City Weekend

Uncovering the secrets of the dead by reading their bones is a skill Winsome Lee has in her blood

Forensic archaeologist works for UK-based Kenyon International Emergency Services on murder cases and at historical sites listening to what the dead tell her

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 4:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2018, 5:31pm

At a casual family dinner, Winsome Lee Hin-shin found herself fixated on a stack of leftover chicken bones – it was a habit from work the forensic archaeologist had picked up.

She was thinking of a cadaver on a cold metal table at the laboratory where she worked. The chicken bones on her plate reminded Lee of the stiff corpse and the skeleton beneath its decaying flesh.

Still engrossed with her mind’s image, she blurted out at the dinner table: “Oh, now I can see why people mistake chicken bones for human bones. It does look an awful lot like the bones of young children.”

The off-colour remark drew uneasy stares from her family members. It was not the first time Lee – who is used to the sight of dead bodies – got caught in an awkward family moment, and it would not be the last.

Since her teens, the 28-year-old has been fascinated by the morbid art of reading clues from human remains in various conditions and stages of decomposition. But it wasn’t until her second year at the University of Oregon in the United States that she knew she had the stomach for it.

Seeking a detour from a major in philosophy, Lee spent her last year at the university minoring in anthropology and then studied for a master’s in cultural anthropology at Chinese University of Hong Kong and another master’s, in forensic anthropology, later in Britain.

“It feels like the deceased talk to me through their bones. You may be surprised at how much a skeleton can unveil about the person it used to be, from lifestyle to career and hobbies,” Lee says.

While a corpse’s flesh and organs rot away, it is the bones that hold clues she seeks, and they never disappoint, according to Lee.

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Born and raised in Hong Kong, she is still based in the city, but travels overseas for her projects. They range from solving murder cases to examining archaeological remains at historical sites. Lee works for Kenyon International Emergency Services, a company in Britain, which assigns her the jobs.

Lee says decomposition of a body begins minutes after the heart stops beating, when cells become oxygen-deprived and break down. The liver is the first organ to go, and eventually, the process spreads to other cell membranes, tissue and organs, before muscle stiffness sets in.

What remains are the bones, and this is where Lee’s speciality comes into play. She says the skeleton of a dead person is crucial for identifying the “big four” factors forensic experts look for – sex, age, height and race. Bones also hold clues on the cause of death, and other much-needed details to crack a case.

Scouring grisly material, Lee says, is the least she can do to seek justice for victims, especially in

murder cases.

“It does not matter if the murderer buried the victim in dirt, chopped the person into pieces, or if the body has been set on fire: bones don’t lie. The physical evidence obtained from bones will forever leave a trace and is always the best witness,” she adds.

Lee reveals that traumatic deaths can often be detected by extensive reconstruction.

“To play a role in cracking murder cases and seek justice for the dead, these are the reasons I do what I do and take pride in it.”

As life affirming as her career has been, there was a time earlier this year when she grew doubtful.

At a remote village in East Timor, she was involved in an excavation project to uncover remains from a past genocide.

“I could not, for the life of me, identify the bones from bodies we dug up because they all have similar profiles. The dead were of the same sex and close in age,” she says. Because the bones were mostly from young people and had little wear and tear, she could not glean enough information.

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The frustration led her to doubt her abilities.

“I kept replaying the steps in my head, and analysing if I had misread clues or done something wrong,” she says.

She then realised her greatest obstacle was self-doubt. Lee overcame her insecurities and got on with the work, eventually seeing results.

Throughout her young career, Lee has worked on more than 300 bodies and profiles across the world, but none from Hong Kong.

“Sadly, universities in the city don’t offer programmes for forensic archaeologists,” Lee says.

While she admits the local demand for those in her field is not high because of the city’s size and low crime rate, her expertise may occasionally prove useful.

“In 2010, a landslide overturned the Wo Hop Shek cemetery, scattering remains of the dead. It was very disrespectful to turn the site into a mass grave and bury all the bodies together,” Lee says, referring to an incident in July 2010 when two black rainstorm warnings were issued within a week.

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The downpours had washed away parts of graves and tombstones, uncovering thousands of remains at the cemetery in Fanling. Lee says authorities could have called in experts such as herself to help identify the bones and conduct proper burials.

She adds that she hopes there will be more opportunities for people in her field in Hong Kong in future.

Lee has published two books over the past year on her first-hand experiences and her views about death to promote forensic archaeology.

“Everyone is unique even after they’ve died. They will forever carry their value with them – in their bones,” she adds.