“The father had been driving around looking for his son every night after work and every weekend since he had disappeared three years earlier,” Hunt recalls.

“Identifying the body didn’t bring the boy back, but it did bring the family closure, and the father could stop looking.”

A name and a headstone
The importance of closure, even with no grieving family present, is one reason Hunt was determined to attach a name to the boy in the iron coffin, eventually determined by team members to be William Taylor White. In 2007, they tracked down a descendant of William’s sister living in Lancaster, Pa., whose DNA confirmed his identity. More relatives—none of whom had met before—were also identified, with one of them, Jack Littleton, donating a space for William beside William’s sister’s grave in the family plot in the Modest Town Baptist Church cemetery.

Having donated his remains to Smithsonian, William’s descendants filled his gravesite with a time capsule containing notes, photos, the life story researchers had pieced together and a lock of his hair, which Hunt had saved. The headstone came by way of Hunt and Hull-Walski, who had come to think of the boy as family.

Hunt says the case of the boy in the iron coffin stands out as the one that’s most personally meaningful to him.

He shows me a picture from William’s memorial in Modest Town. It’s Oct. 10, 2009, and raining. Twenty-two family members who became acquainted as a result of the Smithsonian team’s genealogical detective work are gathered beneath a canopy. They are smiling, brought together to celebrate a boy who had been lost for more than a century.