Gabriel Wrobel said he’s never met a skeleton he didn’t know. Why? Because every skeleton he meets whispers secrets about the life and death of its owner. Bones can tell Wrobel who the person was, their age and, sometimes, what they did for a living. That’s because Wrobel, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Mississippi, pairs forensic science with archaeology to extract biological data from skeletons of ancient populations to interpret their sex, age, race and even health.
It is no surprise to many that Scotty Moore of Discovery Channel’s hit television series “Bone Detectives” contacted Wrobel for his case, “Cave of the Headless Corpse,” which aired in January 2008.
In Monday’s segment, Moore travels to a cave in Belize containing thousands of human bones. When he ventures down more than 10 stories into the cave, he discovers a skeleton without a head in a hidden chamber. Moore then embarks on a search for the missing skull – hoping to identify the victim and solve the mystery of the cave known as “Midnight Terror.”
His journey was made possible by Wrobel, who has researched human remains from caves in the area for more than five years. Wrobel, co-director of the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project, works with Belizean archaeologist Jaime J. Awe, Belize’s director of archaeology, who also appears on the hourlong program.
“They contacted us because of our work with this particular cave and our examinations of other similar burial contexts,” Wrobel said.
What can you discover about a single burial? A lot, Wrobel said.
“Examining a single skeleton, even one without a head, could reveal how that individual lived,” he said. “For example, the size of muscle attachments to the bones can reveal whether the individual rowed on the waters or worked in the fields. You can even tell if the person had arthritis or any other health complications.”
Because of his association with BVAR, Wrobel has had the opportunity to supervise excavations in western and central Belize. His research is conducted as part of a summer archaeological field school through the UM Study Abroad program in conjunction with the Belize Institute of Archaeology. Between four and 10 UM students join Wrobel for the dig every summer.
Ole Miss students, however, were not included on this particular excavation because of the danger of getting into the cave, including a 60-foot rappel, Wrobel said.
“Midnight Terror Cave is just one site in a series of interrelated sites or rock shelters,” he said. “Our students have been an integral part in the excavation of many other sites.”
Yet, it is the danger of getting into Midnight Terror and the bones of 80 to 100 people scattered within, that attracts students, archaeologists and even looters to the cave. Local Mennonites gave the cave its name because they had to hike an hour through the jungle in the middle of the night, risking their lives, to save a looter who had fallen in, Wrobel said
It’s impossible to say what looters expected to find, but Wrobel said excavations and analyses conducted so far indicate ancient Maya communities used it and other sites for various ceremonial (not necessarily burial) purposes for more than 2,000 years.
While television shows such as “Bone Detectives” and Fox’s “Bones” make forensic archaeology seem easy and exciting, Wrobel said that not every day has a “eureka moment.”
“A lot of careful investigation and examination must be done for days and months and, sometimes, years,” Wrobel said. “Moore’s show itself is a little sensationalized. Our day-to-day is not like that at all. The eureka moments are few and far between, but definitely worth it when they happen.”
Some might say that Wrobel’s appearance on “Bone Detectives” is a eureka moment for UM and its Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
Kirsten Dellinger, the department’s chair, said Wrobel’s appearance on the show helps bring archaeology to life for the general public in a way that scholarly journal articles cannot.
“It’s a fantastic way to show young people what archaeologists actually do in the field and to recruit the next generation into this line of work,” Dellinger said.
What’s more, the sociology and anthropology department is planning to watch the premiere together, she said.
“We couldn’t be prouder,” she said. “Because of his emphasis on forensic archaeology, Dr. Gabe Wrobel brings a unique and cutting-edge perspective to traditional Mayan cave archaeology. He consulted with the Discovery team and led them away from more commonly studied caves to Midnight Terror, a new cave site that contains an unusual number of skeletal remains.”
After 14 years of field work in Belize, Wrobel has uncovered, examined and investigated many skeletal remains. In the process, he has come to “know” many of the individuals who once lived throughout the Mayan region.
“It’s no great mystery,” he said. “Evidence of truth, life and death can be found in bones. Bones are unintentional time capsules; able to communicate what was created, buried and then forgotten.”
For more information on the UM Department of Sociology and Anthropology, go to https://www.olemiss.edu/depts/soc_anth/.