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Agathe Ribereau-Gayon

Agathe Ribereau-Gayon


Research synopsis: Biological impact of the aquatic environment on the decomposition dynamics of human corpses submerged in oceanic conditions subsequently to airplane crashes: a casework study for forensic applications.

Contact: 35 Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9EZ or email

After completing an MPhil in Physical Anthropology (cum laude) at the University of Bordeaux (France), I obtained an MSc in Forensic Anthropology (Distinction) at University College London (UCL). My MSc dissertation was a pilot study for my PhD and was awarded ‘Best dissertation at the Institute of Archaeology’. I am now furthering and expanding this research project at the Department of Security and Crime Science. 

PhD research  

My PhD research in Forensic Anthropology focuses on the decomposition dynamics of human corpses submerged in oceanic environments. This project is supervised by Dr Ruth Morgan (Director of the Centre for the Forensic Sciences) and by Dr Carolyn Rando (Institute of Archaeology). 

Background of research: The study of decomposition process of human corpses –or forensic taphonomy– is a rapidly developing field in Forensic Sciences. However, contrary to terrestrial environments decomposition in aquatic milieu, and specifically in marine environments, is poorly studied to date. However gaining knowledge in this area is of crucial importance given the increasing number of mass fatalities incidents involving marine environments (ie. tsunamis, migrants boating accidents, aircraft crashes at sea, etc.). To do so, developing a multidisciplinary evidence based approach is key. 

Aims of research: This research primarily aims to identify the impact of aquatic taphonomic factors on corpses submerged within oceanic environments, a topic about which only very little is known so far. The methodologies developed in this research on large samples of victims with known data aim to be applicable to future forensic cases of unknown bodies recovered from marine environments. These concrete tools will inform medicolegal conclusions –including identification of postmortem trauma and estimation of postmortem submersion interval (PMSI)– of submerged victims, hence aiding in the identification process. 

Material and Method: The research is a document-based retrospective approach that relies on the analysis of documents from forensic caseworks of airplane crashes provided by the relevant authority. The dataset consists of judicial reports, autopsy photos of the victims and underwater videos of the airplanes wreckage. Data will be collected from these anonymised sources –with a particular focus on the collection of digital measurements from the autopsy photos– to enable subsequent statistical analysis. 

Impact and applications: In a context where the reliability of the methods used in Forensic Sciences are under intense scrutiny, this research will provide evidence-based methodologies robust enough to be presented to investigators and the courts. This study also opens interesting avenues to establish the reliability of experimental studies –widely practised in forensic sciences– to real forensic casework. This research will contribute to strengthening the position of forensic sciences in various disciplines, such as Forensic Anthropology, Legal Medicine, Marine biology and the Law.

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