Assessment of skeletal changes after post-mortem exposure to fire as an indicator of decomposition stage

N. Keough, E. N. L'Abbé, M. Steyn, S. Pretorius

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Forensic anthropologists are tasked with interpreting the sequence of events from death to the discovery of a body. Burned bone often evokes questions as to the timing of burning events. The purpose of this study was to assess the progression of thermal damage on bones with advancement in decomposition. Twenty-five pigs in various stages of decomposition (fresh, early, advanced, early and late skeletonisation) were exposed to fire for 30. min. The scored heat-related features on bone included colour change (unaltered, charred, calcined), brown and heat borders, heat lines, delineation, greasy bone, joint shielding, predictable and minimal cracking, delamination and heat-induced fractures. Colour changes were scored according to a ranked percentage scale (0-3) and the remaining traits as absent or present (0/1). Kappa statistics was used to evaluate intra- and inter-observer error. Transition analysis was used to formulate probability mass functions [. P(. X=. ji)] to predict decomposition stage from the scored features of thermal destruction. Nine traits displayed potential to predict decomposition stage from burned remains. An increase in calcined and charred bone occurred synchronously with advancement of decomposition with subsequent decrease in unaltered surfaces. Greasy bone appeared more often in the early/fresh stages (fleshed bone). Heat borders, heat lines, delineation, joint shielding, predictable and minimal cracking are associated with advanced decomposition, when bone remains wet but lacks extensive soft tissue protection. Brown burn/borders, delamination and other heat-induced fractures are associated with early and late skeletonisation, showing that organic composition of bone and percentage of flesh present affect the manner in which it burns. No statistically significant difference was noted among observers for the majority of the traits, indicating that they can be scored reliably. Based on the data analysis, the pattern of heat-induced changes may assist in estimating decomposition stage from unknown, burned remains.

Original languageBritish English
Pages (from-to)17-24
Number of pages8
JournalForensic Science International
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2015


  • Burned bone
  • Heat-induced changes
  • Patterned thermal destruction
  • Taphonomy
  • Transition analysis


Dive into the research topics of 'Assessment of skeletal changes after post-mortem exposure to fire as an indicator of decomposition stage'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this