16 September 2015

The Grauballe Man helped solve a murder


“When we get spectacular prehistoric finds, we are obliged to use them for research” Professor Niels Lynnerup, a forensic anthropologist and physician, helps solve murders, past and present, and the victims of the past often help victims of today.

Niels Lynnerup in his laboratory – the skull on his left if that of child
from a several hundred years old grave In Aalborg, his daughter made the one on
the right.

By Mikkel Andreas Beck

When he was no more than 10 or 11 years old, Niels Lynnerup found Archaeology Professor and Museum Director P. V. Glob’s book about the bog-people on the bookshelf in his childhood home. The greenish front cover showed a close-up of the face belonging to a dead bog-body. The contorted face and the other ancient finds made quite an impact.

“I spent hours staring at the amazing black and white photos of skeletons in their graves. It was utterly exiting, almost transgressive for a young boy,” says the now 54-year-old professor of forensic anthropology, who in adulthood bought a second-hand version of Glob’s book. It resides in his office at the Department of Forensic Medicine, in the Teilum Building, next to Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen.

Those bog-bodies followed him all the way into his work life – and not only in book-form.

“My work stands on two legs: forensic medicine and archaeology. My expertise lies in identification based on very few human remains, e.g. in cases when there is severe changes in a dead body. At the same time, we help archaeologists examine old skeletons, by way of establishing the cause of death as well as their diseases. I’m fortunate, because in Denmark, the police only rarely come across such cases. If you watch CSI, you would easily expect there to be an exiting new murder mystery to solve every week. But because it only happens rarely, we are luckily able to practice by looking at skeletons from the past,” Niels Lynnerup states.

Why did you choose to become a doctor?
“Even as a young boy, I was curious about how the functions of the human body. How are we able to bend our fingers? How does a muscle actually function? Medication was interesting from both a natural science perspective but also from a more humanistic perspective. The fact that we can offer someone relief, that we are able to help patients. So there were many different aspects that attracted me. The solid fact-based natural sciences alongside the fact that I’d be dealing with people.”

Why forensic medicine?
“I had all but completed my studies when I read an article about the faculty’s great collection of historic skeletons. The former head of the collection talked about the numerous opportunities they held for research, so I called him and arranged a tour. As an intern, I would cycle to Panum after work and spend a few hours examining skeletons from Greenland. I found it fascinating, how a group of people who travelled from Iceland to Greenland and their descendants managed to survive 500 years in a harsh climate and under difficult conditions. How did they manage it? And why did they disappear?

“Before and while writing my PhD, I also worked as a physician in the forensic department. Almost 20 years ago, it was decided to move the administration of the skeleton collection from the anatomy department to the forensic department, not least because new methods, including DNA tests, were becoming more prevalent and it was obvious that they could also be used on archaeological matter. In connection with this administrative rearrangement a position became available, which I was lucky enough to get,” Niels Lynnerup recounts. Today he is head of the collection, which includes more than 30,000 skeletons.

Why is your research important for society?
“I believe that the answer to that question is multi-layered. Sometimes forensic scientists face families who need to know if a dead person is their relation. It could be in relation to a tsunami in, say, Thailand. That it happens quickly and securely is not merely preferable for the government but also and especially for the bereaved. So we help the authorities and the bereaved. And archaeologists cannot help but dig, and sometimes they come across ancient skeletons. And even if a dead body is 5000 years old, I believe that they deserve to be treated respectfully. Who is it? What happened? So we also help the archaeologists.

“And as with all other types of research: if we don’t do it, there will be no development or renewal. I’m currently involved in a project with DNA scientist Eske Willerslev, where we, among other things, investigate whether plague epidemics are important for genetic frequencies. It might also reveal something about future epidemics. Leprosy, for instance, was very common in the 12th and 13th centuries. Why did they experience such an epidemic? Some people may dismiss it with ‘that was then’, but there were cases of leprosy in Norway into the 19th century, although it disappeared from Denmark in the 16th century. But we are still confronted with new epidemics, including Ebola and SARS. The old skeletons can help teach us why they break out, why they die out as well as further our knowledge of the nature of the epidemics themselves.

“Finally, I would add that we should conduct research into the past for no other reason than because we have these remarkable archaeological finds here in Denmark. It’s much the same as asking the mountaineers why they climb all the way up to the top of Mount Everest: ‘Because it’s there’. Because we have these amazing ancient relics such as our bog-bodies, we are also obliged to use them for research purposes; not least because in the end they will reveal answers about us. We’ll learn things about ourselves by knowing about the past, and not just in relation to our own culture but also that of others.”

Tell us about a career high
“Fortunately, there have been several. A few years ago, the police contacted me because they needed help identifying a bank robber, who had killed someone in Ålsgårde. They had some surveillance pictures, and in the old days you’d come up with an estimation based on height, almost like the somewhat old-fashioned surveyor technique. At the same time as this case came up, I was examining the Grauballe Man, and I met an architect who made a accurate and very precise 3D-model of the Grauballe Man by photographing him from different angles.

“As there were several cameras in the bank, they also had photos of the robber from many different angles. In other words, we had photos of the robber similar to those of the Grauballe Man, and combined with an analysis of his walk, we helped identify him. From a scientific point of view, it was exiting to experience archaeology and forensic medicine complement each other to such an extent. And so the Grauballe Man actually helped solve a murder,” Niels Lynnerup explains.

What do you do when you are not in your lab?

“I read – and preferably about archaeology and history. I’ve just finished ‘Graves of Danish Kings’. It’s funny to read the history behind skeletons you’ve helped examine, for example Gorm the Old. I also like to travel and I listen to classical music.”

What is the best thing about your job?
“That research and results are never far apart. Forensic medicine is a very practical subject. ‘What happened here?’ the police asks. It’s exiting being part of that. I also enjoy collaborating across different disciplines. I work with archaeologists, dentists, the police and historians. And I like teaching – interacting with students. In fact, much like the writer Dan Turèll, I’m very fond of the everyday of my job.”