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Book Review: No Bone Unturned by Jeff Benedict

No Bone Unturned - The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientists and the Legal Battle for America's Oldest Skeletons by Jeff Benedict. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 2003. 304 pp. 8 pages of black and white photos.

We thank Brian Harrison, director of Columbia Diachronic Services, an archaeological consulting service based in Astoria, Oregon for this review.

Okay, I am assuming that, since you are reading this on the Friends of America's Past website, you are interested in Kennewick Man and other early human remains from the New World. And you probably already know the details of the Discovery, the Brief Study, the Confiscation, the Lawsuit, the Affidavits and Declarations, and the Ruling. Now you're wondering, "Should I buy another book on K-man?". I think you should. And I think it should be this one.

Benedict, a lawyer and investigative reporter, has done a remarkable job of profiling Doug Owsley, a Smithsonian forensic anthropologist more committed to his science than inflating his ego. Flamboyant would be the last word you'd choose to describe him, in spite of all the Indiana Jones references that have been made about his career.

I haven't met Doug Owsley, but he comes across as a cautious, belt-and-suspenders kind of guy, thoughtful, shy, and brilliant, and devoted to forensic science, his wife and his daughters. He clearly loves his work. And his work must sometimes be hard to love. The old skeletons are no problem. I have studied dozens of them in Peru, many with soft tissue hanging from them. They've been a long time gone, the people who used to be wrapped around them.

But Owsley also works with fresh material, from Waco's David Koresh to Bosnian war victims to the Pentagon dead on 9/11. His ability to focus on the task at hand must help him compartmentalize logic and emotion and survive in a very dirty business. Like Clyde Snow, he is partly motivated by the simple concepts of bringing the killer to justice and closure to the family of the victim, as well as solving a formidable puzzle.

Does this mean lots of gory detail in the book? Can you read it while eating pork ribs, for example? If you are one of the multitude who watch CSI and GeoFiles episodes on the Body Farm, or if you can read Patricia Cornwell's novels, the stories here won't bother you. (On the other hand, if you are passionate about case studies in forensic anthropology, check out Bones: A Forensic Detective's Casebook by Ubelaker and Scammell and Dead Men Do Tell Tales by the late William Maples.) The tales in Benedict's book are straightforward and told in enough detail so the reader will have a good idea of the process of transforming bone fragments into an identity. And why it is necessary.

But the real story in this book is Kennewick Man and the tangle of ethics, science, identity politics and law that has emerged from the notorious trials of the old bones. I used the case in anthropology classes to illustrate this tangle, and it was well-received by students who came down on either side of the controversy. I wouldn't necessarily use No Bone Unturned as a textbook, though I admire the way Benedict has used his legal training to give clear explanations of the lawyerly shenanigans involved.

Judge John Jelderks' decision in the case last August is among the most beautiful pieces of writing and logic I have seen, and I would certainly recommend it for every student of anthropology. It is brilliant and decisive, insightful and clear, honest and unbiased.

Benedict's writing is not unbiased. The government lawyers and bureaucrats are shown as self-serving sneaks, and the scientist-plaintiffs (especially Owsley) wear the white hats of scientific righteousness. There are details left out, especially of the affidavits prepared by both sides of the dispute, and a half dozen minor errors, but overall the book is well worth the investment, especially as it will be borrowed by most of your family and friends. You may have a hard time getting it back to reread.

Comments? We'd like to hear your views about this book.

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