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Dactyl & Skelly Pad: Apps for Digital Bone Identification and Inventorying

10 Mar

Updates have been somewhat sparse on this site as of late due to varying workloads, both archaeological and osteological in nature, that have thus far maintained the focus of my free time.  So this is just a quick post highlighting new digital applications that have recently been released that have a specific focus and use for bioarchaeologists, palaeopathologists and forensic anthropologists, and that may be of interest amongst other related disciplines.

The first of these is the Dactyl application that has been produced by forensic anthropologists at the University of Teesside, spearheaded by Professor Tim Thompson (with a bit of help from my friend and doctoral researcher David Errickson) through the Anthronomics business.  Dactyl is a 3D viewer with photo-realistic models of actual scanned human skeletal elements that aids in the identification, siding and pathological analysis of osteological material from archaeological sites or forensic contexts.  Further to this the app also provides information on the anatomical landmarks present on individuals bones, indicating both the origins and the growth of the bone under study.  The models themselves can be zoomed in and out off, markers can be placed on the bone, and the models are full view-able from a number of directions and viewpoints (including lighting aspect).  This makes the app particularly handy for the field bioarchaeologist, or osteologist, in the identifying of skeletal material on-site or in the site hut.


A screen shot of the Dactyl application as it currently stands. In this view a right Os Coxa (i.e. the hip, consisting of the fused ilium, pubis and ischium skeletal elements) can be viewed and explored. Notice the blue and red pins identifying landmark features and their uses. Image credit: Apple iTunes store and Dactyl App (2015).

The basic app costs £16.99 from the Apple iTunes store, and there are currently three additional add-on packs available.  These are available for a further £1.99 and consist of a) basic trauma, b) basic pathologies, and the c) non-adult pack.  It should be noted here that each of these only include two skeletal models, with the basic trauma containing four individual bone models, rather than a full range of skeletal elements.  Further updates will include more examples, but I am currently unsure whether the app will be available on more than just the Apple range of devices.  Atkin (2015) has written a fairly comprehensive review which is a useful and interesting read on the benefits and limitations of the Dactyl app itself.  The app is currently under review of a second version of the program as an improvement on the first version, but this promises to be an extremely useful application for iPad wielding archaeologists regardless of further improvements on the current model (which, of course, will surely happen).

The second is the Skelly Pad application for tablets, initially a free to use app designed to aid in the digital inventory of human skeletal and dental elements in archaeological or forensic contexts (a professional version of the app may lead to a charge to download it).  The importance of maintaining a proper inventory of skeletal remains cannot be over estimated, as this is the basic task that first allows for identification and analysis of the remains under observation.  Although it is at the early stage of design and production, the Skelly Pad application is now available to download and use on tablets.  It works across a wide variety of different operating systems and devices, including iPads, Kindle Fire and Samsung Galaxy tablets.

The product is the outcome of Gill Hunt’s BSc project at the University of Reading, in an attempt to digitise and streamline the recording of skeletal remains rather than rely on a paper record.  Currently Skelly Pad is only able to inventory the remains of adult individuals in the latest version of the application, although this includes all of the normal inventory sections (including completeness, age-at-death, biological sex, stature, pathology, etc).  The full range of current features that the Skelly Pad incorporates can be found here, and it certainly looks useful for the bioarchaeologist or forensic archaeologist, particularly in a setting where paper recording may be unsatisfactory for rapid recording of a skeletal inventory.  The Skelly Pad is now available through the App store, Google Play and Amazon.

By highlighting the two above applications, I think it becomes clear that as technology advances and powerful computers are now available in the palm of your hand, that innovation in the archaeological world also continues to make use of it, helping to overcome the limitations of access to skeletal collections, dreary weather and taking the weight off your shoulders (literally, if you have ever tried to carry around an anatomical textbook or a collection of osteological reference manuals).  Together with online resources such as Digitised Diseases (where 3D models of the effects of disease and trauma on human skeletal material are available to view for free), we are really seeing barriers being broken down to the access of both knowledge and collections.

