Transforming the Student Experience: Solving Mysteries Abroad
More than seven decades ago during the Second World War, a military aircraft carrying United States service members crashed in the Eastern Alps near the city of Linz, Austria to the west of Vienna. Like so many of their fellow WWII fighters, the crew members were never identified and their families never knew for certain what happened to them. Now, thanks to an innovative new summer program being offered through the Department of Anthropology, a small group of University of Maryland students will play an important role in providing long-awaited answers to the descendants of these fallen service members.
Methods in Archaeology: Forensic Aviation Archaeology will be offered in July of 2017 and will be led by Marilyn London (pictured right), a forensic anthropologist who has been teaching at the university for more than 20 years. London is an expert in analyzing and documenting human skeletal remains and has responded to several mass disasters including the United Airlines Flight 93 crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. Program Co-Director Adam Fracchia is an anthropologist and archaeologist who received his Ph.D. in anthropology from UMD in 2014 but has taught courses and directed field schools for the university since 2008.
London created this new summer program at the request of a colleague at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which is charged with finding, recovering and identifying the remains of U.S. service members missing-in-action (MIA) from all the wars in the 20th century. According to DPAA, 83,000 Americans remain missing from past conflicts, more than 70,000 of whom were from WWII.
“They know where a lot of these people are but they don’t have the manpower to go and recover them. They’re just overwhelmed,” London explained.
The upcoming summer program will mark the first strategic partnership between a university and the DPAA to assist in recovering remains. Students accepted into the program will participate in an archaeological field school where they will painstakingly map, document, excavate and collect artifacts at the crash site in Austria.
“It’s going to be fairly rigorous,” London said. “The site we picked is on the side of a small mountain and it’s steep. It’s not dangerously steep but it’s a climb to get up there.”
Ultimately, the artifacts recovered—skeletal remains, pieces of uniforms, plane wreckage, etc.—will be sent to a DPAA laboratory to be examined by a group of specialists who will attempt to make an identification and return the remains to the families of the service members. The University of Maryland group will be working alongside students and faculty from the University of Vienna and will also go on excursions to learn more about the history of the period and the region, including planned trips to local archaeological sites, landmarks, museums and the Mauthausen-Gusen WWII concentration camp.
Only ten students from UMD and other universities will be selected to make the trip to Austria. Each applicant must have completed an Introduction to Archaeology course as well as a Human Skeletal Anatomy course before registering for the six-week program.
“They’re going to have to be very persuasive about why they want to do this,” London said. “It’s really cool and it’s great to go to Austria but I want people who are really committed to the mission.”
Although space is limited for the 2017 course, the program will continue for at least the next two summers, London explained.
Watch this video for more information on the DPAA’s mission.