I popped into lab late yesterday afternoon, since my new TA Andrea was helping some students study for their first quiz in Human Osteology. Noticed an odd box on one of the lab tables--clearly handmade, not very well, of lightweight, stained wood with five holes poked in the top. I asked Andrea if it was hers, but it wasn't. It wasn't there Wednesday when we had class, and Andrea knew the TA for the Thursday afternoon intro to biological anthropology lab hadn't brought it in either.
Inside, in addition to a couple of leaves and other detritus of nature, were three things: a small container of human teeth; a small container of what could be bone, shell, or other; and what appears to be an old pepper grinder with a chunk of perhaps charcoal in it, wrapped in a copper wire. I recognized the smaller containers immediately, as I have one of these containers at home for powder foundation. They're sold in makeup sections of drugstores.
Andrea and I looked at each other. I took a deep breath and went to find our forensic anthropologist to see if she knew the story of the box.
I took the box on a little promenade through the department in the waning hours of the afternoon right before our annual graduate student meet-and-greet, and one of our adjunct instructors, a thickly be-moustached archaeologist, said, "Oh yeah. Last night one of the lab instructors--the black-haired one--came and showed it to me. We concluded there were human teeth."
After uttering a "What the everloving fuck?", I went back to the lab to see what I could find out about the box and its contents.
The teeth appear to be modern, probably extractions from someone (more likely from someones, but I haven't had time to thoroughly look at them) with poor dental health. There's even a little bit of bone attached to a couple. I haven't yet pried the container with the fragments open; after slicing my finger with a dental pick (irony?) during my attempt yesterday afternoon, I gave up and went to the grad student meet-and-greet, as per my duty.
UPDATE -- 24 September 2014
After my blog post, a cadaver dog instructor at Western Carolina University got in touch with me by email. He recognized the form of the box as a homemade "hot box" that instructors use in cadaver dog training. The holes poked in the box and the shaker containers suddenly made a lot of sense -- the dogs could smell the remains but not get at them. He sent some emails to contacts down here in Pensacola and very quickly located the box's owner. As the owner was out on a job, he promised he'd forward my contact information to him to retrieve it.
Today, I got a visit from the cadaver dog handler (in broad daylight, but he turned out to be lovely and not at all creepy). He and his team had been doing some basic demonstration for the police here in the parking lot next to my building (as just past the lot, it is heavily wooded and swampy). They got a call that they were needed immediately and must have lost a "hot box" in the shuffle.
I asked him what the items were -- teeth, obviously, in one container. Another one had cremains. Even though these are human bones that have gone through an intense, hot fire, dogs can scent on them, he said. And the most freaky part of the box -- the old salt shaker with a wire wrapped around it? That, he said, is to help train them on "high" finds -- the wire allows them to hang it in a tree. "Are there lots of bodies found 'high'?" I asked. He said that, yes, they're mostly suicides and plenty of people commit suicide by hanging outdoors. This particular former-salt-shaker contained tree bark onto which a corpse had... uhm, juiced? I'm sure he used less gooey terminology. Regardless, it made me glad I hadn't opened that one. Dogs can scent on all of the things in the box, but he said that trainers prefer teeth above everything else -- dogs scent on blood, bone, and tissue, and teeth have all of those things.
I asked him about his job, and he works with KlaasKids, which helps the police and families search for missing and trafficked children. He also helps coordinate large field efforts, when there are numerous cadaver dogs searching a wide area. I didn't probe much into why his efforts focus on kids because, honestly, I have two little ones and the topic is far too depressing and anxiety-inducing. But it sounds like noble work trying to help people. I was only too happy to return his creepy box of death trophies--er, his "hot box" to him.
And then at lunchtime, I was visited by the FBI. Completely unrelated to the box of teeth, but boy, my day has been like an episode of Bones to be sure.