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What is Forensic Archaeology?

Updated on June 5, 2017
Skulls on a Beach
Skulls on a Beach | Source

Definition of Forensic Archaeology

Forensic Archaeology involves the application of archaeological methods, techniques and principles to forensic crime scene work. It is a relatively new discipline not only to the field of archaeology but also to the criminal justice system. Forensic archaeologists are employed by police to locate, excavate and record buried remains and artifacts at a crime scene. They deal not only with bones and bodies but also may process weapons, clothing, and other evidence long since buried and forgotten by everyone except the offender. Their expertise is well suited to the field of forensics at crime scenes because:

  • They are trained in the science of excavation.
  • They are experienced in the recovery of buried human remains.
  • They are experienced in working with many different specialists including DNA experts and entomologists.
  • They are flexible enough in their methodology to adapt themselves to the varied forensic contexts found in criminal or civil cases.

In Great Britain, forensic archaeology has been a separate discipline for more than a decade and is becoming widely accepted by the British police force. Here in North America, it is still in its infancy. Protocols and methods are proceeding slowly and cautiously and it is slowly gaining respect from law enforcement.

Skills Required by Forensic Archaeologists outside the Parameter of Traditional Archaeology

  • Must have a basic knowledge of law enforcement and legal procedures.
  • Must be able to cooperate with law enforcement personnel.
  • Must be able to conduct investigations under severe time constraints and media attention.
  • Must be able to deal with situations that differ from conventional archaeology such as interments including soft tissue.

Years ago, a law enforcement agency investigated the case where the only crime scene evidence was scattered human bones in a cornfield. Old fashioned police work was tremendously enhanced by the assistance of a forensic archaeologist, resulting in the solving of a double homicide. A murderer was brought to justice and the family of the victims received much needed closure.1

The Three Objectives of a Forensic Archeological investigation

There are three objectives of a forensic archeological investigation.²

1. The comprehension and interpretation of the site’s history after its creation through the deposite of remains (taphonomic events). Taphonomic events are both natural :

  • Surface runoff
  • High levels of animal or insect activity
  • Tree root activity and growth

· and cultural:

  • Digging due to lack of awareness that the location is a crime scene.
  • Dropping of litter or other items unrelated to the crime event.
  • Human traffic that disturbs the original crime scene.

2. Reconstruction of the events that led up to and occurred during the creation of the site and body dump. This is accomplished by:

  • Complete surface collection.
  • Fastidious excavation methods.
  • Detailed documentation and photography at every stage of the investigation.

Because the archaeological processes themselves are so destructive, all precautions must be taken to preserve evidence and context for any ensuing court case.

3. An informed interpretation of the events surrounding the arrival of the deceased at the crime scene which will help resolve the case.

Investigative Methods Used by Forensic Archaeologists

There are generally three stages to forensic archaeological investigations:

1. Reconnaissance locates the site of interest to investigators. It is typically accomplished through

  • walking and visual searches.
  • the use of cadaver locating dogs
  • the use of geophysical detection instruments such as ground penetrating radar which detect ground disturbances.

2. Survey or mapping of the site.

  • through the use of tape measure and compass which creates a plan map or bird's eye view of the area
  • through the use of a digital data recorder that records the site as a three dimensional map allowing data to be recorded with a higher degree of accuracy and detail

3. Excavation of the site. As in traditional archaeology there are key concepts that are important.

  • stratigraphy: distinct layers of soil and material culture are encountered as the dig progresses. The patterns encountered are unique to the site.
  • law of superposition: those layers of soil that are furthest down are the oldest and each successive layer above is younger or more recently deposited. There are instances where there are partial reversals in this pattern but they are rare.

Both of these concepts in excavation are important during a criminal investigation so that context of the remains, personal effects and other evidence is preserved. All material collected is carefully documented. Photographs are taken with a ruler or scale bar placed beside each piece of evidence for better interpretation and later crime scene reconstruction if necessary. After all evidence is collected and catalogued according to the proper chain of command, the site is typically back-filled.

Fieldwork for Forensic Archaeologists

This image is a photograph of a human skeleton found lying in scrub in Western Australia, circa 1900-1910.
This image is a photograph of a human skeleton found lying in scrub in Western Australia, circa 1900-1910. | Source
Katyń war crime
Katyń war crime | Source

Focus of Forensic Archaeologists

Forensic archaeologists typically focus on the following types of cases:³

  1. Potential gravesites as in the case of clandestine burial and murder.
  2. Surface body disposal where bodies have only partially been buried or dislocated skeletal remains have been found.
  3. Retrieval of buried crime artifacts such as personal effects including firearms, drugs or contraband.
  4. Mass graves discovered by UN investigations into war crimes, massacres and genocides.
  5. Civil cases where, for example, identifying markers such as buried walls are important evidence in property disputes.
  6. Cases where there is no legal requirements but remains are located to provide closure to the victims' families.
  7. Recovery of victims from natural disasters such as the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004, and hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005.
  8. Recovery of remains from mass disasters such as plane crashes, bombings and terrorist acts.

In the UK, archaeological evidence was first used in a Crown Court in 1988. Since that time, it has become a recognised resource in War Crime Tribunals and at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Reading Material for those Wanting More Detailed Information

Sources Cited

¹ Getting in Touch with the Forensic Side of Law Enforcement, Police Link. http://policelink.monster.com/education/articles/104172-getting-in-touch-with-the-forensic-side-of-law-enforcement March 14, 2012

² Obledo, Micaela N. Forensic Archaeology in Criminal and Civil Cases. Forensic Magazine. August 1, 2009. http://www.forensicmag.com/article/forensic-archeology-criminal-and-civil-cases?page=0,0 March 14, 2012

³ How forensic archaeology uncovers the truth about the past. Arts and Humanities Research Council. http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/About/Policy/Documents/trackingbackarchaeology.pdf March 14, 2012

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    • Bretsuki profile image

      William Elliott 5 years ago from California USA

      Hello Teresa, thank you for a fascinating hub.

