F is for… Forensic Archaeology

So you’re interested in Forensic Archaeology? No doubt you’ve seen one of those crime scene TV shows where people who examine murder victims and attempt to piece together the story of how they died from their still fleshy remains. For me, that’s all far too gooey.

Thankfully, the focus of archaeological studies have usually been dead a good deal longer. But, with their skills in uncovering and piecing together past events, forensic archaeologists are often called into modern criminal investigations and, even without looking at all the fleshy stuff, there’s an awful lot they can tell…

What exactly is forensic archaeology?

In the 70s and 80s, the police began turning to archaeologists for help with certain types of crime-scene evidence – usually clandestine burials of murder victims. Since then, the field has grown rapidly and archaeologists often help with investigations into mass killings in modern warfare. So it’s not just about long dead bodies. Today, forensic archaeology is simply the application of archaeological techniques to help criminal investigators find, recover and understand evidence scattered on the surface or suspected to be buried, to get evidence not just from human remains, but also from drugs, guns or stolen goods found at crime scenes, whether recent or decades old.

Hunting down the evidence

A forensic archaeologist’s first task is often to help the police find the site where a body or other criminal evidence (such as stolen goods) is buried. They might use techniques such as geophysical survey, or look for clues like loosened or less compact soil, small mounds, or soil scattered over surrounding vegetation or other subtle signs that the ground has been recently disturbed. But evidence isn’t always buried. Decomposition, scavenging by animals and insects, rain, wind, tides and other natural processes can all scatter evidence across the surface – archaeologists can also help police locate surface evidence and reconstruct the original scene through an understanding of these events.

Recovering the evidence

In a forensic investigation, an archaeologist may be called to excavate a grave. But, before that can begin, all surface evidence must be documented and collected. Surface evidence can include plants, insects, objects such as clothing or a weapon, and human remains. Once excavation begins, it continues until the whole grave is emptied: the aim is not only to recover the human remains, but also any other evidence that might explain who the individual was and what happened to them.

Making sense of it all

Ah, the juicy bit! So just how do we piece together all these clues to work out what a crime scene means? Interpretation focuses on a few key areas, including: provenance (where the evidence came from vs. where it was found); time since deposition (how long since death or burial); and site formation (how everything came to be there). To illustrate this, imagine a skull found at the back of a cave. How did it get there? While it could have been the crime scene itself, the skull could also have been taken there by a scavenger or washed up by the tide. The most obvious or logical explanation isn’t necessarily the right one and the forensic archaeologist will have a key role in determining which it was. Likewise, forensic archaeologists can use knowledge of how materials degrade or decompose to work out how long a body or other evidence has been buried. state of fabrics, soft tissues, but they must always take into account things that affect the rate of decomposition, such as temperature, humidity, altitude, scavengers and local plants and soil conditions.

So, how did the individual die?

Some causes of death are harder to spot than others, for instance it is far more difficult to identify death by virus or disease than death by physical wound. The pathology of a virus or disease can sometimes be identified by looking at bones. Diseases such as Tuberculosis can leave distinct evidence on bones, but they can be elusive and difficult to detect. On the other hand, evidence of having one’s head chopped off is fairly hard to miss! An arrow head lodged in the spine is also quite an easy one to spot as was a contribution to the death of Ötzi the Iceman over 5000 years ago. We can even tell if a wound started healing before the victim died; if bone shows signs of healing, they survived for some time after the incident. So, as much as gooey bits may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is truly fascinating what can be discovered by forensic investigation!

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Written by Holly-Mae Steane Price

Holly-Mae is an archaeologist with a big love for Community Archaeology, and Australia.

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