Rongelap Resettlement Project - Archaeological Exhumations

Archaeological Exhumations, Mejatto Is. (Kwajalein Atoll), 1993


Project Team Leader: Bernd Franke (Institute of Energy and Environmental Research, Heidelberg)
Principal Investigator (Archaeology): Dirk H.R. Spennemann (CSU)
A series of exhumations was conducted on Mejatto Island, Kwajalein Atoll, as part of a U.S. Congress-funded study into the health effects on the people on Rongelap Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands, following contamination by radio-active fallout of U.S. nuclear testing in the 1950s.

Burial space on many Pacific Islands is limited, and the same burial location is used over and over again. Many interments intercut each other with the more recent burial disturbing the previous one. In order to provide some time line data on the sequence and relationship of the interments beyond simple relative archaeological chronology, it is necessary to understand the rate of decomposition of buried human bodies on small tropical islands.

In addition to the radiological analysis, data were gathered on decomposition of bodies and the decay of associated cultural materials, including clothing, personal ornaments, caskets, and grave goods. Decay data were documented for an interment period between 40 and 80 months. One interment, placed in a casket wrapped with plastic sheeting, thus effectively preventing the access of rainwater, had a marked development of adipocere with much of the muscle tissue still in a state of caseic fermentation at 80 months. Other interments showed that body tissue in a state of caseic fermentation can survive up to 70 months. Semi-closed spacesdelayed the decomposition. Ligaments survived well, some retaining adhesion to bone up to 60 months in open conditions, and up to 80 months in closed, water impermeable caskets. Hair was well preserved up to 80 months, while at 40 months skin had already decomposed and body parts with little tissue adhering (hands/feet) had skeletonised completely. Organic cultural materials, such as Pandanus mats and items made of cotton showed evidence of partial or total decomposition. Synthetic or synthetic/cotton mix fibres showed a remarkable state of preservation and are likely to survive as identifiable and traceable associated death scene material for quite some time.


The island of Mejatto, Kwajalein Atoll, the current home of many nuclear refugees from Rongelap Atoll and the location of the exhumation project.
The radiological results of the study are reported in:
Franke, Bernd, R.Schupfner, H.Schüttelkopf & Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (in press)
Transuranics in bone of deceased former residents of Rongelap Atoll: a comparison with data from urine analysis and pathway modeling. Health Physics[ABSTRACT]
Franke, Bernd, R.Schupfner, H.Sch,ttelkopf and Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1995)
Transuranics in bone of deceased former residents of Rongelap Atoll, Marshall Islands. In: 'Plutonium in the Environment' Journal of Applied Radiation and Isotopes 46 (11), 1253-1258.

The archaeological results of the study are reported in:
Spennemann, Dirk H.R. and Bernd Franke (1995)
Decomposition of human bodies and the interpretation of burials in the tropical Pacific. Archaeology in Oceania 30, 66-73.
Spennemann, Dirk H.R. and Bernd Franke (1995)
Archaeological techniques for exhumations: a unique data source for crime scene investigations. Forensic Science International 74(1), 5-15.
Spennemann, Dirk H.R. and Bernd Franke (1995)
Decomposition of buried human bodies and associated death scene materials on coral atolls in the tropical Pacific. Journal of Forensic Sciences 40 (3) 356-367.

This document forms part of the hypertext curriculum vitae of Dr. Dirk H.R. Spennemann (Charles Sturt University, Albury, Australia). If you arrived at this page through a search engine you may wish to call up http://life.csu.edu.au/people/dirkwhich will link you to the top of the frame-based CV.