The Inspiring Life of John McIlwaine, Forensic Archaeologist

John McIlwane

John McIlwane (1963-2014). Image via The Times.

During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, 17 people were ‘Disappeared’ – abducted, killed and secretly buried. From exposed mountainsides to peat bogs, John McIlwaine was the Forensic Archaeologist who led the painstaking searches for their remains.

The sudden news of his death at just 51 years old sent shockwaves through the archaeology community. His seemingly endless devotion to his field has inspired many a career, including my own.

Born 14th September 1963 in Hayle, Cornwall, and brought up in Portadown, Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, John grew up during the height of the Troubles. This would influence him for the rest of his life.

Having completed a degree in Archaeology at Lancaster University, John went on to become a skilled field archaeologist, devoting himself to communicating archaeology to a wide audience, particularly adult learners from diverse backgrounds.

The rise of Forensic Archaeology

In 1994, John, employed as Co-ordinator for Continuing and Professional Education, became part of the team in the Department of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Organising conferences, day schools, and training events, John made sure that those interested in learning had the opportunities available to them, and as funding declined, John began to get involved in the teaching side himself.

It was around this time that John began to investigate how archaeological field techniques could be used to aid forensic recovery and investigation. He developed links within police forces, taking part in active investigations and soon launched an MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation, covering laboratory and field techniques involved in forensic investigation and the recovery of human remains.

Fiendish practicals

An inspiring lecturer, John delivered an intense course, broken up by his direct, stark humour. Lectures were only the beginning1. His students had to be able to apply what they had learned, developing practical as well as theoretical skills.

(Read more about Forensic Archaeology).

Dr Emma Brown recalled that he ‘enjoyed developing fiendish practical’s for the FACSI students. He had a particular flare for it’. With stolen cars,  domestic house scenes, and aeroplane recovery scenes, John was inventive like no other. His students will remember body recovery scenes in the woods, using‘police’ information to locate a plastic skeleton, buried in years previous by John. As we would dig away, freezing cold in the middle of Winter, exasperated after hours of digging, John would smirk and call over ‘keep looking’; he trained his students for the realities of forensic archaeology.

Finding the Disappeared

In 2006, John began working with the Independent Commission for the Location of Victim Remains in Ireland, whose role was to gather information relating to those who went missing at the hands of the IRA during the troubles.

John led the teams that went on to recover the remains of Danny McIlhone in 2008 and Charlie Armstrong in 2010. John recalled his time digging in Ireland at temperatures of -15 degrees. Faced with bleak weather conditions, when asked if work would go ahead, John’s response would be ‘that’s what we came here for’.

(Read more of John’s experiences).

And that was John’s attitude to everything he did. He cared deeply for his work, always reminding himself and his team that they were looking for a person. He would get to know the families of the deceased, making the work all the more personal. John was not in it for fame or recognition, but because he sought to bring someone their loved ones home.

“Always stop and have a cup of tea before a crime scene”

The first instruction we ever received from John was to stop and have a cup of tea before doing anything. Baffled, we questioned why on earth you would stop for tea before entering a crime scene? John informed us, in his typical blasé manner that you should always take a minute to process the information you have received, take a step back from the scene and think of the bigger picture. This was the way that John approached everything in life – with careful consideration.

The loss of John McIlwaine to the field of forensic archaeology is incomparable and he will be greatly missed by all that knew him, and those who were blessed to receive his help in recovering
their loved ones.

(Read more about the life and achievements of John McIlwaine).

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Written by Sarah Ashbridge

Office monkey by day, forensic archaeologist by night, Sarah Ashbridge is a jack-of-all-trades and the master of one: the forensic identification the War Dead. She trained originally as an Egyptologist, but interests in the history of death and burial saw her make the step into archaeology, completing an MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation at the University of Bradford. Armed with an ever-increasing library of books, a handful of illustration pens and a brand new trowel, Sarah writes our regular #WWWednesday column, working towards her PhD in Forensic Archaeology.

Read more from Sarah Ashbridge +

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