Effects of Heat as a Taphonomic Agent on Kerf Dimensions


  • Emese Ilona Vegh University of Oxford University College London
  • Carolyn Rando University College London




forensic anthropology, sharp force trauma, burning, fire, quantitative analysis, cut-mark


The information that can be derived from the rate of preservation of cremated human remains is highly valuable for forensic anthropologists and bioarchaeologists. Especially when taphonomic agents, such as fire, are intentionally introduced to obscure lesions on the skeleton. When sharp force trauma is present on bones, one of the main questions that arise is whether it is possible to tell what instrument was used for trauma infliction. This study used quantitative methods to examine kerfs on bones treated with heat as a taphonomic agent. The experiment used three sharp-bladed weapons to inflict trauma on porcine long bones: a single bladed non-serrated kitchen knife, a hacksaw, and a wood saw. The traumatised bones along with control bones were burnt in controlled laboratory conditions at temperatures ranging from 300°C to 1000°C. Quantitative analysis was undertaken on scanning electron microscopy images. Shrinkage of the kerf dimensions were recorded only at 1000°C; excepting marks from the wood saw, which instead showed an increase in maximum width. Individualisation of the saws was not possible using only the metric traits. However, the class of the weapons (knife versus saw) could always be identified. It has been concluded that burning may cause fluctuation in kerf widths.

Author Biographies

Emese Ilona Vegh, University of Oxford University College London

DPhil candidate at the School of Archaeology

Carolyn Rando, University College London

Lecturer in Bioarchaeology and Forensic Archaeology, University College London


V. Alunni-Perret, M. Muller-Bolla, J. P. Laugier, L. Lupi-Pégurier, M-F. Bertrand, P. Staccini, M. Bolla, G. Quatrehomme. 2005. Scanning Electron Microscopy Analysis of Experimental Bone Hacking Trauma. J Forensic Sci. 50(4), 796-801.

E. J. Bartelink, J. M. Wiersema, R. S. Demaree. 2001. Quantitative Analysis of Sharp-Force Trauma: An Application of Scanning Electron Microscopy in Forensic Anthropology. Journal of Forensic Science 46/6, 1288-1293.

W. M. Bass. 1984. “Is it possible to consume a body completely in a fire?” In Human Identification: Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology edited by T. A. Rathbun, J. E. Buikstra Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, MA, 159–167.

S. M. Bello and C. Soligo 2008. A new method for the quantitative analysis of cutmark micromorphology. Journal of Archaeological Science, 35, 1542-1552.

C. C. Blake. 1985. Whose tools? Toole’s tools? Paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the National Association of Medical Examiners, Memphis, TN.

W. Bonte and R. Mayer. 1973. Analyse von Sägespuren bei krimineller Leichenzerstückelung. Zeitschrift Rechtsmedizin 72, 180-193.

E. Cerutti, F. Magli, D. Porta, D. Gibelli, C. Cattaneo. 2014. Metrical assessment of cutmarks on bone: Is size important? Legal Medicine 16 (2014) 208-213.

J. B. Devlin and N. P. Herrmann. 2015. “Bone Color as an Interpretive Tool of the Depositional History of Archaeological Cremains” In The Analysis of Burned Human Remains edited by C. W. Schmidt, S. A. Symes Elsevier Ltd., 109-128.

D. Dirkmaat and J. Adovasio. 1997. “The role of archaeology in the recovery and interpretation of human remains from an outdoor forensic setting” In Forensic taphonomy: the postmortem fate of human remains edited by W. Haglund, M. Sorg. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 39–64. [dataset]

DOJ. 2010. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Murder victims--Circumstances and weapons used or cause of death. U.S. Uniform Crime Reporting Program Supplementary Homicide Report. https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/violent-crime/murder [accessed 20/10/2016]

S. T. D. Ellingham, T. J. U. Thompson T., M. Islam, G. Taylor. 2015. Estimating temperature exposure of burnt bone — A methodological review. Science and Justice 55, 181-188.

P. Emanovsky, J. T. Hefner, D. C. Dirkmaat. 2002. “Can sharp force trauma to bone be recognized after fire modification? An experiment using Odocoileus virginianus (white-tailed deer) ribs” In Proceedings from the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, 8, 214-215. Colorado Springs, CO: American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

S. I. Fairgrieve. 2008. Forensic Cremation: Recovery and Analysis. CRC Press. Boca Raton, FL.

S. de Gruchy and T. L. Rodgers. 2002. Identifying chop marks on cremated bone: a preliminary study. Journal of Forensic Science 47/5, 933–936.

J. H. Humphrey and D. L. Hutchinson. 2001. Macroscopic characteristics of hacking trauma. Journal Forensic Science 46/2, 228–33.

C. King and W. Birch. 2015. Assessment of Maceration Techniques Used to Remove Soft Tissue from Bone in Cut Mark Analysis. Journal of Forensic Science. 60/1, 124-135.

R. J. Kooi, S. and I. Fairgrieve. 2013. SEM and Stereomicroscopic Analysis of Cut Marks in Fresh and Burned Bone. Journal of Forensic Science 58/2, 452- 458.

K. S. Lynn and S. I Fairgrieve. 2009. Macroscopic Analysis of Axe and Hatchet Trauma in Fleshed and Defleshed Mammalian Long Bones. Journal of Forensic Science 54/4, 786-792.

J. Lyn-Sue, D. Siram, S., Williams, H. Mezghebe. 2006. Epidemiology of trauma deaths in an urban level-1 trauma center predominantly among African Americans – implications for prevention. J Natl Med Assoc. 98/12, 1940-4.

