Indelible marks

Tim Thompson uses his skill as a forensic anthropologist to help identify bodies by looking at their tattoos and piercings

November 13, 2008

University of Teesside researcher Tim Thompson is leading a three-year study of tattoos and piercings. But he is neither a fashion expert nor a sociologist: he is one of only nine accredited forensic anthropologists in the UK.

Dr Thompson has helped British police forces, but was also called in to help identify bodies after the Asian tsunami and the excavation of mass graves in Kosovo. “Forensic anthropologists are called in only when bodies are in such a condition that identification can be very difficult,” he said. Tattoos proved to be crucial in identifying individuals since they became clearer as the bodies decomposed. “The ink is injected into the dermis area of the skin. The epidermis, the outer layer, sloughs off and exposes the dermis.”

Dr Thompson, senior lecturer in crime scene science at Teesside, first had the idea of researching traces left by tattoos and piercings in his previous post as lecturer at the University of Dundee. He has now won funding from the Leverhulme Trust for a three-year PhD studentship.

The research will include the composition of tattoo ink across the country. The components can vary dramatically, depending on who has made them. This chemical signature may mean that inks could be narrowed down to specific manufacturers, giving clues to where a person had been.

Dr Thompson said the chemicals can migrate to the lymph nodes: even if a body had been dismembered, traces of tattoo inks could be found in the armpits, for example.

Dr Thompson and PhD student Alex Starkie are also investigating whether particular types of people get particular styles of tattoo. “Traditionally, it was students or young people or sailors who got tattoos, but now it’s accountants and businesspeople as well. If we have information about a tattoo, its location or style or chemical composition, does that give us any information about the person and where they may have come from? It could help you narrow things down in terms of age or sex or geography.” Research is also needed on how long DNA lasts on a piercing.

“And if a body decays in the woods, what happens to piercings? Do they stay where they are, or do moles take them away?” Dr Thompson said. “At the moment, the research is UK-based, but there’s no reason why the techniques and principles couldn’t be applied elsewhere.”

He has seen enormous interest in forensic science, stimulated by television programmes such as CSI and a glut of crime novels. “I think, to be honest, it’s good and bad. It’s great that the interest is there with students coming into university, but people perhaps don’t appreciate the strengths and limits of the discipline.”

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