The forensic anthropologist and Dorchester resident Dr. Sarah Kiley Schoff has always been fascinated by bones. As a child growing up on the South Shore, she says, she was influenced by her father, an amateur archaeologist who kindled her interest in the field by encouraging her to explore the natural habitats near her home.
“When my mom was cleaning out boxes from my room when I was a little kid, she gave them to me to look through and I found I had collected a bunch of deer bones and bird bones from various hikes and walks we’d been on,” Schoff said in a recent interview. “My dad used to take my sister and me for walks and hiking, and I found my first artifact in a plowed field when I was probably seven or eight. I immediately realized what it was and I tried to hand it to my Dad, who said, ‘No, no! Hold onto it! You’re the first person to touch it since the person that made it.’ So, he had a big impact on me.”
Schoff went on to study anthropology at the University of Maine before earning her PhD. at the University of Florida. Now a resident of Pope’s Hill, she is one of the city’s preeminent experts in taphonomy, the study of processes like burial, decay, and fossilization that affect remains as they become fossilized.
Since moving to Boston in 2015, Schoff has played an important role at several archaeological digs in the city, often assisting the city’s archaeology program by using her expertise to differentiate between human and animal remains found at digs. Last year, she was on site at the excavation of the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls at 232 Centre Street, where she identified several children’s teeth discovered during the course of the dig, which may have been buried by students at the school. She is now completing her analysis of the teeth in her free time and hopes to publish an article on her findings soon in an archaeological journal.
“You can learn a lot from teeth,” explained Schoff. “Culturally, you know, when did the tooth fairy and that fable sort of begin? And was it practiced as early as this time period? So there’s some interesting cultural stuff, too, that we’re hoping to weave into the story.”
Joe Bagley, Boston’s city archaeologist, explained that Schoff’s extensive background in forensic anthropology and taphonomy makes her a crucial asset to his program.
“In general, most of my volunteers are coming to the program with no experience, but Sarah comes with well over a decade of experience in the field, so it’s incredibly valuable to have her on site,” said Bagley. “It’s really helpful because she has expertise out of my knowledge space- – I don’t have the skills to identify human versus animal bones...whenever it comes to human remains, she’s the person I want to have there.”
Indeed, archaeologists and law enforcement officials seek out Schoff’s skills for a reason, and not just in Greater Boston. Earlier in her career, she worked in a national context on a number of high profile cases, helping to identify human remains in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Schoff acknowledged that, while in New Orleans and on Ground Zero, it was difficult to ignore the gravity of the situation.
“It’s intense, and demanding, and very important work,” she said. “With 9/11 and Katrina, we knew even in the moment that these were historic events, but you are also constantly reminded of the ordinary, simple humanity of the victims, and it’s important to remember that. At the end of the day, the work is about recognizing a human who is no longer with us both in a technical sense of identifying remains, but also in terms of acknowledging the loss that comes with death in all its forms.”
Schoff’s next big project may be one she’s taking the lead on: Completing the excavation process at Faneuil Hall that began decades ago and which yielded as many as 33,000 historical artifacts from a time period stretching from 1630 to 1740. At the moment, the artifacts are classified as a “legacy collection,” objects from a previously excavated site that haven’t yet been catalogued. Her job is essentially to document and reveal the contents of the discovery to the public. She applied for funding for the project through a grant proposal last fall, and is currently awaiting approval to move forward with the work, which would result in a public laboratory and eventually a permanent exhibit in Faneuil Hall.
“Boston as one of the largest port cities in America during that time period can tell us a lot about the Atlantic trade, and so we’re really excited to put that application in for funding,” said Schoff. “We would be able to sort and preserve those artifacts in a meaningful way, and the goal of the project would also allow for redoing a permanent exhibit in Faneuil Hall on that time period.”
Along with Bagley, Schoff has helped to revitalize Boston’s archaeological scene, notably by founding Friends of Boston Archeology, Inc., a nonprofit that advocates for the program with the city and performs public education and outreach, in the fall of 2017. City Councillor-at-large Annissa Essaibi-George, who met Schoff through her involvement in the Pope’s Hill Neighborhood Association, touted the forensic anthropologist as a valued member of the Dorchester and Greater Boston communities.
“I really appreciate her, and more recently it’s become clear the real impact that her work has had on the city of Boston,” said Essaibi-George.
“She’s so good at translating her science background to more of a greater awareness of Boston history, and at looking for ways to preserve our history.” She added, “It’s important that we have people engaged in our work that have been trained and have the gift to think differently and approach problems differently, using critical thinking and critical mapping.”
Schoff has taught at the college level in the past, but she says one of her favorite age groups to work are teenagers and young adults. In the past two summers she ran a forensic anthropology workshop for kids in the Boston Youth and Family Services’ Superteens program, intended for students too old for summer camp but too young to work.
Her workshops generate a lot of interest, in part thanks to shows like “CSI” and “Cold Case” that romanticize and dramatize the work of forensic scientists. Schoff says that while those shows can inspire positive interest in her profession, they rarely show the extensive scientific knowledge and training required to succeed in the field.
“The part of it that sticks in my mind that I try to let kids know is that you have to become a good scientist, so what kind of science are you interested in? Are you interested in geology, or chemistry, or biology? The forensic component is the application of the science. And so I like to talk to kids about, you know, what is the part of science that you like? You can always apply it to forensics later.”
In the workshops, Schoff sets up a series of fake crime scenes and asks students to distinguish criminal activity from everyday scenarios, which is an important part of her job. “We had a few faux crime scenes – a dental student had left his dental anatomy tools and some teeth that he was studying on a park bench – things like that. So, is that a crime scene? You know, it could look like one, but no.”
A serial tooth-puller seems far-fetched, even for a show like “CSI,” but Schoff says there’s rarely a dull moment in her line of work. “I mean, you’d be surprised. Forensic anthropologists get called on really interesting things.”