Kroch Chhmar district, Kompong Cham province – A US military team has found what appears to be bone fragments and pieces of skull at the site where amateur bone hunters dug last month in Kompong Cham province while trying to locate the grave of missing US photographer Sean Flynn.
“We found some possible remains within the backfill from the previous excavation,” said Hugh Tuller, a forensic anthropologist with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, the US agency conducting the dig.
Last month, a group of fans of Mr Flynn and self-styled adventurers claimed to have found what may be the remains of the photojournalist who disappeared in Cambodia 40 years ago on April 6.
The son of Hollywood actor Errol Flynn, Sean Flynn went missing with colleague Dana Stone after the pair were captured by Vietnamese troops in Svay Rieng province and handed over to the Khmer Rouge.
“If we’re finding remains here, the first excavation was done poorly,” Mr Tuller said on Saturday when he took a break from the re-excavation of the site in Chhouk commune. He described the site as having been “disturbed” by the amateur diggers, which he said “could definitely affect identification” of any remains taken from the ground.
The remains that were unearthed last month, including a jaw bone and teeth, were handed over to the US Embassy in Phnom Penh and have since been sent for testing to JPAC’s headquarters in Hawaii.
Amid huge media attention and headlines claiming that Sean Flynn’s remains had been found, JPAC last week sent a six-person excavation team to Kompong Cham to make sure there were no remains still left in the ground. The team is expected to finish its search today.
On Saturday, JPAC team members shoveled earth into black plastic buckets that were then passed to about 20 Cambodian workers for sifting through the small holes of suspended metal grills. As the soil fell through the grills, larger solid items were sifted and examined.
The fragments of bone-like material uncovered by the JPAC team range in size from tiny to a piece that is about 7-by-7-centimeters, according to Mr Tuller. The fragments were found in the soil used to fill back in the roughly 12-by-14-meter trench that was left after the earlier excavation, and which was conducted using a mechanical diggers last month.
Other remains could be jumbled up anywhere in this irregular patch of backfill, Mr Tuller explained on Saturday. That means that even if something is found, it is out of its original context, Mr Tuller explained.
As an example, he pointed to a small pile of dark cloth that had been unearthed in the trench.
“I don’t know if that cloth belongs with those bones,” Mr Tuller said. “I don’t know if it is evidence or if it is garbage.”
He said conducting excavations at possible gravesites correctly was a question of expertise.
“It’s great that people try to help out. Unfortunately there is a point where some common sense needs to be applied. If you’re not an archaeologist or crime scene investigator, you probably shouldn’t attempt to do this,” he said.
Last month’s private dig by Australian Dave MacMillan and Briton Keith Rotheram was criticized by former colleagues of Flynn and Stone as entirely irresponsible and self-serving, though the pair had the support of Flynn’s half sister, Rory Flynn.
Fellow war photographer Tim Page accused the men of trying to sell their story, which they have denied. He also said the use of a mechanical excavator, or backhoe, may have damaged evidence at the site.
Mr Rotheram said by telephone yesterday that the main point was to get the remains home.
“We got the majority of it and that’s the purpose, to identify this person so he can return home,” he said. “Identification doesn’t come from the tools you use to dig it up, it comes from the remains you’ve found,” he claimed.
Mr Rotheram also said that his dig, because it was private, could not afford the sort of manpower used by JPAC.
In an April 1 e-mail, Mr MacMillan said he and Mr Rotheram asked JPAC to excavate the site while the US agency had teams in Cambodia earlier this year, but their request was refused.
“As far as JPAC commenting or condemning [on] any techniques we used, we only did it independently because JPAC would not assist,” he wrote.
“For the most part we went public in such a manner purely to put a fire under…the US government,” he added.
Lieutenant Colonel Wayne Perry, public affairs director for JPAC, confirmed that a JPAC team had been approached while in Cambodia and had declined to take on the search at the time as they were already on a mission.
JPAC does not typically dig with heavy equipment, according to Lt Col Perry. The US team used a backhoe with a smooth, rather than serrated, digging bucket during the recent excavation, but only to clear surface dirt.
Mr MacMillan has defended his use of an excavator, claiming the location where the bones fragments he found were at a depth of 2.5 meters.
On Saturday Mr Tuller said he only saw signs of excavation to a depth of 1.4 meters at the spot where JPAC was working, though he acknowledged Mr MacMillan and his crew might have dug deeper somewhere elsewhere.
Lt Col Perry said there is no indication that the site, which is in a rice paddy, contains other remains.
He also said that JPAC’s lab believes the bones recovered last month may belong to a Westerner rather than a Cambodian.
But he said tests on the remains found by Mr MacMillan and Mr Rotheram are preliminary and he cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
“We have remains,” he said. “Whose are they? They could be anybody.”
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