Two people being instructed by another about how to use a geophysical technique
Instruction in geophysics.

Summary of the Week

This week we’ve covered a lot of different elements. We’ve taken a look at what happens to the body once it’s in the ground and the multitude of factors that can impact the preservation of a body. We’ve learned that estimating the post-mortem interval can be extremely challenging because of these different factors and the many ways that they can interact with each other and the body.

Contrary to popular opinion, the body doesn’t easily dissolve without a trace in the ground. Indeed, it’s surprisingly difficult to completely get rid of a body! The skeleton is particularly robust and can survive in the ground for even thousands of years in some circumstances. It’s important to note that the skeletons of infants and children can also survive very well. While their bones may be smaller, they can still preserve in the ground for a long time.

We’ve covered a variety of techniques for helping to locate grave sites. This can be challenging, but usually in forensic circumstances there is some local intelligence/witness testimony that can help to narrow down the search parameters. A variety of other survey techniques, from desk top survey, to field walking, aerial survey, cadaver dogs and geophysics can all provide relatively quick and non-intrusive means of exploring large areas with relative speed. Often it is best to employ multiple survey techniques because they each provide different and complementary information to help interpretation.

We’ve discussed the excavation process and the skills required to carefully excavate a grave site whilst maintaining a detailed and accurate record of the site. There are a variety of field guides available to help this process. We also emphasised how crucial it is to have a forensic anthropologist involved in these excavations to maximise evidence retrieval. If not, then vital information can be lost. There is a lot of additional information that can be collected from the in situ recording of human remains and the position of the different skeletal elements. Unless the excavator is working with someone with osteological training, some of these subtleties can be lost and interpretations compromised.

We ended the week by having a look at new methods of recording forensic evidence, which are quick, accurate and non-contact. We explored this new research and saw how we can gain additional understanding of our forensic evidence by analysing and viewing it in three-dimensions.

Next week: The bodies have been located and the skeletal remains excavated and transported to the lab. We’ll take a look at the next stage of analysis - the osteoprofile.

Do you have any thoughts about any of the content from this week or looking ahead to next week that you’d like to share? If so, then please add them to the comments section below.

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This article is from the free online course:

Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology

Durham University