Australia, news

Mystery Men

Today marks the end of Missing Persons Week in Australia. This is the week when the police pour extra money into campaigns re: finding folk who went walkabout one day and never returned, and there are extra adverts around the place to raise awareness.

Coincidentally, there have recently developments regarding two big mysteries that received a lot of public attention:

Somerton Man

On December 1st 1948, a well-dressed gentleman was found dead on Somerton Beach, in Adelaide, South Australia. Nobody came forth to identify him, and piece of paper with the words ‘Tamam Shud’, which is Persian for “It is over/it is finished”, was found in his pocket.

It transpired that the paper came from a rare edition of a book of poetry, the Rubáiyát by Omar Khayyám. Get this – there appeared to be some scribbled code in the book that the page was torn from.

Conspiracy theories went rampant as these all details were appearing at the start of the Cold War, and people believed he was a murdered Russian spy. The gent was buried in a respectable but nameless grave for a while.

He was exhumed again for more forensic investigations.

Apparently as of last week, the case has finally been cracked. Other interesting elements:

• he had legs sculpted like a ballet dancer’s;

• his wife filed for divorce on grounds of desertion (instead of, y’know, actually reporting him missing);

• the lead researcher on this case married a woman who was hypothesised to be Somerton Man’s granddaughter (which he only later ruled out).

• it turned out that Somerton Man had the same occupation as the lead researcher, whose daytime job was electrical engineering.

Read about it here!

So many twists! I remember some years back going to a local Escape Room that was themed with Somerton Man’s case, which was where I first learnt about him. I would not be surprised if they made a movie out of everything that happened.

Image credits: wiki commons and borrowed from the article.

‘The Gentleman’

In July 1994, another also well-dressed gentleman was found – pulled out of the North Sea. He too, had nothing to identify him, and who he was has remained a mystery for 28 years.

The man was wearing had a wool tie, and a diverse range of fancy clothes from all over Europe: British shoes and French pants. His body showed signs of having been physically beaten, and so foul play was suspected.

Image from Murdoch University

For his nice attire, he was dubbed ‘The Gentleman’ – and for a long time, the German police were looking for clues around Europe to identify him.

Researchers from Murdoch University recently conducted isotope analysis of his bones and teeth … and determined that the man had likely been from Australia. This shed a completely new light on the case, which is still to be cracked.

Wiki page

Article on it here.

Reading all these fascinating cases has me wondering what life might for a forensic pathologist, who works out cause of death by looking at soft tissues. This is different to the forensic anthropologist, who does the same but looks at bones. I imagine the former must be a much … oozier … job than the latter.

Had you heard of Somerton Man and The Gentleman? Do the police raise awareness on missing people in your area? What are some interesting historical cases you know of?

Australia, forensics

Forensic Archaeology

Circa October last year I caught wind of the words “forensic archaeologist” for the first time.

Toy skeleton. Image credit:

Whew! It’s a unique and exciting combination of words because it’s as if the mystery, adventure and thriller genres from Hollywood all got smashed together into a job title.

Turns out, this job hardly exists anywhere in Australia. Boo! This is also to the lament of Dr. Soren Blau, the archaeologist who runs the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, Melbourne. Here’s a paper she wrote about it.

So we, Down Under, are not exactly swimming in opportunities, but it was fun to explore. I got really into finding old issues of AFAAN (Australian Forensic Anthropology and Archaeology Newsletter), which was published by them.

Below is a copy from 2019 which I found from the inter-webs, which also includes an interview with a gentleman who became a forensic archaeologist when the Australian Special Investigations Unit asked a pathologist to check on some long-dead people, and the pathologist hand-balled it – the result was Emeritus Professor Richard Wright discovered and exhumed from some mass graves in Ukraine c. 1990. You can read the story for yourself below. (Please be warned, there are images of human remains on the newsletter).

I also discovered that there is a podcast called the Forensic Anthropology Companion Podcast, where really smart people who look at the science of determining the cause of death discuss their research. Episodes come up as the first result if you look on Google.

At some universities, students can study archaeology and forensics concurrently.

Perhaps later on they can be employed at places like AFTER, which is short for the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, in Sydney. I’ve written about funny acronyms before and this one is just splendid.

Here’s a slightly older ABC news article about a discovery they made that apparently we move around a lot just after we die, eeek:

I suppose in a way, it’s a good thing that the job opportunities are about as ubiquitous as bird’s teeth, as the implications are that homicides are on the less frequent side. Still, I bet if such a TV series about such a person in this role was released, a good number of watchers would tune in. I probably would if I had the time (see below)

Other stuff going on:

• Work is bit of a wild ride on a untamed bucking mare in a hailstorm right now – multiple colleagues have caught COVID, multiple computers keep breaking, and I am basically here running damage control. (There’s a strange sort of thrill in managing crises, but wish this didn’t cut into me-time, which includes blogging time.)

• As mentioned in another post, I have been gearing for a science exam. This has involved lots of maths too. I’ve been using search engines to look up equations so much that an unusual page came up – Google literally paused and asked me if I was a bot:

This came up instead of the search results. Next-level nerd status unlocked?

Turns out Alphabet is on the alert for a Westworld-like uprising, who knew?

I hope all you lovely readers are well. How are things? Have you heard of forensic archaeologists before? Or been accused of being a robot? Anyone have recommendations for good crime-related shows?


Day 1, 1/11

The last post about the camel’s brush hair should have said they are predominantly made with squirrel fur; after that it’s a mix of other animal hairs, my apologies to my dear readers who were deceived I am sorry

After several wrong turn-offs* this morning I made it in to the university. Our small class of about 10 people was given a crash course on skeletal anatomy and we handled genuine human bone plastic replicas.**

Some learnings:

• Forensic anthropologists and archaeologists have to be familiar with something called siding. Which is not about choosing your team in an argument, but figuring out how you orientate each bone so you know left from right. Which is wild, because human carpals and tarsals are all very nearly shapeless blobs and all our phalanges look the same.

Sided phalanges

• Archaeologists get hired in droves during mining booms, to look at sites before extractivist corporate overlords go in and ruin everything. Feels ironic that a profession about preserving heritage gets employment when, y’know, we plunder our earth’s resources

• When human remains are uncovered, the police get called, and once a crime scene is ruled out, they just rebury the remains and people build whatever they need to on top (At least I’m 99% sure I heard correctly what the lecturer lady said, much to my shock).

Generally we had a marvellous time!

*The university is ~30min from my house with big signs and well marked roads. Getting lost while driving is a recurring theme of my life, am vaguely concerned about what this will mean when I am hunting for dig sites via unnamed dirt paths in the wilderness.

** Plastic replicas joke was repurposed from the TV show Friends, as told by palaeontologist Ross. As a class, we were still expected to get into the habit of treating them with respect.