A Conversation With Real Forensic Anthropologist Clea Koff

All nine seasons of the terrific BBC show Waking the Dead are live and RTB (that's ready-to-binge – innovative, we know) on WGBH Passport. Popular in the UK in the early oughts – and a big hit in previous broadcasts on WGBH – Waking the Dead is like a British Law and Order meets Cold Case, with a dash of interpersonal drama thrown in to get spicy. We're already digging into the show, and have to say our programmers were spot on with this one.

Led by the spectacular Trevor Eve (who you may remember from Masterpiece's Unforgotten or Death Comes to Pemberley) the cast of characters spends each week investigating the crimes of arsonists, stalkers, gangsters and more. And better yet? Each story is covered in a two episode arc, leaving plenty of room for the relationships, stresses, and character development of our main cast.

But to get the true behind-the-scenes stories, we've brought back our interview with Clea Koff, the infamous "Bone Woman" who has investigated multiple genocide cases under the auspices of the UN. See what she has to say about how she got into this career, what she still loves about it, and what scares her the most.

Name: Clea Koff

Title: Forensic Anthropologist and Author

What do you love about your job?
What I love most about my job is that forensic anthropology can do more than just restore identity to the unidentified; it can thwart the intentions of a killer who believes they have erased their victim from the face of the earth. The science can even help a murder victim bear witness to the prosecution of their killer. This is very powerful to me because is it more than a science producing facts or a scientist evaluating evidence, it is a body revealing aspects of its life and last moments. In that way, the body comes to life, if you will. It has a story to tell, despite the efforts of another to silence them, and it is my job to listen.

What do you least like about your job?
As a forensic anthropologist with the experiences I’ve had of being near or talking with families of the dead, the most difficult aspect has been the recognition that locating, recovering, and identifying bodies and returning them to their families is not enough for them. Those scientific actions are the technical completion of our work but the loss remains for the affected families. I am acutely aware of the unending nature of that grief.

What’s your secret talent?
Stand-up comedy, with and without air guitar. Sometimes my air guitar is the comedy.

Who is your mentor?
My mentors are my parents. I trust them completely and turn to them for advice to this day. I include my late father when I say that because it feels as though he is still with me when it comes to this aspect of my life.

What is your motto for work?
Assume nothing.

What do you think society misunderstands about your job?
I think television has produced the rather impressive idea that forensic scientists, in general, interview suspects and pack heat – even going as far as arresting murder suspects with said heat.

Do you enjoy television crime shows?
Yes! Morse, Lewis, Marple, Bosch, Rebus, and Poirot, are favorites.

If yes, do you have favorite TV Forensic Pathologist?
Dr Blake of Dr Blake, for his doggedness, eye for detail, and humanity.

How did you get into your field?
My interest in the dead started when I was a child and would, out of curiosity, exhume the carcasses of birds I’d found dead in our yard. A habit of digging things up outside is probably why, when I was in high school, I watched a National Geographic documentary on the bodies covered in ash at Herculaneum after the eruption of Pompeii. Seeing a physical anthropologist on that program talk about what she had learned about people’s lives from the bones made me want to be an archaeologist (I didn’t know what a physical anthropologist was at that point).

Then, in the summer after my first year of college, my father gave me the book, Witnesses from the Grave, which chronicles the formation of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and their efforts to identify people who were disappeared by the military junta in the 1970s. I read the book while I was on the Stanford-in-Greece archaeological dig for the summer (I wasn’t qualified to be on the dig but I was qualified to wash pottery while providing child care for the 5 year-old son of the principal investigators) and I was mesmerized and inspired and probably rather obsessed.

I knew I wanted to be a forensic anthropologist and I knew I wanted to do human rights-related forensics, which was not a well-known distinction at that time. When I returned to Stanford for my second year, I set about adjusting my classes around a major in Anthropology and started visiting the three existing graduate programs in forensic anthropology in different parts of the United States.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
In my work life, my greatest achievement is being a member of the first international forensic team to uncover evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity for the first international criminal tribunals since the trials at Nuremberg after World War II. Our work provided evidence that supported the prosecutions of the planners and organizers of crimes that were perpetrated with a sense of impunity, if not arrogance, toward extrajudicial killings of civilians, injured soldiers and prisoners of war.

Can you speak to the experience of investigating crimes against humanity at such a large scale?
One of the most interesting realizations for me while working on the exhumations of mass graves for the UN in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia was that the evidence had to be gathered one body at a time. That sounds obvious but at the time of traveling to Rwanda for the first exhumation, I was very aware of the massive nature of the alleged crime at our site: we were preparing to find a grave that could hold up to 2,000 bodies.

But in working day after day to separately document and exhume each body in the initial grave of almost 500 people, I came to see that genocide is actually made up of many individual murders. Once I saw that, I also began to see the killers as individuals, and then the planners – those key people who provided the strategy and the tools. That contextualization of the crime was very different from my experience of investigating unidentified bodies in the United States, where each case stood alone and was perhaps less likely to spark similar questions of patterns or politics or prevention.

In your first book, The Bone Woman, you use the term “double vision” to describe seeing your subjects both as investigative material and as persons. Can you speak to the human aspect of your work, beyond the more scientific forensic side?
My academic background included a lot of cultural anthropology at the undergraduate level, and I was always very drawn to ethnography, I think due to a deep interest in people and their behavior, cross-culturally. I think that that background and interest influenced how I experienced the work we did on the UN teams. Of course, we could spend days working over a cluster of several bodies, or getting deeper into a single grave, and the more time I spent with bodies like this, the more I became aware of the life of the person I was uncovering; I was aware that this person had tied the shoelace I was now scraping free of dirt or had hooked the bra whose strap I could see adhered to a mummified shoulder. Yes, these bodies had numbers in our system and would be presented as evidence in a report, but before all of that, they were alive, and after all of that, they are beloved relatives. Our investigation is temporary but their humanity is constant.

Read the full article on WGBH.

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