University of Technology Sydney

99814 Introduction to Forensic Taphonomy

Warning: The information on this page is indicative. The subject outline for a particular session, location and mode of offering is the authoritative source of all information about the subject for that offering. Required texts, recommended texts and references in particular are likely to change. Students will be provided with a subject outline once they enrol in the subject.

Subject handbook information prior to 2020 is available in the Archives.

UTS: Science: Mathematical and Physical Sciences
Credit points: 6 cp
Result type: Grade and marks

Description

This subject introduces students to the multidisciplinary fields of forensic taphonomy. Taphonomy refers to the study of organic remains from the time of death to the time of discovery. Forensic taphonomy investigates the physical, chemical and biological processes of human and animal decomposition and associated evidence. Students gain an understanding of the effect of environmental variables on the process of decomposition and conduct a search for and recovery of decomposed remains. Forensic taphonomy encompasses a broad range of disciplines and this subject includes topics on decomposition chemistry, entomology, anthropology, archaeology, geology, geophysics, and ecology. At completion of the subject, students have a greater understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of search and recovery investigations and the multitude of disciplines available to investigators when decomposed or skeletal remains are located. They also learn to reflect on the value and ethics of ‘body farms’, facilities used by researchers and police to advance the knowledge base of forensic taphonomy. As part of this subject, students will visit The Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research.

Subject learning objectives (SLOs)

Upon successful completion of this subject students should be able to:

1. Understand and apply principles learnt during the lectures to the search and recovery of victim remains
2. Develop a search strategy and be able to modify that strategy as new evidence becomes available
3. Systematically locate and recover decomposed remains using all resources available to the search team
4. Recognise and recover associated evidence that could be important to the investigation
5. Understand the impact of the environment on taphonomic changes
6. Reflect on the importance of ethics when working with human remains, particularly at body farms
7. Develop written, visual and oral communication skills to convey information to diverse audiences (e.g. academic, police, court, etc.)
8. Demonstrate planning and organisational skills for teamwork and collaborative activities
9. Engage in reflective feedback, including self and peer assessment, to develop life-long skills for their professional career

Contribution to the development of graduate attributes

1 – Disciplinary knowledge and its appropriate application

Students will develop a working knowledge of forensic taphonomy and the numerous disciplines involved in death investigations. They will be introduced to search and recovery techniques in the practical exercises and will apply their theoretical knowledge from the lectures to locate a mock grave site. Students will be assessed on their learned knowledge in assessment task 1. Students will be assessed on their application of this knowledge in assessment tasks 2 and 3.

2 – An Inquiry-oriented approach

Students will develop their investigative and problem-solving skills through the search and recovery scenario. They will apply the scientific method by developing a search strategy, testing that strategy using the skills and techniques learnt during the practical sessions, and adapting that strategy as new evidence becomes available. Students will be assessed on their ability to use problem solving skills and develop a sound search and recovery method in assessment task 2.

3 – Professional skills and their appropriate application

Students will acquire, develop, and employ a range of professional skills, both independently and collaboratively. This subject will help to develop universal skills such as time management, planning and organisation, teamwork and negotiation. An awareness of the ethics in scientific experimentation will also be gained and their ability to reflect on the importance of this value will be assessed in assessment task 4.

4 – Ability to be a lifelong learner

Collaborative peer learning is a major goal and activity of the practical sessions as teams of students are required to cooperatively search, locate and recover a mock grave site. Students will engage in peer learning during the search and recovery investigation and will undertake self- and peer-assessment in assessment tasks 3 and 4.

5 – Engagement with the needs of society

Students will learn about death investigations and the social impact it can have on members of society. They will understand the value of assisting law enforcement agencies involved in search and recovery investigations for missing persons, or victims of homicide, genocide, and/or mass disasters. They will learn about the importance of providing accurate evidence to the criminal justice system to ensure the appropriate prosecution of offenders. Students will also gain an understanding of the moral and ethical treatment of human remains and the need to recover and identify victim remains, not only for social justice but for the mental welfare of their family and friends. These learnings will be assessed in assessment tasks 3 and 4.

6 – Communication skills

Extensive development of written, visual and oral communication skills will be achieved throughout the lecture and practical sessions. Various methods of documenting and communicating findings will be discussed through the lectures and subsequently implemented during the recording of the recovered scene. Written skills will also be developed and assessed through the reflective journal which provides students a self-guided opportunity to evaluate their own learning outcomes. Visual communication skills will be developed through the mapping and recording of the mock grave site. Oral communication skills will be developed through the collaborative presentation where peer feedback will be provided in assessment task 3.

7 – Initiative and innovative ability

Students will demonstrate initiative and innovation through the development of a search strategy and the requirement to adapt that strategy based on the tools and evidence available to the team. These skills will be assessed as part of the search and recovery exercise conducted at AFTER in assessment task 2.

Teaching and learning strategies

UTSOnline will be used to engage with content in the form of videos, journal articles, and quizzes as well as to promote the dialog and engage in discussions with your peers.

