The reality of coronavirus: examining bones in the living room

The phone's ringing. “Some bones have been found. I'll send you a picture on WhatsApp...”. Anthropologist Michaela Dörnhöferová takes a look at the photos sent to her from the location of the find and agrees on the next step. If the circumstances require it, she will head out into the field.

03. 06. 2020 10.17 hod.
By: CU Public Relations Office

The bones she examines could come from a crime scene or could be part of archaeological research. She works with forensic examiners as well as with colleagues from the Museum of Archaeology at the Slovak National Museum. “When it comes to bones, I generally assess their preservation and development of signs that allow me to estimate the sex and age of the individual as well as any traces of disease or injuries. I'm trying to get as much information as possible about the person whose skeleton I'm examining. However, sometimes this is not easy, especially when dealing with very damaged and incomplete skeletons. It’s a bit like playing detective,” says researcher Michaela Dörnhöferová when describing her work.

Michaela has also had to deal with the coronavirus in her own way. This means that sometimes she examines the bones at home in her living room. “Bone fragments from a Germanic grave or twenty packets of burned human bones, whose contents are smaller than the volume of my palm, can be easily examined at home,” the anthropologist says. On the other hand, the specialized laboratory at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Comenius University, or the “bone house” as they call it, is essential for examining complete skeletons and whole skeleton files from burial grounds. The laboratory’s facilities also allow the bones to be properly washed, repaired, and photographed.

Michaela will also use the bones she is researching at home for online teaching and consultation with students in order to provide them with relevant demonstrative samples. She has also consulted with students via email during this self-study period. Despite initial discomfort, Michaela thinks that her online teaching has been a success.

Michaela is one of those enthusiastic promoters of science that you find at every science fair. She will happily tell you about what bones can reveal about a person, such as their age, level of nutrition, and diseases as well as the living conditions they experienced. She can explain how ecological, environmental, and industrial factors had an impact on the remains and other interesting facts. After completing her doctoral studies, Michaela decided to stay on at the Department of Anthropology at the Faculty of Natural Sciences. She has been a researcher and teacher there for eight years.