Anthropology professor’s experiences unlike crime TV shows


Mike Finnegan lives in the real world. While he often is called to identify a person’s age, race, gender and cause of death from a stack of bones, he doesn’t stomp around crime scenes in a neatly pressed suit or jump from case to case successfully.

Finnegan, professor of anthropology, is a forensic anthropologist, but he said his life is nothing like what is portrayed on shows like “CSI” and “Law and Order.”

“What people see on ‘CSI,’ they’re doing something exciting all the time,” he said. “If we worked that hard, we’d be dead in six weeks. Ninety percent is pushing paper, and 10 percent is the really exciting part that makes all the paper pushing worthwhile.”

When he isn’t called to help excavate bones at a crime scene or identify a skeleton, which he said amounts to an average of 35-40 cases a year for states he has a contract with, Finnegan said he enjoys teaching.

“I came here primarily because of the faculty in anthropology, which is exceptional,” he said. “K-State either has more of its fair share of good students, or maybe the excellent faculty brings out the good student.”

Finnegan came to K-State in 1973 and has since taught classes like physical anthropology, which he described as the study of biology of humans and their interactions with other humans in a cultural context, and osteology, which is the study of bones.

Finnegan said students who are interested in forensic anthropology often do not realize there is a lot of math involved in the work. They sometimes think the job is like what they see on television.

“They don’t see the Tyvek suits that are proof everything – when you’re sweating to death,” Finnegan said while laughing. “Safety is a big concern in a crime scene. And when you look at the bright, fluorescent lights, they’re not the sexy blue lights of ‘CSI.’

“Hell, even I’d look good if the lights were blue and sexy enough.”

When he’s not in the classroom or helping with a case, Finnegan likes to attend art performances or go hunting. He considers 400-meter range shooting to be his specialty.

When he is traveling in areas like the Middle East and Eastern Europe, where he also does anthropology work, he likes to read British literature or fiction that features forensic anthropologists. He even has been acknowledged for helping with details in some of the fictional work.

Finnegan studied engineering in college at the University of Colorado. After working as an engineer and spending time in the Navy, he returned to school and enrolled in a physical anthropology course. Later he took a cultural anthropology course and was intrigued, eventually entering graduate school.

“As a graduate student in anthropology, I was really more interested in physiology and adaptation,” he said. “Then I had a seminar in osteology. There was a 178-page book that had 15 chapters by different people with what you can do with bones.

“I started reading that book a couple of days before the first seminar meeting, and I read the whole book in one setting. It was fascinating, and I thought, ‘I can do this.’ So I did.”

Since then Finnegan has conducted research on seven continents and excavated on five, according to his K?State biography. He said he has been in high-profile cases, though he considers all of the cases to be important because the remains he must identify mean something to the victim’s family.

Finnegan said he is usually anonymous in the investigation process, but his job is rewarding and exciting when he identifies someone and the family calls to thank him.

“Teaching is rewarding in little parts on a daily basis, but this is rewarding once a year or once every other year when someone happens to take note that you did something for them,” he said, “and I expect a lot of times they have no real idea of who did what.”