The following is an article excerpt from the Fall 2019 Issue of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member to subscribe and read the full story!
By Gayle Keck
Jasper, a border collie with a mottled black, white, and brown face, picks his way through ashes, melted blobs of glass, jutting rebar, and hundreds of smashed terra cotta roof tiles—sniffing, always sniffing. This devastation was once Tim and Becky Muser’s house in Paradise, California, one of nearly 14,000 homes destroyed by the Camp Fire in November, 2018.
The chances are slim that Jasper will find what he’s looking for: the cremains (cremated remains) of Tim’s father, Harry, a military veteran who died in 2001. The air temperature is 105 degrees; the ground temperature, nearly 125. Six rainy, snowy months have passed since the fire, and the family has disturbed the site while searching for keepsakes. All these factors impact the dog’s ability to catch a scent.
These urns containing the cremains of Tony Eglant’s two daughters and his wife’s father, were recovered by archaeologists from the area where Piper, a specially-trained dog, alerted in the Eglant family home. | Photo by Lynne Engelbert
Human cremains that have been through a fire are quite distinctive in color—they can range from pinkish to golden—and they usually have tiny bone chips, and sometimes tooth fragments. Identifications tags like the one in the center of this picture include the name or number of the mortuary or crematorium and a number that is signed to that specific individual.
Kris Black (plaid jacket) and her dog Annie watch as the archaeologists begin the process of recovering cremains. | Credit: Susanne Martin
Adela Morris and her dog Jasper search the remnants of a burned home for cremains. | Credit Lynne Engelbert
Tim and three volunteer archaeologists stand by, watching Jasper’s every move as his handler, Adela Morris, directs her dog toward the area that was once the Musers’ den. This, Tim had showed the team, is where his dad’s cremains were kept, in a wooden box on a shelf. The only thing standing here now is a stub of concrete foundation.
“He has a scent,” archaeologist Alex DeGeorgey says, as Jasper pokes his nose into a buckled piece of stucco a few feet away. “Sometimes when a stucco wall fell and is still intact, they alert on that because that’s where the scent is collecting.” Camp is the fourth wildfire aftermath for which DeGeorgey has helped organize archaeologists, who partner with dog handlers from the Institute for Canine Forensics (ICF)—all volunteering their time—to hunt for cremains.