An interesting side feature of this is the ethical edge of digitising and replicating the skeletal remains of individuals.  As we model their remains, replicate them on hundreds, if not thousands of machines, or create isolated 3D models of isolated elements, do we dis-embody and de-individualise the person themselves that they (the skeletal elements) once belonged to?  Does the educational need to correctly identify, record, and ultimately protect uncovered remains trump the loss of physical context of the bones that are used for digitisation as we transport them into the digital realm?  Are we distancing the feel and handling of bone itself, by relegating it to a flat screen?  These are broad-based questions with no straight forward answers.

It is clear, I hope, that I heartily approve of the magnificent steps forward that digital technology is allowing researchers to make in the understanding and recording of human remains using innovative techniques, particularly so given the fragile nature of the material (see Errickson et al. 2015 for good practice guidelines regarding scanning of osteological material).  The above are only two such examples of what I am sure is a thriving, independent and growing market.  A balance is always needed between access to physical reference collections, 3D models and osteological manuals, when assessing and analyzing assemblages from archaeological or forensic contexts.  One method cannot replace another.

As satisfying as having a handbook of osteology on your phone or tablet may be, nothing beats the heavy thud of a good reference textbook going into a rucksack or the boot of a car, ready for a days work.

Further Information

  • The Dactyl application for Apple products can be found either on the Apple app website or on Google Play.  The company behind the product, Anthronomics, can be found here.  It is an interesting company started by Professor Thompson himself which aims to invent useful programs, applications or devices to help aid in the recording, identifying and analysing of human skeletal material.  One to watch!
  • The Skelly Pad application for tablets (for use with Android, Amazon and Apple devices) can be found here and is available at each of the device makers stores to download for free.  The Skelly Pad blog can be found here also, which details the current version, and will host regular blog updates as the app as it proceeds to include further sections.
  • Digitised Diseases, a project spearheaded by the University of Bradford with a range of partners, depicts a number of 3D models of scanned human skeletal elements from archaeological sites with evidence of trauma or disease processes.  The models have been recorded and scanned using radiography, CT scanning and laser scanning techniques to produce highly accurate models showing the effects of disease or trauma on human skeletal elements.  These models can be viewed on the website itself or can be downloaded onto a computer, tablet or smart phone for future offline use.  I have previously discussed the open access site here.  You can also have a look to see how useful the site is for bloggers, as I helped illuminate one of my previous arm fractures with an example from the site, see here.


Atkin, A. 2015. Review of Dactyl: An Interactive 3D Osteology App [iPad]Internet Archaeology. 38. DOI: (Open Access).

Errickson, D. Thompson, T. & Rankin, B. 2015. An Optimum Guide for the Reduction of Noise using a Surface Scanner for Digitising Human Osteological Remains. Archaeology Data Service. Guides to Good Practice. (Open Access).

Guest Blog: Photography vs Laser Scanning in Forensic Archaeology & CSI Contexts by Dave Errickson.

21 Oct

Dave Errickson is a doctoral candidate at Teesside University, where he is building upon his experience and research gained into the 3D visualization of osteological material during his Masters undertaken at the University of Bradford.  His current research focuses on the use of digital recording methods using 3D scanning and laser scanning in a forensic medicolegal framework.  A practising archaeologist, he often works for Tees Archaeology as well as conducting his own original research, alongside taking part in various excavations and surveys around the country.

In forensics the current method for recording information is with digital and film photography.

Photography is cheap once the camera has been purchased, reliable and almost instant (photos can now be developed within minutes rather than days).  Photography has also been used for decades and has become refined.

Photography captures a two dimensional (2D) image of a specific object or scene.  This however poses a problem. When recording a three dimensional (3D) image, the photograph loses the third dimension and compresses the actual image into 2D form.  This loss of dimension in forensics is critical.  For example, a photograph of a body which has been dismembered may lose details that in turn might stop a suspect being committed to jail for a crime carried out.

