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December 6, 2004

Archaeologist Taps Forensic Skills
To Solve Burial Mysteries


Nicholas Bellantoni, State Archaeologist

Nicholas Bellantoni, State Archaeologist, leads a training session for Vermont State Police on the techniques of forensic archaeology, using an artificial skeleton to recreate a crime scene.

Photo by Bruno Frohlich

A leg found on a golf course, a skull stolen from a crypt, skeletons revealed by a bulldozer during the construction of a house – these are some of the cases State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni has worked on.

Bellantoni, a forensic archaeologist, is based at the Museum of Natural History and Connecticut Archaeology Center.

A forensic study provides medico-legal evidence about a body, and a forensic archaeologist can help provide more complete recovery of skeletal evidence from a crime scene.

When an unmarked burial is discovered, the law requires that the local or state police must be notified. The police contact the State’s Chief Medical Examiner’s Office to determine if the remains are part of a modern criminal investigation.

If the medical examiner determines that the remains are 50 years old or more and associated with an unmarked burial, the state archaeologist is called in to take over the investigation. Remains are usually dated based on rates of decomposition or loss of bone and any artifacts associated with the burial.

The state archaeologist may also be brought in on more recent investigations. He may be required to recover the remains from the ground, identify the body, assure that sacred traditions are observed if the person was Native American, and protect the integrity of the site.

Anthropology, the study of humans and human culture from antiquity to the present, includes the sub-disciplines of archaeology and physical and cultural anthropology. Bellantoni has expertise in both forensic anthropology and forensic archaeology.

He estimates that for every hour spent at an excavation, another eight hours are required in the lab. Photography, ground penetrating radar, Global Positioning Systems, and other technologies may be used at the site. In the lab, the scientist can examine bones under magnification, analyze trauma and pathologies, and use X-ray imaging, DNA analysis, and other forensic techniques.

During his 17 years as the state archaeologist, Bellantoni has worked closely with the state medical examiner and police. When a skull was stolen from a crypt in Middletown in 1993, Bellantoni’s ability to recreate the crime scene enabled the police to trace and convict the individual who had vandalized the burials to obtain the skull for Satanic rituals.

Bellantoni teaches a class on forensic archaeology for police officers from all over the United States during annual workshops at the Henry C. Lee Institute for Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven, and he recently taught a course on the recovery of human remains for the Vermont State Police.

“Nick is among the best in the world,” said Bruno Frohlich, forensic anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who led the Vermont State Police course. “We don’t have 10 years to excavate a crime scene. Evidence must be preserved and presented in as little as two weeks. Nick uses the best possible archaeological techniques to excavate and expose the burial, while collecting evidence and making records, so we have full control and know what happened in that burial.”

The Gershom Bulkeley Family Tomb in Colchester was one of Bellantoni’s most challenging puzzles and required extensive forensic investigation. Rediscovered in 2003 in an 18th-century cemetery, it contained some 30 unidentified human skeletons belonging to one of Connecticut’s founding families. Wooden coffins had disintegrated, scattering and mixing the bones of several individuals.

“After a year of study, we found that the people in the tomb told us a fascinating story,” says Bellantoni. “The family was wealthy, healthy, well nourished, and received medical care that we haven’t seen anywhere else in remains from that time. One 25-year-old man had false teeth and gold fillings.” Forensic skeletal investigations revealed the age, gender, and the presence or absence of disease for each of the skeletons. The studies also provided training in forensics for students from UConn, Boston University, and the University of New Haven. Bellantoni teaches independent studies through the anthropology department for UConn students interested in forensic anthropology and archaeology.

In another recent case, a bulldozer excavating the foundation for a new house on Mason’s Island in Mystic exposed numerous skeletons. Bellantoni determined that the exposed remains were from a Pequot cemetery dating to the mid-1600’s that contained as many as 50 graves. The cemetery is now being preserved
and restored by the property owners and the Mashantucket Pequot
Tribal Nation.