Tuesday, July 3, 2018

A grave tale: The case of the corpse-eating flies

Dozens of ceramic vessels from West Mexico, part of the collection of Emory's Michael C. Carlos Museum, were believed to be "grave goods," traditionally placed near bodies in underground burial chambers almost 1,500 years before the Aztecs. The compact figures depict humans and animals engaged in everyday activities, vividly capturing a place and time. Residue and wear patterns suggested that the vessels had once been filled with food and drink, perhaps to accompany the departed along their journey.

But were the figures authentic?

Seeking answers, the museum invited forensic anthropologist Robert Pickering — who uses entomology, among other techniques – to examine the vessels with the help of Emory scholars.

His quest? Locate telltale insect casings likely left by coffin flies, corpse-eating insects that fed on decomposing bodies interred in the ancient underground shaft tombs of Western Mexico.

"Not to be impolite, but where you have dead people, you have bugs," Pickering explains.

Read more about the project here.

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