S. M. Marciniak. 2009. A preliminary assessment of the identification of saw marks on burned bone. Journal of Forensic Science 54, 779-785.

J. R. Martin. 1999. Identifying Osseous Cut Mark Morphology for Common Serrated Knives. Thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

P. Mayne Correia. 1997. “Fire modification of bone: a review of the literature” In Forensic taphonomy: the postmortem fate of human remains edited by W. Haglund, M. Sorg, CRC Press Inc., Boca Raton, 275–293. [dataset]

C. A. Perkins. 2009. National crime and victimization survey, 1993-2001: Weapon use and violent crime. Retrieved from http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=570 [accessed 15/11/2016]

E. J. Pope and O. C. Smith. 2004. Identification of traumatic injury in burned cranial bone: An experimental approach. Journal of Forensic Science 49[3], 1-10.

E. J. Pope. 2008. “Beyond the fire: Taphonomic variables of burned human remains” In Proceedings from the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, 14: 314. Colorado Springs, CO: American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

K. J. Reichs. 1998. “Postmortem Dismemberment: Recovery, Analysis and Interpretation” In Forensic Osteology: Advances in the Identification of Human Remains edited by K. J. Reichs. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas 2nd ed., 353-409.

S. C. Robbins, S. I. Fairgrieve, T. S. Oost. 2015. Interpreting the Effects of Burning on Pre-Incineration Saw Marks in Bone. Jornal of Forensic Science 60/S1, S182-S187.

P. A. Saville, S. V. Hainsworth, G. N. Rutty. 2007. Cutting crime: the analysis of "uniqueness" of saw marks on bone. International Journal of Legal Medicine 121, 349-357.

C. Schmidt and S. A. Symes. 2005. “Beyond Recognition: The Analysis of Burned Human Remains” presented at the 74th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropology, Milwaukee, WI.

P. Shipman, G. Foster, M. Schoeninger. 1984. Burnt bones and teeth: an experimental study of color, morphology, crystal structure and shrinkage, Jornal of Archaeological Science 11, 307–325.

T. D. Stewart. 1979. Essentials of forensic anthropology. Springfield: Charles C Thomas.

O. C. Smith. 2003. “Burning extremities: Patterns of arms, legs, and preexisting trauma” In Proceedings from the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, 9:259. Colorado Springs, CO: American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

S. A. Symes. 1992. Morphology of Saw Marks in Human Bone: Identification of Class Characteristics. Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

S. A. Symes, O. C. Smith, H. Berryman, C. Peters, L. Rockhold, S. Huan. 1996. Bones: bullets, burns, bludgeons, blunders, and why [Workshop]. Proc. Am. Acad. Forensic Sci. 2, 10–11.

S. A. Symes, H. E. Berryman, O. C. Smith. 1998. “Saw Marks in Bone: Introduction and Examination of Residual Kerf Contour” In Forensic Osteology: Advances in the Identification of Human Remains edited by K. J. Reichs. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas 2nd ed., 392-411.

S. A. Symes, J. A. Williams, E. A. Murray, J. M. Hoffman, T. D. Holland, J. M. Saul, F. P. Saul, E. J. Pope. 2002. “Taphonomic Context of Sharp-Force Trauma in Suspected Cases of Human Mutilation and Dismemberment” In Advances in Forensic Taphonomy: Method, Theory, and Archaeological Prespectives edited by W. D. Haglund, M. H. Sorg. Boca Raton, Fla.; London, 404-433.

S. A. Symes, D. C. Dirkmaat, J. J. Woytash, A. M. Kroman, C. W. Rainwater, A. C. Wilson. 2005. Perimortem bone fracture distinguished from postmortem fire trauma: a case study with mixed signals. Proc. Am. Acad. Forensic Sci. 11, 288–289.

S. A. Symes, E. A. Chapman, C. W. Rainwater, L. L. Cabo, S. M. T. 2010. Myster, Knife and Saw Toolmark Analysis in Bone, a Manual Designed for the Examination of Criminal Mutilation and Dismemberment. US Department of Justice, Washington DC, USA, 1-142.

A. S. Symes, D. C. Dirkmaat, S. Ousley, E. Chapman, L. Cabo. 2012. Recovery and Interpretation of Burned Human Remains. NIJ Report, Grant #2008-DN-BX-K131. Available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/237966.pdf (accessed 20/04/2016).

S. A. Symes, C. W. Rainwater, E. N. Chapman, D. R. Gipson, A. L. Piper. 2015. “Patterned Thermal Destruction in a Forensic Setting” In The Analysis of Burned Human Remains edited by C. W. Schmidt, S. A. Symes. Elsevier Ltd., 17-59.

T. J. U. Thompson. 2004. Recent advances in the study of burned bone and their implications for forensic anthropology, Forensic Science International 146, S203–S205.

T. J. U. Thompson. 2005. Heat-induced dimensional changes in bone and their consequences for forensic anthropology, Journal of Forensic Science 50, 1–8.

T. J. U. Thompson and S. M. Black. 2007. Forensic human identification: an introduction. CRC Press, Inc.: Florida, USA.

T. J. U. Thompson and J. Inglis. 2009. Differentiation of Serrated and Non-Serrated blades from Stab Marks in Bone. International Journal of Legal Medicine 123, 129-135.

C. E. Tegtmeyer. 2012. A Comparative Analysis of Serrated and Non-Serrated Sharp Force Trauma to Bone. M.A. thesis Texas State University, San Marcos.




How to Cite

Vegh, Emese Ilona, and Carolyn Rando. 2019. “Effects of Heat As a Taphonomic Agent on Kerf Dimensions”. Archaeological and Environmental Forensic Science 1 (2):105-18. https://doi.org/10.1558/aefs.35927.