History Cold Case Review: Back From The Dead

May 27, 2010 by  
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HISTORY COLD CASE: Thursday 27th May, BBC 2, 9pm ALERT ME

BBC 2’s History Cold Case is, if anything, an unusual programme. The premise involves a team of modern forensic scientists analysing human skeletons in order to discover who they were, why they died and the circumstances under which they lived.

The team is headed by world-renowned Professor Sue Black OBE who works at the Centre For Human Anatomy & Identification based at the University of Dundee. Together they set about investigating various aspects of the case that could provide crucial clues to reveal the identity of the mystery corpse.

Using methods ranging from exploring the area where the remains were found to searching through burial archives at London Metropolitan, they strive towards the ultimate goal of physically recreating the person’s head using facial reconstruction techniques.

This week Sue and her merry band of death detectives unearth the body of a woman in her twenties from a mass burial pit who was evidently ravaged by syphilis, a particularly unpleasant sexually transmitted disease that leads to disfigurement and excruciating pain.

Employing their specially honed skills – which include vast amounts of patience – they uncover little bits of information that gradually begin to build a whole picture, culminating in the unveiling of the reconstructed head. It’s a strange moment when the completed face finally emerges to give life to the previously anonymous skull: it is impossible not to contemplate that, had it not been for these experts, these people would never have been seen again.

The programme is essentially a hybrid of historical documentary and a non-fiction interpretation of Waking The Dead. This cross-genre meshing makes for a fairly fresh and entertaining take on televised anthropology, managing to prolong the audiences’ intrigue for most of its running time, helped largely by the evident quality exuded by the experts on hand.