Students will be required to read several relevant journal articles and watch an online video prior to the first lecture. Their learnings from these articles will be assessed in an online quiz. Students will initially attend several lectures to learn the principles and key theoretical knowledge needed to participate in a search and recovery investigation. Thereafter, the majority of the students’ learning will occur through practical sessions at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) and other relevant laboratory and field locations (for example, the Australian Museum).

This subject will involve a significant amount of collaborative teamwork to develop and apply a search and recovery strategy with ongoing assistance and regular feedback from the subject coordinator. This will help students to develop a high degree of planning and organisational skills and demonstrate the value of working cohesively and collaboratively as a group.

Students will undertake four assessment tasks. Assessment task 1 will be an online quiz through UTSOnline to assess their knowledge from the journal readings and video which need to be completed prior to the first class. Assessment task 2 will assess the students’ collaborative teamwork and skills during a search for and recovery of a mock grave site involving animal analogues. Assessment task 3 will assess the students’ written and oral skills through a group presentation of their search strategy, documentation and recording of the scene, and recovery of evidence. The final assessment task will assess the students’ ability to reflect on their learning experience and their ability to conduct a search and recovery investigation. Authentic assessments will be part of this subject as students will have access to evidence at the AFTER site and other relevant laboratory and field locations.

Students will have the opportunity to develop their practical skills through the search scenario, their visual, oral and peer-assessment skills through a final presentation with their team, and their written and self-assessment skills through daily reflections in their journal.

Content (topics)

Specific topics that will be presented throughout the subject include:

  • Introduction to decomposition
  • Taphonomic factors and agents
  • Search strategy and detection
  • Ecological indicators including geological, botanical, entomological, etc.
  • Geoforensics including geophysical prospecting
  • Forensic archaeology and recovery techniques
  • Forensic anthropology and identification of skeletal remains

Assessment

Assessment task 1: Assessment Task 1: Online quiz for pre-reading

Intent:

This assessment task contributes to the development of the following graduate attributes:

1. Disciplinary knowledge and its appropriate application

Objective(s):

This assessment task addresses subject learning objective(s):

1

Type: Quiz/test
Groupwork: Individual
Weight: 20%
Length:

20 minutes.

Criteria:

Criteria: Students will be assessed on:

  • Accuracy of information provided by the students
  • Ability to show understanding of concepts introduced in the pre-reading task

Assessment task 2: Assessment Task 2: Search and recovery investigation

Intent:

This assessment task contributes to the development of the following graduate attributes:

1. Disciplinary knowledge and its appropriate application
2. An Inquiry-oriented approach
3. Professional skills and their appropriate application
5. Engagement with the needs of society
6. Communication skills
7. Initiative and innovative ability

Objective(s):

This assessment task addresses subject learning objective(s):

2, 3, 4, 5 and 8

Type: Laboratory/practical
Groupwork: Group, group assessed
Weight: 30%
Length:

3 days.

Criteria:

Students will be assessed on:

  • Teamwork and efficiency
  • Ability to locate clandestine grave site using learnt tools and developed strategy
  • Ability to innovate with the use of new technologies to gather additional evidence
  • Ability to recover remains without destruction of evidence
  • Quality of mapping, measuring, recording and photography of scene
  • Completeness and quality of located, processed and packaged evidence

Assessment task 3: Assessment Task 3: Group presentation

Intent:

This assessment task contributes to the development of the following graduate attributes:

1. Disciplinary knowledge and its appropriate application
2. An Inquiry-oriented approach
3. Professional skills and their appropriate application
4. Ability to be a lifelong learner
6. Communication skills

Objective(s):

This assessment task addresses subject learning objective(s):

7, 8 and 9

Type: Presentation
Groupwork: Group, group assessed
Weight: 20%
Length:

1 day.

Criteria:

Students will be assessed on:

  • Quality of written and oral communication skills to convey information to diverse audiences
  • Accuracy of information provided by the group
  • Group work

SPARKPlus will be used for group contribution, taking into account:

  • Disciplinary/subject input
  • Punctuality and time commitment
  • Contribution with original ideas
  • Work effectively as part of the team
  • Communication skills

Assessment task 4: Assessment Task 4: Reflective journal

Intent:

This assessment task contributes to the development of the following graduate attributes:

1. Disciplinary knowledge and its appropriate application
2. An Inquiry-oriented approach
3. Professional skills and their appropriate application
4. Ability to be a lifelong learner
5. Engagement with the needs of society
6. Communication skills

Objective(s):

This assessment task addresses subject learning objective(s):

1, 5, 6, 7 and 9

Type: Journal
Groupwork: Individual
Weight: 30%
Length:

4 weeks.

Criteria:

Students will be assessed on:

  • Quality of written communication skills and ability to convey meaning to their thoughts
  • Ability to demonstrate an understanding of forensic taphonomy disciplines and applications to police investigations
  • Inclusion of self-assessment of search and recovery capabilities
  • Inclusion of personal opinion on the value and ethics of body farms