SAGT Conference 2019 #2 - Lorna Dawson keynote

Apologies for delay - a busy half term so far...
SAGT Conference was held at Dollar Academy near Stirling once again, at the end of October - nearly a month ago now. This meant a long train journey up to Stirling, via Ely. I arrived in Stirling just as the SAGT folks were checking in, so ended up heading for the Allan Park Hotel in Stirling for a meal and chat with friends old and new, and Doug Allan, the wildlife cameraman who has worked with David Attenborough.
After breakfast, it was over to Dollar, with a crisp start next to the Tay.
I helped with the Geographical Association stand, which was being looked after by Steve Rawlinson, and Gill Miller, this year's President was also in attendance.
The first keynote of SAGT 2019 was by Lorna Dawson.
It was sponsored by esri UK

Here are my notes, any errors in meaning are mine. This was a really enjoyable session.

Lorna Dawson is a Forensic soil scientist, and works for the James Hutton Institute.
Her twitter feed is @soilfit and is well worth following.
She described how Forensic Science is not new. Romans looked at the soil in hooves of their enemies to trace where they had been.
On the Prussian railway, people were stealing gold, and substituting it with sand to put weight in.
They looked at the sand and compared it with that in the barrels and excluded all but one station where people were stealing the gold and caught people.
Evidence is about linking trace material with a place.

She has worked on a number of programmes including Silent Witness and Countryfile. On the 'One Show', she was given a soil sample from somewhere in Scotland and was able to get within 700m
A good quote:
“Without GIS tools, we geographers couldn’t do the work that we do”

Lorna described hereself as "a geographer specialising in soil science".

“Geographers are particularly good at communicating the science and are safe knowledge brokers”

Liaising with police, farmers, politicans and lawyers, who speak different languauges
“Geographers are particularly good at translating knowledge into expertise and understanding”

Conan Doyle - used the idea of soils in crime novels - London clay was seen on people's clothing - spatial information about where it had come from was all important.
Every contact leaves a trace.
Everyone here will leave something behind that will tell that you have been in this room - forensically.
The link between person and place is important.

Filter in a washing machine - in one case, soil was found in the filter and mineral component could be checked, as the criminal had washed their jeans, and connected them with the place

Soil is complex - a microcosm of
Biology / Chemistry / Physics
Geology / Organic matter
It has a signature: DNA - can be extracted from soil

Spatial resolution of the data - James Hutton Institute -database of soil information.

There are apparently only 4 soils which Scottish students need to know about, including:

Brown earths - productive crops
Podsols - uplands
Gleys - lovely grass for livestock
Peatlands - sequestering carbon - value of soils

Gas chromatography is one scientific technique being used to identify elements of the soil.
Working out the scenario of what could have happened - crime reconstruction.
GPR - "ground penetrating radar" also being used.
Volatile organic compounds from a decomposing body can be identified using these scientific methods as well as fibres from clothing.
Sand is not just sand....
2nd case example was this one.

She talked about crime writers she had worked with.
Ann Cleeves work


Ian Rankin
Val MacDermid quote was excellent.

"I think people sometimes underestimate the power of setting, in particular with the crime novel, because everybody knows murders are not solved the way we write about them in our books, it’s not how it happens. If we wrote about the reality it would be so boring no one would read it, so what we have to do is to persuade the reader to come with us on this journey of suspension of disbelief, and anything you can do to make your book feel more plausible helps you with that.

So if you write about place in a way that for someone who knows that place, that absolutely they’re there with you and you’ve got it right – the way people will read and think I know that café, I know that park, I’ve waited at that bus stop – if you get those details right then they trust you about everything else you’re telling them…


In order to take people on that journey of setting, you make your setting vivid, you make it rich, you make it part of the world of the book, and you use all the five senses as well, sight, sound, smell, touch, hearing, and taste."

This is an excellent quote for geographers and sense of place.

An excellent conference keynote.

Image: Ian Crisp

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