How to Find a Body
Desk-top SurveyExamine the likely locations of grave sites online using programmes such as Google Earth and ordnance survey maps. The location of grave sites will take into account factors such as topography, vegetation, soil type, and access. For example, research on the location of victims from the Spanish Civil war graves has highlighted a pattern of burial between 1 to 10km from the place they were detained and almost always within 100 metres of a principal road (Salado Puerto and Tuller 2017). It is not easy to move a dead body far without some form of vehicle.
Aerial SurveyOnce likely locations have been identified, large areas can be quickly surveyed from the air. An aerial perspective is important for providing a clear view of changes in vegetation that may indicate the presence of a grave. The use of drones is recommended today, but the exploration of satellite images/Google Earth has also been used to identify grave sites, for example with the Satellite Sentinel Project. Comparison of historical survey images with recent ones can be useful for identifying possible grave sites.
Satellite ImageryThis has been extensively tested in forensic investigations. It is based on the interaction between the sun’s radiation and features on the earth, which reflect or absorb light in different ways. Multi-sensors can analyse the infra-red, ultraviolet and thermal signals emitted to detect anomalies.
Field-walking SurveyField-walking is a long-established tool for locating archaeological sites and is also useful for forensic contexts. Field-walking should proceed in a systematic way and can be useful for identifying likely areas of grave sites due to changes in vegetation/topography and associated material remains. If bodies are buried in the ground and the soil replaced, there tends to be disturbance over the grave because of the addition of the body. This can lead to changes in vegetation over the grave, or changes in topography (surface height). When a body is placed in a grave and the soil removed from the grave cut placed on top, it creates a mound that is higher than the surrounding area because of the presence of the body. This may make the grave visible. If the perpetrator attempts to conceal surface anomalies by spreading some of the grave soil elsewhere, when the body decomposes the surface level will sink into the grave. This also then becomes visible as an anomaly.
Want to keep
Durham University online course,
Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology
Cadaver DogsSpecially trained cadaver dogs have been usefully employed to locate bodies for many decades. Usually a likely area is first augured (i.e. the ground penetrated to release odours). The dogs can detect bodies many months after death. Trained cadaver dogs can identify mass graves even many years after burial. The Durham police dog unit were able to detect spots of blood on a door that had subsequently been painted over. They are remarkable creatures! Whilst cadaver dogs have long been used to search for human remains, it is only recently that there has been research into the following key questions:
- what precisely are the dogs are smelling?
- how long after death and burial can the dogs still detect a body?
Geophysical SurveyThis refers to a variety of non-destructive techniques used to survey an area with the aim of detecting sub-surface anomalies.
- Graves can create detectable geophysical anomalies
- Bodies can create detectable geophysical anomalies, especially in the early weeks after burial
- Items within graves can create detectable geophysical anomalies (e.g. firearms, belts, jewellery etc).
Because this is a technique that is being used increasingly in forensic contexts to locate bodies, further information has been provided in the next article by Duncan Hale who is an expert in Geophysics at Archaeological Services Durham University. Move on to the next step to find out more!The optimum way of proceeding in any search for grave-sites is to use multiple techniques together, as each of them contribute slightly different information. Have you heard of these techniques before? Are any of them new to you? Please add any points you wish in the comments section below.
ReferenceSalado-Puerto, M. and Tuller, H. 2017. Large-scale forensic investigation into the missing: challenges and considerations. Forensic Science International 279: 219-228.
Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology
Our purpose is to transform access to education.
We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.
We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.