Dr Matteo Borrini

Matteo could be described as LJMU’s very own Indiana Jones. A charismatic academic with an unconventional approach to scientific inquiry in both forensic cases and life’s mysteries, with a penchant for holy relics and intrigue for ancient rituals, legends and even a spot of magic.

“This makes me smile, considering the man with a fedora hat and a whip has always inspired my youthful passion for archaeology,” says Matteo who is a principal lecturer in forensic anthropology with our School of Biological and Environmental Sciences.

Born in La Spezia, a coastal town in northwestern Italy, Matteo has been passionate about archaeology from a very young age, gaining experience as he grew up by volunteering in archaeological excavations across Italy.

With a hunger to follow this field of work as a profession, Matteo moved to Florence so that he could pursue a degree in archaeology, soon realising that he was also developing a particular interest in forensic sciences, driven by his desire to pursue justice for victims and their families.

Matteo obtained an MSc in Biological Anthropology in Florence and a PhD in Anthropology at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, focusing on forensic standardisation of anthropometric measurements and protocols.

Despite an array of qualifications to his name, and a Dr title just like his childhood movie inspiration Indy, there were no established career paths for a forensic anthropologist in Italy. This didn’t deter Matteo and so he forged his own path, sharing his expertise on projects and initiatives that involved the recovery, identification and repatriation of soldiers missing in action during global conflicts.

This focus on military aspects is deeply rooted in his own family history. His father served as a civil biologist for the Navy Transfusion Center, and both of his grandfathers worked at the Navy Arsenal in La Spezia, one of Italy's most important military bases. Additionally, his maternal grandfather was deported to the Dachau concentration camp during World War II, and one of his brothers went missing during a naval bombardment while on duty.

“Serving and honouring those who fell in war, even years and miles away from where they fought, has always been a privilege.”

One of Matteo's most significant collaborations in this arena was brought to a mass audience on screen through the work of Italian-American director Ricardo Preve.

The docufiction ‘Coming Home’ told the story of the recovery and repatriation of the remains of Carlo Acefalo, a 24-year-old Italian chief torpedoman who died on a desert island during World War II, buried by his fellow soldiers in a shallow grave in the sand after their submarine ran aground. His remains were repatriated by the Italian Embassy to his native country in 2018. Matteo led the excavation with the support of Italian archaeologist Cosimo Giachetti, and the identification process utilised a forensic-anthropological approach on site.

“Carlo's mother, who was the widow of a soldier missing in action during the First World War, had waited all her life to see her only son repatriated. Despite it never happening in her lifetime, after 78 years, we were able to bury Carlo in the same grave as his mother, on the same day as her birthday.”

Matteo’s work in the excavation of war graves, and identification and repatriation of the war dead, has gained him notable recognition including the appointment as an honorary member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

No stranger to the world of TV and film, Matteo’s other work has also been featured in various international documentaries on forensic and historical mysteries, including one on the remains of a lady believed to be a vampire during the 16th century with the National Geographic Society. And he’s taken part in live broadcasts for Italian television, providing scientific commentary on forensic cases presented each week.

“It was a challenging task that required me to condense complex scientific concepts into a few minutes as there was often little time to answer the presenter during the TV programme. All while making these engaging for a lay audience and taking into account that relatives of the victim or defendant could be watching. Respect for all and for the victims was an essential point and the guiding compass needle for me.”

With an impressive catalogue of forensic anthropology projects under his fedora hat, Matteo wanted to next follow in the footsteps of his maternal grandmother and mother, who were both primary school teachers, to become the third generation in his family of educators.

“They instilled in me a love for learning and an awareness of the importance of education. They showed me how a teacher’s mission is not just to lecture, but to inspire curiosity and be a lifelong reference point and mentor. Teaching is about touching someone’s life forever.”

His work on TV in Italy was one way of helping to educate people, but he was keen to fulfil his ambition in a field where he felt Italy lacked academic educational offerings focused specifically on forensic anthropology.

After serving as a contract professor at various universities in Italy, Matteo found himself travelling to Liverpool to join LJMU in the summer of 2013.

