Phosphorescence of thermally altered human bone

Tristan Krap*, Loes Busscher, Roelof-Jan Oostra, Maurice C G Aalders, Wilma Duijst

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Bone has photoluminescent characteristics that can aid the analysis of thermally altered human skeletal remains as part of the forensic anthropological investigation. Photoluminescence stands collectively for fluorescence and phosphorescence. Because the difference in lifetime between fluorescence and phosphorescence is usually in the range of nano- to microseconds, it is only possible to visually determine whether bone phosphoresces when the lifetime is long enough to be observed. For this study, a distinction was made between long-decay and short-decay phosphorescence. So far, it was unknown whether (thermally altered) human bone emits long-decay phosphorescence after being illuminated and, thus, whether phosphorescence contributes to the observed photoluminescence. If so, whether the observable phosphorescence is dependent on temperature, exposure duration, surrounding medium, bone type, skeletal element, and excitation light and could aid the temperature estimation of heated bone fragments. In this study, bone samples were subjected to heat in the range of from room temperature to 900 degrees C for various durations in either air or adipose as surrounding medium. In addition, different skeletal elements of a human cadaver were recollected after cremation in a crematorium. Both sample collections were illuminated with light of different bandwidths and visually inspected for phosphorescence and photoluminescence. The samples were scored by means of a scoring index for the intensity of long-decay phosphorescence and photographically documented. The results show that thermally altered human bone fragments do phosphoresce. The observed phosphorescence is more dependent on temperature than on exposure duration, surrounding medium or skeletal element. Of the used wavelength bands, ultraviolet light provided the most temperature-related information, showing changes in both phosphorescence intensity and emission spectrum. Long-decay phosphorescence and fluorescence with short-decay phosphorescence coincide; however, there are also temperature-dependent differences. It is therefore concluded that phosphorescence contributes to the observable photoluminescence and that the visibly observable phosphorescent characteristics can aid the temperature estimation of cremated human skeletal fragments.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1025-1034
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Legal Medicine
Issue number3
Early online date19 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - May 2021


  • Body Remains/physiology
  • Bone and Bones/physiology
  • Female
  • Hot Temperature
  • Humans
  • Luminescence
  • Luminescent Measurements
  • Male
  • Temperature

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