With such a high profile that photography has, it is unclear where the next method of improvement is or more so, where it is going to come from.

Figure 1. Photograph of a dismembered sheep bone with cut marks, with a scale for size. Image credit: Dave Errickson.

Although it may not be known by many people, the new technology has arrived.  This is a method which has been tried within fields close to forensics such as palaeontologyarchaeology and anthropology.  This new method allows the creation of a three 3D scene, therefore minimising the loss of evidence after capture.  This new technology is laser scanning.

My name is David Errickson, studying Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation within the University of Bradford. I am currently working on my dissertation for my Masters of Science award.

For this, I am looking at cut marks found upon bone created after the body has been dismembered.  Using traditional methods such as photography, I am recovering saw marks, tool type, direction of stroke, change of stroke direction and other diagnostic features hacksaws leave upon the bone.  I am then using the novel technique, laser scanning to do the same.

The FARO Laser Scanner, originally used within the fields of aerospace, automotive, metal fabrication and moulding, has the potential to show the details for both the macro and the microscopic detail left on bone that the standard photographic techniques find difficult to recover.

Figure 2. 3D model rendered of the bone after scanning digitally. Image credit: Dave Errickson.

Reconstruction of the events leading to a crime is crucial.  The FARO Laser Scanner may accurately and quickly record evidence for further digital forensic analysis.  It also provides a non-contact bone reconstruction that can be displayed and enhanced with software.  This is accomplished without damaging or cross contaminating the evidence for a court environment.  This may include parry marks or defense wounds that may distinguish how a victim was attacked or killed.  This data can ultimately be taken and reconstructed after the recording of evidence in a crime scene.  It then can be placed into a virtual environment that can be displayed to help with the interpretation of events.

Figure 3. The two changes in direction that has been made by the saw during dismemberment on a animal bone. Image credit: Dave Errickson.

Both techniques will be utilised and compared to see where in forensics the laser scanning will fit.  The results may show that laser scanning soon, will be the method of choice for recording crime scenes.

Other laser scanning equipment used within this research includes the OLS 3000 (LEXT Generation technology) and scanning electron microscopy (SEM). The  following are some images taken with these apparatus.

Figure 4. Scanning Electron Micropscope (SEM) image recovery of the striations from a dismembered bone (left) and OLS (right). Image credit: Dave Errickson.

Figure 5. Photograph of blue paint residues within a cut mark on the bone caused by a blade.  The fine photograph highlights the ingrained paint residue and can be used as evidence if a blade is found with similar residues. Image credit: Dave Errickson.

Figure 6. A colour laser scanned image of the paint (notice the individual striations and saw slippage) and black laser scan of the paint residue in the cutmark on the bone.  Image credit: Dave Errickson.

In conjunction with this research I have taken it a step further. Once the recording has been completed, the bones will be left to Mother Nature and her natural processes.  I would like to know whether it is possible to recover tool marks from bone after they have been affected by the climate.  This would do two things.  First, it may then become possible to convict a suspect after a number of years from previously made cut marks.  Secondly, diagnostic features recovered from the bone after weathering has taken place can be recorded.

This information will then be able to help the expert witness in a court of law.  This means the expert witness could determine the difference between cut marks and other marks which may have been created by weathering or scavenging.  This re enforces the value of evidence, allowing no room for it being made inadmissible.

For any questions, please feel free to email me:

Daveerrickson at

NB: Please be aware that the images are copyrighted and are used with the permission of Dave Errickson here on this site.

Further Information

  • Keep up to date with new visualization advances in anthropology at the Teesside University blog site here.


Errickson, D., Thompson, T. J. U. & Rankin, B. W. J. 2014. The Application of 3D Visualization of Osteological Trauma for the Courtroom: A Critical Review. Journal of Forensic Radiology and Imaging. 2 (3): 132.137.