Forensic archaeology is the application of a combination of
archaeological techniques and forensic
science, typically in law enforcement.
Forensic archaeologists are employed
by police and other agencies to help locate evidence at a crime scene using the
skills normally used on archaeological sites to uncover evidence from the past.
Forensic Archaeologists are employed to locate, excavate and record buried remains,
the variety of such targets is large and each case is unique in its requirements
(hence the need to use an experienced professional forensic archaeologist). However
whilst the types of target that forensic archaeologists are asked to investigate
are diverse the most common can be generally grouped as follows:
small items or personal effects from a victim of crime, which may be used to corroborate
a statement or contain other evidential value. This group includes evidence buried
by a perpetrator of a crime in order to hide their involvement (e.g. weapons,
money, mobile phones etc);
- Potential gravesites, forensic archaeology
attempts to locate and recover any human remains whilst also recording all evidence
in association with the remains in order to reconstruct events that took place
prior to the burial of the victim or victims. The grave may be sought as part
of an investigation of an unsolved crime or may in some rare cases result from
information gained from an individual already convicted of the crime in the absence
of a grave.
- Surface body disposals where a recent victim has
been concealed under fallen walls, tree branches, rubish etc. In this case the
application of archaeological stratigraphic recording to the removal of the layers
of material concealing the victim can be of great evidential value. The collaboration
of a forensic archaeologist, entomologist and forensic botanist in cases of this
sort can allow very detailed reconstructions of the timing of the disposal and
have in previous cases been decisive in proving a death was not accidental but
an intentional criminal act.
- Mass graves, usually as part of
an international organisation's investigation (e.g. The UN) where the recovery
of remains is focused on both evidential recovery for future indictments (e.g.
The War Crimes indictments in the International Criminal Court) and the identification
of individuals remains for surviving relatives which may form a crucial role in
reconciliation and breaking the cycles of violence that can continue to occur
over generations in such conflicts.
Excavating a grave under
archaeological conditions can provide valuable evidence on the time and circumstances
of burial, the manner of death, and the tools and techniques used for interment.
disciplines can aid in the fine detail from such investigations, for example the
analysis of pollen, plant remains and ash from within a grave by a forensic botanist
may allow the reconstruction of the environment a victim has been in prior to
their burial in the grave. Similarly a Forensic Entomologist may help with the
analysis of insect remains to determine the time of day or year a victim was buried.
archaeologists participate in both the location and excavation of buried remains,
recovering human remains, personal effects, weapons, stolen goods, and other potential
evidence of the crime or mishap. Forensic archaeology has developed alongside
disciplines including archaeological object conservation, as a knowledge of the
chemical and biological processes involved in the degradation of materials (known
as taphonomy) is required for both forensic archaeology and archaeological conservation.
The forensic archaeologist studies and predicts the survival of items buried within
the ground in order to explain the pattern of evidence found, whereas the archaeological
conservator studies the same processes in order to stop them further destroying
archaeological artifacts. Study of the degradation processes of a human body after
death correlates to the survival of associated items and trace evidence (e.g.,
fingerprints, hairs, DNA,
paint flakes, etc.) useful to law enforcement or other authorities.
archaeologists call upon both a high degree of experience in field craft as well
as several technological methods to help locate buried objects. The technological
methods employed include geophysical prospection, aerial photography, satellite
imagery, and surveying.
When dealing with human remains the traditional
disciplines associated with archaeology can also be of benefit to an investigation
and the study of osteoarchaeology (the archaeological study of the skeleton).
This has led, in the UK, to the adoption of the US field of study of forensic
anthropology, which uses the human skeletal remains to help determine the age,
sex, height, manner of death etc. of an individual. The addition of techniques
from palaeopathology (the study of human skeletal remains to understand the health
of individuals in the past) to forensic anthropology has allowed the examination
of injuries prior to (ante-mortem), around (peri-mortem), and after (post-mortem)
the time of death of a victim as well as helping identify individuals from their
Prior to the development of forensic archaeology in the
mid 1990s, it was more common for police to dig out a grave hurriedly in pursuit
of the body without looking more closely at its archaeological context. The use
of 1-m grids often led to a confused evidential record with items found in the
soil from a grave being associated with several grid numbers instead of labeling
the grave soil & body (a context number) and associating items found in the
grave (evidence) with that label.
As well as being used in individual criminal
cases, forensic archaeologists have been employed by international organizations
such as the UN to excavate war crime or genocide graves at several sites in the
former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Iraq. There is also a role in the developing area
of Disaster Victim Identification (DVI), where archaeological approaches to large
disaster scenes may help with both the correct identification of bodies or body
parts and also any later police or other authorities investigation (e.g., terrorist
attacks, plane crashes).