The Road Not Taken: Ellen Moore, the Forensic Anthropologist

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Ellen Moore, senior lecturer in UW Tacoma's School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, teaches environmental communication, but could just as easily have become a forensic anthropologist.

Ellen Moore held the marble in her hand, wiped a patch of red earth from the glass. She rolled the smooth blue orb with its white swirls between her hands. Confused, she showed it to the service member standing next to her. “I don’t get it,” she said. “Why would there be a marble this far down?”

Moore, a senior lecturer at UW Tacoma, primarily teaches communications courses. She earned a Ph.D. in communications from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” said Moore in reference to her teaching.

Moore once lived a very different life. She did her undergraduate work at the University of California, Berkeley. “I started out as an English major,” said Moore. “I remember being in class trying to interpret a Robert Frost poem and thinking ‘I don’t know the answers to these questions.’” Moore left class that day knowing she needed to do something different. “And then it came to me,” she said. “I was taking an archeology class that semester and realized how much more engaged I was with that material.”

“An explosives ordinance technician came over and grabbed my shovel. Turns out I was hammering away at a five-hundred-pound unexploded bomb.”

Moore changed her major and started taking anthropology classes. During her senior year she took a course in human osteology. “Bones tell a story,” she said. “It’s powerful to be able to hold someone’s bones in your hands and be able to tell something about them like their age or sex or whether or not they’re right handed.”

Following graduation Moore worked for the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office as a provisional death investigator. “I was mostly in charge of transporting bodies and collecting fingerprints,” she said. Moore also served as assistant field director for the Bay Area archeological consulting firm Holman and Associates. “California was experiencing a real estate boom in the late 1990s,” said Moore. “Each new construction site had to be surveyed for human remains.” Moore worked alongside construction workers, local governmental officials and members of the Ohlone tribe. “We were there to make sure everything was taken out of the ground respectfully,” said Moore. “Of course, the biggest respect would have been to leave them in the ground and build elsewhere.”

Ellen Moore, UW Tacoma senior lecturer, at a dig in San Francisco Bay area. Photo courtesy Ellen Moore.

Moore left California for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1999 to pursue a master’s degree in forensic anthropology. The school is famous for its “body farm.” The farm is actually a laboratory where students learn what happens to a body when left to decompose in a natural environment. “It really adds another layer of understanding,” said Moore.

Moore finished her master’s in 2000 and decided to get a Ph.D. in forensic anthropology. She got accepted to the University of Bradford in England. Moore packed her things and moved overseas. A few months into the program she got a phone call from the U.S. Army Central Identification Lab, Hawaii (CILHI). The lab’s purpose was to recover and identity the remains of U.S. service members lost during World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War.  “They wanted me to come work for them,” said Moore. “I was really torn because I’d just started school and yet this was the type of work I wanted to do.” Moore asked if she could have time to think about it. “They said sure. You have until tomorrow.”

A few months later Moore found herself on an airplane to Thailand. She landed in Pattaya City on the country’s southwest coast. During the Vietnam War, U.S. service members came to Pattaya for rest and relaxation. “We kind of did the same thing,” said Moore. “We stayed there for a few days to get acclimatized to the weather and the time zone change.”

Ellen Moore in the field in Vietnam, working for U.S. Army's Central Identification Lab. Photo courtesy Ellen Moore.Moore’s first field work took her to Vinh City in northern Vietnam.  Military investigators performed what is known as a circle search which starts with a person’s or group’s last-known whereabouts and narrows it down from there. In this instance, the U.S. government believed two aircraft had gone down in the area.  Moore and her team set to digging in a sugar cane field outside the city. “Keep in mind that these planes went down years ago and were since covered up,” said Moore. “They weren’t going to be sticking out of the ground, we had to find them.”

Archaeology is a slow, deliberate process. Moore describes it as “99% boredom, hard work and sweat and one percent discovery and excitement.” Crews peel back the dirt one layer at a time. The soil is then sifted through screens. “We’re not only looking for artifacts or remains but we’re also examining the soil for irregularities like depressions or discolorations,” said Moore.

Moore and the other archaeologists in Vinh City found bones in a disused termite mound. Moore saw that a section of bone had a spiral fracture. “I called back to the lab and asked if one of these guys broke their arm,” she said. “The military keeps amazing medical records.” Moore got her answer later that day. One of the lost service members had indeed broken his arm playing football in high school. “This wasn’t just a set of bones, this was somebody who served their country and had a history,” said Moore.

Recovered remains are sent to the lab in Hawaii and then turned over to the family to be repatriated. “The service members and their families were always in our minds,” said Moore. The war’s impact is still being felt in both the United States and in Vietnam. Moore remembers working a different site. She found metal in the ground and started digging. “An explosives ordinance technician came over and grabbed my shovel,” she said. “He sort of brushed the dirt to reveal a star shaped pattern underneath. Turns out I was hammering away at a five hundred pound unexploded bomb.”

***

“Why would there be a marble this far down?” Moore asked. A service member answered. “He said, ‘I know exactly what this is. My kids give me things to take with me on my trips. They’ve given me marbles or little flowers.’” Moore said she and the rest of the team started crying. “We realized this person probably had a kid or kids,” she said.

Moore left CILHI in 2003. “The work was physically and mentally exhausting,” she said. “It was also some of the most rewarding.” Moore intended to pursue psychology. In fact she was walking across the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus, papers in hand, when she ran into the dean of the school of communications. “We got to talking,” said Moore. “Needless to say I never turned in the paperwork.”

Flash back to Moore’s Berkeley English class and her confusion about a Robert Frost poem. Perhaps it was “The Road Not Taken.” Moore may not be a poet but the decision to choose an alternate path has made all the difference.

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Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / July 3, 2018
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu