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Ashes to Ashes

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Among the last treasures you'd think to hustle from a burning home might be the already-ashy cremains of lost loved ones. But as archaeologist Mike Newland discovered, the power of recovering them can be overwhelming.

The first thing I noticed was the cooled river of molten metal streaming from a burnt-out truck. The property owner had lost the ashes of his brother and mother in the Tubbs Fire, and a volunteer team, consisting of a Human Remains Detection dog, its handler, and archaeologists, joined to help find the cremains. The ashes were in a bedroom, and as we reconstructed the layout, we found fragments of burnt beads and shelving that indicated the correct spot.

A compact, eager Belgian Malinois named Annie snorted and sniffed her way through the ashes, and after a few minutes, sat down next to two piles of pinkish orange ash, finer and off-color from the household remains. We carefully recovered the piles and presented them to Annie, away from the site. She gave us a positive signal. We handed the bags to a teary-eyed property owner, who stood stunned that, together, we recovered the remains from a building that had burnt to the foundation.

At one house, we recovered a metal urn of a father-in-law, embedded behind a concrete wall under six inches of slumped dirt. The urn had collapsed, and held the ashes like two hands in prayer. At another location, my buddy Alex and the dogs found the intact box of remains of a woman’s brother, murdered at 23 years old, buried under the wreckage. The woman’s knees buckled when he stood before her with the box.

I spoke later with another of our team, Kim, an archaeologist with many years experience, and a breast-cancer survivor. She was there when a team recovered the remains of a 40-year-old woman, and she knew that those ashes could have just as easily been hers. Exhausted from the physically and emotionally demanding day, as she watched the woman’s mother cradle the recovered remains, Kim sat, away from the group, and cried. One of the dogs, Piper, a little border collie, came over to her and dropped her head in Kim’s lap to be petted, one professional comforting another after one of the hardest and most moving days of our careers.


With a Perspective, I’m Mike Newland

Mike Newland is an archaeologist.

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