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Unearthing The Secrets Of Human Skeletal Remains

July 19, 2000
Adelaide University
Australian police stand to benefit from new research at Adelaide University which aims to find the best methods of detecting human skeletal remains of murder victims buried in the unique Australian environment.

Police stand to benefit from new research at Adelaide University which aims to find the best methods for detecting human skeletal remains in the unique Australian environment.

The work—conducted by PhD student Ms Kathy Powell and her colleagues in the Department of Anatomical Sciences—has enormous implications for Australian police.

The results will assist police to locate missing people who may have met with foul play, such as in murder cases which remain "open" because no body has been found.

Ms Powell’s research is believed to be among the first of its kind in Australia, and is significant because it focuses purely on locating bodies in Australian conditions.

Early findings from a mock gravesite maintained at the University’s Roseworthy Campus have been encouraging. Ms Powell buried dead kangaroos and pigs at various sites to test the latest mineral exploration technologies from around the world, including ground-penetrating radar and 3D laser imaging devices.

"Ground-penetrating radar has become very popular recently but it has its limitations, with tree roots being virtually undistinguishable from skeletal remains," Ms Powell says.

"Many of the geophysical instruments that have potential are used primarily for mineral exploration. They're not constructed for shallow burials, but I'm hoping they can be adapted for this purpose."

A critical component of her research is time—time for the bodies to decay—as Ms Powell is detecting skeletal remains and not decomposing bodies. Changes in the soil surface are also being monitored to see if they give a reliable indication of graves.

"Preliminary findings reveal that, unlike overseas police case studies, in Australia there is very little compaction of the soil, which in turn leaves no telltale depressions in the soil," she says.

"In winter, vegetation regrowth makes it extremely difficult to detect any potential skeletal remains, so seasonal factors are important.

"There is some small indication of different vegetation for the three kangaroo gravesites, but it varies between them, as I chose three typical case scenarios: one close to a tree, one near a log and one in the open scrub."

More definitive findings will become available as the kangaroo and pig remains decay further. Ms Powell also plans to respectfully bury some human cadavers in a cemetery, studies of which will greatly improve the accuracy of her research.

"There are no studies of this kind here in Australia and no reliable detection schemes developed based on scientific research. Hopefully our work can help to bring some closure to police working on open cases, and to the families and friends of the victims involved," Ms Powell says.

High resolution photos available at

Caption: Ms Kathy Powell at a mock gravesite at Adelaide University’s Roseworthy campus

MEDIA CONTACT: Ms Kathy Powell, +61 8 8204 2871 (w), +61 8 8333 0118 (h),

Ben Osborne (Media Unit), Tel: +61 8 8303 5414 (w), +61 8 8278 3606 (h).

Story Source:

Materials provided by Adelaide University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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Adelaide University. "Unearthing The Secrets Of Human Skeletal Remains." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 July 2000. <>.
Adelaide University. (2000, July 19). Unearthing The Secrets Of Human Skeletal Remains. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 22, 2017 from
Adelaide University. "Unearthing The Secrets Of Human Skeletal Remains." ScienceDaily. (accessed May 22, 2017).