Xanthe Mallett – History Cold Case

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Meet UNE’s Xanthe Mallett, who is currently appearing on Australian free-to-air television screens as the forensic anthropologist presenting History Cold Case – a four part series which sheds light on the history of our forebears.

How long have you been a forensic scientist?

I have been doing casework since 2004/2005, but officially ‘qualified’ in 2007 at the completion of my PhD. So I have officially been a forensic scientist for 8 years, as you really need a Doctorate to be taken seriously in forensics.

You are quite famous in the UK. How did that come about?

While working as a forensic anthropologist at the University of Dundee, Scotland, UK, I was asked to present a new science documentary series. I was part of a team of scientists investigating the lives, and deaths, of unknown skeletal remains. The aim of the series was to learn as much as we could about the skeletons and who they were before they died. The series was called History Cold Case, and was extremely popular. We made two UK series for BBC2, each with about 2 million viewers.

Following History Cold Case, I was asked to present a US series in the same format called The Decrypters. As a result of my involvement in both series, I became quite a well-known face in the UK.

Did you study at the University Of Dundee in Scotland?

I never studied at the University of Dundee; I joined as a lecturer after completing my PhD. I studied my BSc at Bradford University, my MPhil at the University of Cambridge, and PhD at the University of Sheffield.

When and why did you move to Australia and importantly, take up lecturing at UNE?

Criminology is more developed in Australia than the UK, with more career opportunities, so I moved to Australia and began my lectureship at UNE in March 2012; it’s still early days!

While I love being a forensic scientist, my casework experience helped me to realise that I was becoming more interested in investigating the behaviours behind the crimes, rather than identifying the victims and offenders from physical evidence they leave behind.  As a result, I decided to move from forensic science into criminology – two allied fields, as you can’t fully understand one without the other.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

Each day is unique! I am nosy by nature, and criminology allows me to ask lots of questions and solve puzzles. I also get the satisfaction of helping the criminal justice system to successfully prosecute guilty individuals, and as importantly, exonerate innocent people.

In terms of lecturing, I like to be actively involved in educational outreach, with an aim to engage young people with the basic sciences and encourage uptake throughout educational careers and on into industry.

Tell us about the current television show you are presenting?

History Cold Case was filmed while I was still working in the UK and is really a mix of archaeology and forensic science. On the show we take archaeological remains that we know nothing about and apply the techniques we would use in a forensic case to see just how much we can learn.

Frankly, I was astonished what we could undercover using science and historical research – even coming close to identification. Considering some of the bones were many hundreds of years old, I did not expect that!

Where did you do your filming for History Cold Case, and what was a typical day on the set like?

Filming for History Cold Case took place both at work in the lab, as well as all over the UK, from sites as diverse (but predictable) as graveyards and museums, to boats and castles! There really was no such thing as a ‘typical’ day on set.

Normally I would be either analysing the bones, or interviewing specialists looking for more information on a specific facet of the case. Sometimes I just experienced what the individual experienced, to get a feel for their life, like riding a horse whilst carrying a heavy sword to get an idea of what muscles they would have been using, or sailing in a harbour, feeling what it would have been like to see England for the first time from the sea. Filming days were long and tiring, but fantastic, as I learned so much.

Do you enjoy living in Armidale?

I love Armidale. It’s a small and friendly town, where I felt very welcome from the beginning. It’s a wonderful environment in which to settle, and I love the outdoors lifestyle. Even the winters don’t worry me – I came here after 5 years in Scotland, so the cold months feel like summer! It’s great that Armidale has four seasons, all of which can happen in one day – it makes me feel at home.

What’s next?

I am filming a top secret new series, so I can’t give away any details just yet. It’s not another History Cold Case, although I do still get to look at bones, and will be travelling a lot too, which is another passion of mine. I also hope to write a book, but all in good time!

Thanks Dr Mallett.

This article was published in issue 70 of New England Focus

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