Doug Owsley Talk

He’s worked on everything from identifying some of the original settlers of Jamestown, to reinterring bodies from Flight 77. Few people in the world could claim to have the experience Doug Owsley Ph.D. has been able to attain in Forensic Anthropology. Whilst it was clear during his presentation to National History Academy (NHA) students on the 20th July that the study of human physiology has been his raison d’etre for over the past 30 years, there was clearly something unique about his work which has made him a strong leader in his field, being commended with the 2011 Jefferson Award for Public Service. It was the quest to track down the origin of his guiding zeals which resulted in me sitting down with Dr. Owsley in a recently vacated Foxcroft Auditorium. Just a few minutes ago the auditorium had been booming with excited bursts of applause. Now, the silence gave Dr. Owsley a certain sense of composure, a sense which was unlike the palpable excitement he expended whilst giving a presentation on Jamestown earlier that day. Naturally, given his aloofness, I couldn’t resist asking how he initially got into this fascinating field of study. His answer would be simultaneously enthralling and shocking: “a thundercloud, a horse and a cliff”. 

It would be the unlikely collision of these three confounding forces within the picturesque grass plains of Lusk, Wyoming that first introduced an adolescent Dr. Owsley to the captivating world of biological anatomy. As he recalled, “it was a few months after a storm which sent the neighbour’s horse down a cliff leaving only its bones. I then took it on myself to reassemble the pieces, in order to understand why the fall had caused its unfortunate demise”. From there, Dr. Owsley’s schooling career would be defined by a visceral fascination with the biological sciences, attending both the University of Wyoming and the University of Tennessee. It was at the University of Tennessee where he would soon be introduced to the forensic sciences granting him the ability to work alongside law officials. One of the first significant cases he solved was the 1991 positive identification of the first Jeffrey Dahmer victim, 18 year old Steven Hicks. Dr. Owsley would then go on to identify countless other individuals, even going as far as recreating CGI likenesses to be distributed for community crowdsourcing. Understandably, cases such as Dahmer’s are distressing, and given that oftentimes Dr. Owsley is called at trials to “speak for those who cannot speak for themselves” he uses his downtime wisely to relax through gardening on his country farm. Despite the stress induced on a regular basis, Dr. Owsley has been adamant throughout his career about representing victims fairly in court. The reasonings behind his actions are twofold. Firstly, it is to make sure that the victim’s family feel like they have been given closure, and secondly for it is for Dr. Owsley’s own satisfaction knowing that he has brought justice closer to those who have not yet received it. 

Since the start of his forensics work in the 90’s, Dr. Owsley has continued to cooperate alongside law officials on a number of other high profile cases, including identifying remains from the 1993 Waco Siege as well as those recovered from Flight 77 at the Pentagon, with the latter earning him the commendation of the Commander’s Award for Civilian Service. Of course, dealing with such tough cases has given Dr. Owsley the experience in transferring those forensics skills “to the field of history”. Being an Anthropologist postgraduate, Dr. Owsley would eventually find himself being pulled by both the Smithsonian Institute and Preservation Virginia to help identify bodies newly exhumed from Jamestown’s forgotten ruins. After arriving at Jamestown, what immediately shocked Dr. Owsley was the sheer number of people buried, indicating that early colonial life was marred by extremely high mortality rates. Whilst every body exhumed would definitely be of interest, one of the more fascinating finds was the body of Captain Bartholomew Osnold, the first European to land in nearby Cape Cod. He was identified due to a good mixture of historical records as well as items which could be correlated with him. As Dr, Owsley explained, the correlation between records and items is crucial to historians and anthropologists alike because only each piece of new consistent supporting evidence supporting previous claims “would further validate an identification”. Amongst the most interesting items that Anthropologists including Dr. Owsley examined during the identification process regarding Captain Osnold included the coffin itself, which most importantly, contained a staff which could be attributed to him. It was this alongside carbon dating as well as lead concentration testing which led to a confirmed identification for the late Captain. Whilst Captain Bartholomew Osnold’s identification was undoubtedly captivating, perhaps what was even more startling was the discovery of two coffins, which contained the bodies of a man and a woman respectively. What makes this discovery startling is when Dr. Owsley started looking at anthropological clues to indicate whether the couple were either English or Colonists; he found that the couple was neither. Interestingly, the bodies were of African descent. Whilst slaves had been imported into Jamestown since 1619, the burial inside coffins instead of a simple shroud suggests that these people were of high social standing. If they were of such a high standing, this would be an unprecedented discovery which could alter parts of the narrative concerning early African settlement in the Americas. Whilst Dr. Owsley is still working on unravelling this particular case, he stated that it was discoveries such as this which “makes his day worthwhile because it affords us the opportunity to learn about the many nuances in historical people’s personal lives to draw inferences about societies at the time” . Likewise, my discussion with Dr. Owsley has brought me to a similar conclusion. The lives of ordinary individuals may be overshadowed by the larger more significant icons and movements in history. However individual histories are just as, if not more important in granting us a more personal connection to the past.