Bones reveal stories

Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. And some of the truths Prof Sue Black and her forensics team from the University of Dundee, Scotland, have uncovered have been almost unbelievable.

A girl child prostitute from Victorian London riddled with syphilis; a boy probably murdered in the late 1700s and his body made into an articulated skeleton for sale to a medical student or surgeon; Jews so persecuted in the Middle Ages they were either thrown down a well and murdered or committed suicide to avoid death at the hands of others.

"It was a cruel world. But you only have to look at what happens on the news and you only have to look at our [modern-day] casebook to see it is still a pretty cruel world out there," Prof Black says.

A veteran of almost 30 years in anatomy and forensics, Prof Black leads a team of 14 including pathologists and a specialist who reconstructs lifelike faces on skulls.

Their day-to-day work includes working with the police on homicides and unexplained deaths as well as disaster victim identification in mass-carnage situations such as the London bombings and the Thailand tsunami.

A couple of years ago, Prof Black was approached by a production company with an idea for a documentary: A box of bones from years past, sometimes centuries past, already uncovered by an archaeologist, would be delivered to her laboratory and she and her team would be filmed as they tried to piece together how and why the owner or owners of the bones died. Each episode would end with the team "revealing" their likely death scenario to the archaeologists, academics and members of the public.

Prof Blacks says her initial reaction was to say no because her team's focus was not on archaeological forensics. But she decided her staff could still apply the same techniques and knowledge to old bones, and so History Cold Case was born.

The programme is very genuine, she says.

"The producers literally put a box of bones in front of us and say: 'Go tell us what you can find out about it'.

"The investigations are real.

"There is nothing scripted. There is nothing about us knowing beforehand what is coming our way, so for us it is a bit scary."

Episode one involved "the most boring set of bones we've ever come across" she says.

"We were literally an hour before the reveal and we had absolutely nothing to tell these people. Then just at that moment - and I know it sounds contrived but it isn't - I was sitting looking at the bones when a shaft of light over my shoulder put an entirely different perspective on the bone surface and we saw something we hadn't seen before. That put the production company into mad overdrive like you wouldn't believe, and we got a story out of it."

So far, eight episodes have been made. Prof Black admits she has not watched any of them, preferring not to see herself on screen.

But she says the reaction has been "phenomenal', with each episode drawing a viewing audience of two million in the UK and resulting in her being sent many "incredibly kind" letters from viewers (and a few "decidedly odd" ones).

There is unlikely to be a third series, she says.

"For us, two series is probably enough, because it really does take up an inordinate amount of our time."

• History Cold Case premieres on Thursday at 8.30pm on BBC Knowledge.