“LJMU had a BSc programme in forensic anthropology, and it was the only one in the United Kingdom at the time. When I saw the vacancy through a LinkedIn search, I knew it was the right moment to go.”

“Belonging to a historic institution like LJMU, devoted to education, is an immense honour and privilege.”

– Matteo Borrini

Initially Matteo was the programme leader for the BSc Forensic Anthropology course and later developed a new MSc programme, eventually becoming the head of the postgraduate course. He’s since taken on additional responsibility for the validation and accreditation of LJMU courses with the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences.

As well as his academic duties, Matteo finds fulfilment in providing pastoral care for his students - to him this is the most rewarding aspect of his role in education. He has brought an innovative new approach to supporting his students and embedding practical skills and real-world experience into degree programmes in our School of Biological and Environmental Sciences, pushing students to reach beyond what they thought were their limits and equipping them for their future careers.

One way Matteo has done this is by taking his learning from the higher education sector in Italy and introducing oral examinations for LJMU students.

“One of the major differences I noticed in the UK is that exams are primarily written, unlike Italy where oral examinations are more common. Believing that a scientist can only be described as such when able to disseminate the results of their research in both written and verbal forms, I decided to introduce oral exams in the MSc in Forensic Anthropology.”

Despite students’ initial nerves about presenting in front of their peers, Matteo said almost all of them write letters expressing gratitude for having been pushed beyond their limits.

“I recall a student who had severe anxiety issues. She was allowed to make presentations only in front of me and a colleague, while her classmates had to leave the room. On the day of her final oral exam, she requested to take the exam in front of everyone. It was a personal success for her and a touching moment for me. During the year, thanks to the series of oral exams, after which I provided her with constructive and real-time feedback, she made significant strides in her personal and professional growth, learning to manage her anxiety and overcome fears.”

As well as being an inspirational educator, and an accomplished forensic anthropologist, Matteo is a passionate magician, an interest he inherited from his father. Our academic by day and magician by night, Matteo began practising magic and mentalism in Italy however, he has had more opportunities to perform after moving to the UK. “This country is much more accepting of this art and less judgmental than others.

“I’ve been honoured to perform on stage as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, and in Las Vegas during a meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and to receive several awards over the years, including the Mahatma Challenge Cup in 2015 and 2017 and the Austin Wand for service to the art of magic.

“What I enjoy most about magic is the ability to create illusions that seem impossible, and to tell stories that capture people’s imagination.”

Through his magic Matteo has supported many well-deserving charitable causes such as Care of Police Survivors which takes care of families of police officers who have died in line of duty. Matteo has also taken on key roles in the world of magic in the UK, elected as the first foreign president of the Liverpool Mahatma Magic Circle, a club which has been in existence for more than a century, and was admitted to the Magic Circle of London, the most prestigious association of magicians in the world boasting members including His Majesty King Charles III.

Matteo’s side interests are not limited to magic: he is also a collector of oddities and has a small private ‘wunderkammer’, a cabinet of curiosities that houses ancient objects, natural wonders, and ‘impossible things’ such as a vampire hunting kit, the remains of a mermaid and a mummified fairy. He has showcased these objects in small exhibitions, such as those organised during the Liverpool Light Night cultural festival and presented them as additions to public talks and as a starting point for his magic storytelling.

Now, more than a decade on from moving to Liverpool to work at LJMU, Matteo has fulfilled his dream of becoming a British citizen and says that working for an institution that can trace its roots back for 200 years has really made him feel truly a part of the UK community.

And for those looking to enter the field of forensic anthropology, or to follow a career in academia and education, Matteo has some sage advice: “It's important to ask yourself why you want to pursue higher education. Teaching is a rewarding life of service, where we devote ourselves to passing on our knowledge and passion for a subject to the next generation.

“Forensic anthropology is also a service directed towards both past and future generations. Our focus is on those who have passed away, often as victims of crimes, war or accidents. By bringing justice to them, we provide closure and comfort to their loved ones, who represent the future and continuation of our society.

“Embracing these values as the driving force behind our job and fully embracing them will allow those committed to this career to overcome any difficulty and finally succeed.”