      I once worked on an archaeological dig, It was on a Norman Castle in England. At the time I was looking to study archaeology at Liverpool University. That didn't come about but the year long dig was fascinating.

      Transfer between the roles of forensic science and archaeology now seems so normal it is a wonder it took so long to combine the two scientific areas of study.

      Voted up and awesome.

    • Wib Magli profile image

      Wib Magli 5 years ago from Tennessee and Alabama

      Really good info. Can't be scared to get your hands dirty if you are going to be a forensic archaeologist.

    • ithabise profile image

      Michael S. 5 years ago from Winston-Salem, NC

      A thorough introduction on the subject and very well-written. I'm not a "crimehead"--what I call people into TV crime shows--but I had CSI and others in my head the whole time! This is more interesting though.

    • Shanna11 profile image

      Shanna 5 years ago from Utah

      Ah! This is an awesome article. I wanted to be a Forensic Archaeologist all throughout high school. It still fascinates me today. Voted up!

    • Pannonica profile image

      Pannonica 5 years ago

      Hi Teresa, Thank you for explaining such a tough subject with your easy to understand style. With the modern advances in this field it is comforting to know that those seeking news of loved one's can finally gain closure and the murderers can be bought to justice quicker. Voted up.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I would imagine that the hands on approach is what draws many into the field. It would have great appeal for those of us who love to get out of the office!

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Glad you enjoyed itabise. I on the other hand am definitely a "crimehead". I had great fun writing this hub!

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks for the comment Shanna. Wish I had known more about it before I picked my field of study as well!

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Pannonica, thanks for your visits. I agree that the development of archaeology into the field of crime is a very positive development. Any families of violent crime who can gain closure from the individuals in this field of work will gain some comfort.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Teresa - Terrific, informative, and very interesting Hub.

      My first thought, seriously, "this is way better than CSI!"

      If I believed in reincarnation and could control my destiny, I think I would be torn between being an etymologist and playing with words and being a forensic archeologist and playing with crime scenes. Maybe one could be my day job and one could be my hobby. :) Really enjoyed this. SHARING

    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 5 years ago from Hawaii

      This is such a timely article for me! I just finished up an anthropology project on forensic anthropology. If anyone ever needs a good lesson plan and activity for forensic anthropology, search "mystery cemetery assignment" and you should be able to find it. It was pretty neat!

      Voted up and interesting.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      So happy to have you visit again phdast7 and so glad you enjoyed the hub. If I could do it all over again I'd be joining you on those crime scenes!

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Natashalh, How funny. Your comment is very timely for me as I just finished a companion hub to this one about forensic anthropology. I will check out the cemetary assignment. Thanks so much for the tip!

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Bretsuki, so glad you enjoyed the hub. It must have been a fascinating adventure working on an actual dig! Maybe its not too late to try a new adventure!

    • cebutouristspot profile image

      cebutouristspot 5 years ago from Cebu

      One new thing I have learn with the help of my fellow hubbers here in hubpages. I hope that this new field last as I can see it can have a great deal of application. Today and past event :)

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Teresa, fascinating article, I love archaeology, especially when it concerns digging up fossils of dinosaurs and prehistoric humans. I had heard of forensic archaeology, but didn't know much about it till now, so I really appreciate you sharing this. Thanks. Voted up.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Cebutouristspot and JKenny, thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed the hub, I love writing about this topic!

    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 5 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

      Teresa,

      I learned something new today! Thanks for publishing this very well-written, informative article.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks for the positive feedback Daisy. Glad you enjoyed the hub!

    • brenda12lynette profile image

      brenda12lynette 5 years ago from Utah

      Great hub! I'm currently studying bioarchaeology. I hope in the future I'll be qualified enough to help with forensic cases wherever I end up!

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      brenda, that is so very cool. I wish you luck in your future endeavours and hope you reach your goal of forensic archaeology. Thanks for stopping by to read my hub!

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 5 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      Very interesting and educational!

      Archaeology is a fascinating subject ~ as is forensic archaeology ~ but I think that I'd be a bit too squeamish for the latter :)

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Trish, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

    • Archaeoman profile image

      Archaeoman 5 years ago

      I'm an archaeologist (burial specialist) and this is a great hub! Thanks for the info! Please feel free to follow me (I'm new), I will shortly be publishing archaeology/anthropology related Hubs.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      I will certainly be interested in reading anything archeologically related. Thanks for the wonderful comment, Archaeoman!

    • hockey8mn profile image

      hockey8mn 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Very interesting hub. A great book on forensics is "Death's Acre" by Bill Bass. He helped advance the field into what it is today at the University of Tennessee with his body farm. Voted up and useful.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Glad you enjoyed it hockey8mn. I have read a few books by Bill Bass. It was his work that got me interested in this field. His Body Farm novels are very intriguing as well.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Glad you enjoyed it hockey8mn. I have read a few books by Bill Bass. It was his work that got me interested in this field. His Body Farm novels are very intriguing as well.

    • GlstngRosePetals profile image

      GlstngRosePetals 4 years ago from Wouldn't You Like To Know

      Very well put together hub. A very interesting article, fasinating. I love C.S.I the T.V. show and i never knew there was that many steps for the process. Voted up!!!

    • Teresa Coppens profile image
      Author

      Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      GlstngRosePetals, glad you enjoyed this one. I am a big fan of Kathy Reichs also! She is a great inspiration for girls wanting an interesting science career!

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