What is Forensic Archaeology?
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
Focus of Forensic Archaeologists
Forensic archaeologists typically focus on the following types of cases:³
- Potential gravesites as in the case of clandestine burial and murder.
- Surface body disposal where bodies have only partially been buried or dislocated skeletal remains have been found.
- Retrieval of buried crime artifacts such as personal effects including firearms, drugs or contraband.
- Mass graves discovered by UN investigations into war crimes, massacres and genocides.
- Civil cases where, for example, identifying markers such as buried walls are important evidence in property disputes.
- Cases where there is no legal requirements but remains are located to provide closure to the victims' families.
- Recovery of victims from natural disasters such as the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004, and hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005.
- 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.
Read About Cases from Around the World involving Forensic Archaeologists
- Crime Museum UK - Discovery Channel Welsh Cave Murder
Martin Kemp introduces us to a grisly world of gothic tales of crime and forensic detection. In Police Crime Museums all over Europe there are items of evidence that have brought some of the world’s worst criminals to justice.
- The Archaeology of Battlefields
A pioneer in the field discusses a new way to investigate warfare.
- Criminal Investigations A Forensic Archeology Case Study from Connecticut
R ecent state legislation in Connecticut has provided for professional archeological involvement when unmarked burials are accidentally encountered during construction and other land-altering activities or as a result of c e m e t e ry vandalism. As
- Using forensic archaeology to find the Disappeared
Nine bodies of the people known as the Disappeared remain unfound but advances in technology alongside traditional methods means fresh hope for their families. Forensic archaeologists work alongside the Independent Commission for the Location of Vic
- Witness to Genocide
Forensic archaeologists uncover evidence of a secret massacre-- and help convict Saddam Hussein of crimes against humanity
Reading Material for those Wanting More Detailed Information
Educational Programs Providing Training in Forensic Archaeology
- MSc Forensic Archaeology, Crime Scene & International Investigations, Bournemouth University
MSc Forensic Archaeology, Crime Scene & International Investigations
Read my Related Hub on 'How to Become an Archaeologist'
- How to Become an Archaeologist
When people say archaeology, most people think of buried treasure and Indiana Jones. Archaeology isn't about fame and danger, but about learning about people in the past.So, you want to be an archaeologist! Read on and explore: What is Archeology? Wh
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