People excavating some mock burials as part of a training course in forensic archaeology. The cast skeletons are partially exposed
Kiev, military history museum. ICRC forensics training on the search for and recovery of human remains (Photographer Maxym Levin).

Background to Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology

Archaeology is a discipline that seeks to explore the past through the excavation and analysis of the material remains of the people who lived there. Forensic science, however, is concerned with the present rather than the past. This leads to confusion regarding the relevance of archaeology for the police and criminal courts. In fact, there are a range of specialist skills that archaeologists have that are directly applicable to forensic contexts. Archaeological techniques have developed over several centuries and are ideally suited to crime scenes. For example, archaeologists are experts at ‘reading’ landscapes (e.g. vegetation and topography). They therefore have excellent skills in finding the graves sites of missing people.

The excavation of a grave site and the processing of a crime scene are destructive activities. It is therefore essential to make a detailed record during excavation. Archaeologists are trained to produce an in-depth three-dimensional paper and digital archive of the relationships between different objects and bodies in the ground as they excavate. Archaeologists are also experts at ensuring that all buried items and bodies/body parts are fully recovered. They are trained to interpret buried objects and their position in relation to other human-made (e.g. trench for a drain) or natural features (tree roots). Using this information they can build a picture of the sequence in which different objects were buried.

Anthropology focuses on the body, and in burial contexts this usually means the skeleton. It is possible to learn a huge amount about a person from their skeleton, such as their sex, the age they were when they died, their height and their health. New research is also providing information on diet and migration. Techniques for determining the cause of death of an individual are also being improved through research. Anthropologists can help to estimate the amount of time that has passed since the individual died (known as the Post-Mortem Interval) by analysing the amount of decomposition

Forensic anthropologists working with the ICRC to examine a human skeleton laid out on a lab table Mexico City. Forensic experts analyze a human skeleton during a training organized by the ICRC (Photographer Jesús Cornejo, Copyright ICRC)

History of archaeology and anthropology in forensic contexts

Archaeological techniques have only been used quite recently at crime scenes. In the UK, during the early 1990’s, police started to use archaeological expertise at relevant scenes of crime. For example, the excavation of the garden of the serial killers Fred and Rose West to retrieve the remains of their victims. This case acted as a catalyst for the application of archaeological techniques to other forensic contexts.

During the late 1990’s archaeologists and anthropologists were also employed on a much larger scale to help investigate mass graves from the conflict in the Balkans. Here, they worked alongside police and other forensic experts to excavate victims from the conflict. The recovered bodies were analysed for evidence of war crimes (see case study on Forensic Anthropology in Kosovo).

The use of archaeologists and anthropologists to investigate forensic cases has occurred in South America as early as the 1980’s. Here they worked alongside other experts to investigate the ‘disappeared’ in countries such as Argentina and Chile.

A skeleton being laid out on a table in a lab by a person wearing gloves Bogota, Colombia. The Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal y Ciencias Forenses is responsible for the forensic identification of human remains. The ICRC actively support these efforts. (Photographer, Christoph von Toggenburg, Copyright ICRC)

In many parts of the world today archaeologists and anthropologists are being trained to work in post-conflict countries. They help to find and identify the remains of people who went missing during periods of violence. It is important for the families of those missing to learn the fate of their loved ones. The International Committee of the Red Cross works in many countries who have experienced war in order to find missing people.

Forensic anthropologists working for the ICRC Mexico City. A forensic expert analyzes a human skeleton during a training organized by the ICRC (Photographer Jesús Cornejo, Copyright ICRC)

Today, forensic anthropologists and archaeologists work on a range of contexts, including:

  • natural disasters

  • aeroplane crashes

  • the location and excavation of mass graves from post-conflict countries

  • missing persons cases

  • the recovery and identification of unidentified bodies.

We’ll discuss examples and the challenges of different forensic contexts as the course progresses.

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This article is from the free online course:

Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology

Durham University