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UWF Department of Anthropology Digs Deeper

November 27, 2023 | Karen Tibbals |

A professor standing on a boardwalk surrounded by water and trees. near the w
Dr. Allysha Winburn, University of West Florida Department of Anthropology associate professor.

Dr. Allysha Winburn, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of West Florida and Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, recently worked on the Carlisle Barracks Disinterment Project, leading her to explore her beliefs about the field of anthropology.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which was run by the Department of the Interior and operated from 1879 to 1918 at what is now the Army’s Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, enrolled around 8,000 Native American children from 50 tribes across the United States. Anthropologists from Dickinson College and the Cumberland County Historical Society of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, worked with various universities to uncover the school's history by studying the records and artifacts left behind.

Dr. Winburn was invited to work as the forensic anthropologist for the most recent season of the Disinterment Project. Run by the U.S. Office of Army Cemeteries, the project aims to disinter the remains of Native American and Alaska Native students who died at the school between 1879 and 1918 and were buried in the school's cemetery and return them to their families and tribes. The Army has returned a total of 32 children to their tribes and families in six disinterment projects between 2016 and 2023.

Dr. Winburn's journey to becoming a forensic anthropologist was a complex one. During her undergraduate years, the field of forensic anthropology was relatively small and had gained little public awareness. After the Hurricane Katrina disaster, when portable mortuary analysis units went to affected areas of Louisiana to help identify decomposed decedents, Dr. Winburn became aware of forensic anthropology and was fascinated by the application of skeletal analytical skills to modern decedents for medico-legal identification. She obtained a BA in archaeological studies from Yale and graduate degrees in anthropology from New York University and the University of Florida, specializing in physical remains with a focus on skeletal and dental expertise. During this time, Dr. Winburn assisted the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiners with the archaeological recovery of remains from the World Trade Center Disaster. She also deployed as a forensic anthropologist to sites worldwide to repatriate remains of fallen U.S. service members for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).

While still working in the archaeological sphere, Dr. Winburn now utilizes her forensic anthropology skills to assist medical examiners in Florida and Alabama. She aids in the recovery of human remains from clandestine graves and surface-scatter contexts and provides skeletal analyses to help medico-legal agencies determine the identity of deceased persons and determine the circumstances of death. This background in archaeology, expertise in human skeletal and dental variation, liaising with the military and various public agencies, and ability to discuss difficult topics were instrumental to her work at Carlisle. Dr. Winburn applied her skills to synthesize all the facets of the project; for her, this important work felt like the culmination of over 15 years of training and practice.


Dr. Winburn highlighted the unique nature of her involvement with the families in the Carlisle Barracks Disinterment Project. There was a degree of immediacy that stood out to her, as she was required to pass the remains of children directly to their descendants.


As she described her work on the Carlisle project, which involved close consultation with tribal and family members, she emphasized the importance of compassion and empathy. She noted that working closely with the next of kin is rare for forensic anthropologists and discussed the ongoing debate in forensic anthropology around the role of emotion and subjectivity. She argues that compassion is necessary in this line of work. 

A typical day at Carlisle during the field season involved a team that conducted exhumations. Before the exhumations, the team would meet with the family to discuss their expectations and religious rituals. Then the archaeologists would exhume the remains. The second day would start with the forensic analysis of each child's remains. This analysis consisted of sex estimation, age, estimation and stature, and a complete examination for any trauma or pathological conditions displayed on their bones or teeth. The team had enough documented evidence for each child to tell whether what they saw on the remains accorded with the evidence.

Dickinson College has an accessible online database complete with photographs and records on the Carlisle project. Tribal members are encouraged to use the database to search for and petition for the return of their children. The database is a valuable resource and contains student intake cards for each child that provide essential information such as the child's name, gender, height, age at the time of arrival, date of death, and sometimes the cause of death. While records may be scarce, they are usually accurate and provide an important tool for verification. Verification is not identification, as in the case of an unknown person, but rather to confirm that the correct individual is being laid to rest. 

The Carlisle Barracks Disinterment Project has been profound for those who worked on it, as they attest to life before and after Carlisle. The tribes and families have provided insight for the scientists into the project's impact on them. Dr. Winburn emphasized the project's people-centered, collaborative approach and polyvocality, stating that anthropologists should work with tribal members, descendants, and loved ones to tell the children's stories. Approached in this manner, forensic anthropology provides a way to give victims a voice and to help their descendants heal.

Dr. Winburn's journey is a reminder that sometimes our path is not linear. Occasionally, we must take a detour, learn new skills, and find our way back to our passion. She expressed how working with the tribal members has been transformative for her and renewed her passion for her day-to-day casework. She is also passionate about teaching her craft and explained that anthropology is human-centered and has multiple subdisciplines. She stressed the unique nature of the science, encompassing the study of bones, bodies, past societies, present societies, cultures, customs, religions, and languages. Archaeologists study the past, while cultural anthropologists study the present. Forensic anthropologists extract information about a deceased person's life. 

At the University of West Florida, collaborative work between the anthropology, criminal justice, and legal studies departments benefits students by providing real-world experience in documenting, photographing, mapping, recovering, and excavating human remains and crime scenes. Dr. Winburn and her colleagues offer field schools each summer in which students can gain experience that is directly relevant to jobs in archaeology, law enforcement, and forensics. The university also offers internships at Pensacola's District 1 Medical Examiner's Office and the DPAA in Hawaii.

For those interested in pursuing a career in forensic anthropology, Dr. Winburn recommends taking courses in cultural anthropology, human osteology, modern human physical variation, and field schools. Regarding interest in earning the Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists status, Dr. Winburn notes that it is currently limited to those with a doctorate and experience in casework. However, a new standard at the master's level is being introduced in 2025. Interested students can gain additional information on requirements from the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.