Category Archives: Autumn 2016

International oral history project shares the voices of the “petits réfugiés”

“Petits réfugiés” (little refugees)
“Petits réfugiés” (little refugees)

During the Second World War a large number of French children were displaced and separated from their families as a result of the Allied bombing of France, the threat of invasion and severe food shortages in cities. Known as the “petits réfugiés” (little refugees) the voices of these children have rarely been heard.

Dr Lindsey Dodd’s new research project explores the memories of the “petits réfugiés” providing them with a voice for the first time. A senior lecturer in modern European history, Dr Dodd has research specialisms in the theory and practice of oral history, and the experiences of children in war, particularly in France.

International research collaboration

01-dodd-main4

Following a successful bid with colleagues from Bath Spa University and Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, Dr Lindsey Dodd from the University of Huddersfield has embarked on a 30-month research project. This multi-stranded project is jointly funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the French Laboratoire d’Excellence (LabEx) Les passés dans le présent.  The funding unites the AHRC’s theme Care for the Future: Thinking Forward Through the Past and the LabEx research strand ‘The past in the present’.

This Anglo-French funding will enable the recording and analysis of the memories of French people who became “petits réfugiés”

Disrupted Histories: Recovered Pasts

Titled Disrupted Histories: Recovered Pasts, the overarching project incorporates varied research by experts in fields that include history, politics, ethnography, history, sociology and anthropology, who will investigate five separate case studies, linked through the use of oral history. Each of the experts has an interest in history, memory, commemoration and narrative and are all working on post-conflict and post-colonial contexts, with populations who have been displaced. As the research progresses, working papers and research blogs will appear on the project’s online platform, accessed at https://dsrupdhist.hypotheses.org/.

Discovering “Usable Pasts”

“Petits réfugiés” (little refugees)
“Petits réfugiés” (little refugees)

Official histories create versions of the past which are “usable”. As such, they tend to homogenise the past and impose certain storylines. The ‘Disrupted Histories’ project looks towards unofficial and heterogenous versions of the past. By providing a platform for those excluded voices it may be possible to revise more formalised narratives.

The experience of civilians in wartime, many of whom are children, can struggle to find a place in the French narrative of the Vichy era, which has created various “usable pasts” over time, from the glorification of the role of the Resistance to feelings of shame over collaboration with Nazi Germany and guilt over the deportation of Jews.

Dr Dodd will carry out around 20 new interviews, focusing on issues of family displacement and separation, and working with the Archives municipales de Boulogne-Billancourt in the Paris region and the Archives départementales de la Creuse in the centre of France.

This research will enable older people to share their childhood experiences and become part of their national story.

The critical role of voice evidence in court

Acoustic phonetic analysis in Praat
Acoustic phonetic analysis in Praat

Forensic speech science plays a critical role in criminal cases involving voice evidence. Forensic speaker comparison is the most common task carried out by experts and involves the comparison of a criminal recording, for example, a threatening phone call such as a bomb threat, and a known suspect sample such as a police interview. It is the role of an expert forensic speech scientist to advise the judge or jury on the probability of the evidence given competing hypotheses from the prosecution and defence.

The WYRED (West Yorkshire Regional English Database) project

West Yorkshire map
West Yorkshire map

Currently there is a lack of population data for forensic speech science casework and Dr Erica Gold and her team are building a more in-depth picture of the West Yorkshire accent.

They are working on a £360,000 forensic speech science project – The WYRED (West Yorkshire Regional English Database) – which is funded by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council).

Developing a unique resource

Human vocal tract
Human vocal tract

The research involves developing the largest Northern British English database, looking specifically at Bradford, Wakefield and Kirklees in West Yorkshire. The team will be collecting 60 male speakers from each region, a total of 180 males, over the next few years, exploring some of the characteristics of the West Yorkshire accent and trying to establish common and uncommon features in the area. This research will help in forensic cases by identifying how typical a feature is in a population. The research also looks at how narrowly accents need to be defined in the West Yorkshire area for forensic purposes.

The population data can be used for a multitude of purposes, but the main concern is to create a database so that forensic experts in the UK (and world-wide) can reference their data in court cases, in order to provide judgements on the typicality of accent features.

Identifying the ‘smell of death’

Pig cadavers
Pig cadavers

Most people are able to recognise the smell of “death” when they encounter a dead animal on a farm or a roadkill. But despite its distinctive scent, few know why it actually smells the way it does. Even forensic scientists may not have identified all of the compounds behind it yet – they are still in the process.

Understanding the pattern of change of the chemicals that make up the scent during the process of decomposition could be of huge benefit to forensic science. Not only could it help determine the time of death of a victim, it could also lead to more scientifically rigorous training of cadaver dogs.

A symphony of scents

The smell of death is a very complex symphony of scents, with different notes waxing and waning as decomposition progresses. To date, more than 480 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have been captured and identified from human cadavers, and more than 800 have been identified from porcine (pig) cadavers.

Scent of Death timeline
Scent of Death timeline

Dr Anna Williams at the University of Huddersfield, and her team Lorna Irish and Dr Gareth Parkes, have identified hundreds of chemicals given off by decomposing pig cadavers, both on land and under water. Porcine cadavers are frequently used for forensic research in the UK because of their physiological similarities to humans and the relative ease of obtaining them. There is currently no way for researchers to access human remains for this purpose, such as dedicated taphonomy facilities or “body farms”.

The different stages of decomposition

The research carried out by Dr Williams and her team used fluffy fibres to capture the gases given off by porcine cadavers enclosed in boxes, lying in air and in water, over a period of time.  A gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) was used to identify the individual volatile organic compounds absorbed by the fibres.

Surprisingly, some of the gases that make up the whole bouquet of death were actually quite pleasant –  including hexanal and butanol. Hexane is associated with the smell of freshly-mown grass and butanol smells of leaf litter and forest floors. These are present in the earliest stages of decomposition and then reappear in the very final stage, known as skeletonisation.

Some of the worst smells come somewhere in the middle of the decomposition process. Chemicals released during the bloat stage, which occurs about a week after death (depending on the surrounding conditions), when intestinal bacteria are reproducing.

By the time skeletonisation occurs, the odour-producing bacteria have been replaced by more mechanical means of decay, and the obnoxious smells are replaced by more woody, wet notes.

Future applications

Understanding the rhythm, rise and fall of these fragrant notes allows forensic scientists to attempt to decipher the “magic formula” that specially-trained cadaver dogs are looking for.

In the future, it may be possible to use the various scents given off by a cadaver to determine cause of death, as some medical conditions may encourage certain bacterial growth. Analysing the volatile organic compounds could provide a more reliable way of estimating the time that has elapsed since a person has died – the post-mortem interval.

Based on Williams, A. (2015) The smell of death: its chemical pattern could become a powerful forensic tool. The Conversation, 25 September 2015