One of the shattered skulls kept within the walls of the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM) in Washington, DC, belonged to private James Bedell, a 45-year-old Union soldier from Michigan. He was captured by Confederate forces on July 3, 1863, when his horse was shot out from under him during the Battle of Gettysburg. Bedell fell in line behind his captors with other hapless Union fighters, but he was unable to keep up with the Confederate brigade as it retreated from the battlefield. This sluggishness earned him a crack to his skull from a Confederate lieutenant's saber. Bedell was left by the roadside to die.
Passing Union scouts soon found him and took him to a nearby hospital. Bedell drifted in and out of a stupor until he finally succumbed to his injuries on Aug. 15, 1863, more than 40 days after his skull was nearly split in two.
Now, Bedell's skull sits among a collection of similarly damaged crania from fellow Civil War fighters. These antique skeletal remains and the stories behind them are helping modern-day forensic scientists piece together violent deaths and abusive histories that happen almost 150 years later.
Armed with little more than a magnifying glass, Lenore Barbian, a forensic anthropologist at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, and her colleague, Paul Sledzik, pored over more than 100 cranial fragments in varying states of healing after gunshot, bayonet, or saber wounds. Like Bedell, some soldiers survived for weeks after their injuries. Barbian and Sledzik were able to identify distinct healing processes in damaged crania and calculate the amount of time that elapsed after injuries occurred. Match the two, and you get an idea of how much time has passed since an injury occurred simply by looking at the changes in the bone.
"What made the Civil War collection attractive was that we had an injury and a known time of death," Barbian says. "You can calculate the amount of healing time for each of these individuals."
The researchers didn't see the two basic cellular responses to bone fractures - osteoblastic, when bone cells build more bone tissue, and osteoclastic, when bone cells degrade damaged bone - until one week after cranial trauma occurred. By six weeks after injury they saw etched lines, which indicate advanced healing and infection, forming near the wounds.
Prior to this study, forensic anthropologists could only say that cranial injuries happened either around the time of death or sometime before it. Now they can trace a particular injury to one week, six weeks, or immediately prior to death. This improved resolution, says University of Tennessee forensic anthropologist Murray Marks, can help forensic scientists more accurately reconstruct histories of abuse and injury endured by modern-day murder victims, by pinpointing how soon before death an injury occurred. The big application: child abuse.
"[This study is] something that the forensic community's needed for a long time," says Marks, who was not involved with the study. "We look at bone fractures all the time, and we just don't know how long it takes for bone to respond."
The skeletal remains that Barbian and Sledzik studied are part of a collection of about 2,000 such specimens stored at NMHM. William Hammond, the Surgeon General of the US Army from 1862-1864, had Union doctors collect and carefully catalog skeletal remains from soldiers felled at battlefields from Antietam to Bull Run. Veterans' families sent bones to the museum for decades.
Though Barbian and Sledzik's results improve the resolution with which forensic scientists can estimate the timing of cranial fractures, it's still not an exact science. To get more precise, the scientists would have to perform histological analysis, but that would require cutting into the 150-year-old bone samples. And that, says Barbian, is just not an option. "The samples are too precious."