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Excavating a Body: Process and Factors to Consider

Once a grave site has been located and recorded, the body or bodies need to be excavated. Dr Rebecca Gowland discusses the process.
A forensic anthropologist explains a grave site with a body partially excavated to a group of students
© Durham University

Once a grave site has been located, photographed and recorded, the body needs to be exhumed. To ensure that excavation of the body is accurate and complete, several factors need to be considered.

  • Excavators need to have a knowledge of basic osteology (it is often best to involve an anthropologist as well as an archaeologist).
  • Excavators should be aware of the specific difficulties involved when excavating infant and juvenile remains.
  • Please note that ‘extra’ bones may sometimes be present. For example, extra ribs, vertebrae, or sesamoid bones (small round bones) in the hands or feet.
  • Other hard tissues may also be associated with the skeleton; for example, calcified thyroid cartilage (see below), cysts or kidney stones.

Image showing two small squares of bone and a rounded piece of bone. This is in fact cartilage (from the neck area) that has become calcified Ossified thyroid and cricoid cartilage (from the neck area)

  • It is easy to damage a skeleton when excavating, so it’s important to be very careful and to ensure that your own body is not overlaying any part of the skeleton, even when it is still covered with soil.

A forensic archaeologist carefully excavates a skeleton A forensic archaeologist carefully excavates a skeleton.

Recording the Bodies

Bodies should be uncovered and photographed in situ (in the grave). Personal effects associated with bodies should be labelled accordingly so that they can later be re-associated in the laboratory.

Each body should be given a unique number. It is helpful to bag and label right and left limbs, right and left ribs, and so forth, separately at the point of excavation. This can be particularly helpful with those bones (such as the hand phalanges) that can be difficult to side in the lab, or with the bones of infants. This is also helpful when dealing with very fragmentary skeletons as it may not be possible to determine bone side in the lab in such cases. All bags must be carefully labelled with the skeleton ID number as well as other information relating to the site and grave context.

Skeletons can sometimes look well preserved in the ground, but then break when they are lifted. In such cases it is useful to record as much information as possible when the body is in situ. Once the skeleton is exposed, it’s important that it is protected from the elements, such as bad weather, during excavation to prevent further damage. Usually a tent or marquee is erected around the grave site to help protect the area.

In mass graves, limbs can become entangled and the bodies are likely to have undergone decomposition and potential disturbance (e.g. from animals/tree roots whilst buried, or through later episodes of body deposition). It is therefore essential to precisely record the body position within the grave and to ensure that bodies are not mixed during the excavation process. If bodies are mixed during excavation, this can seriously compromise the later analysis in the lab. It is also important to note that bodies are not always laid out in a neat, extended fashion. They may be face down, with arms and legs in a haphazard position, or they may be disarticulated. This is all important information for interpreting the manner of death and burial.

The skeleton of an individual buried in a prone, flexed position The skeleton of an individual buried in a prone, flexed position.

On the first cemetery site that I worked on, which was of Roman date, I was excavating the burial of a child. He/she had no skull, which I assumed was because the body had been disturbed or damaged as the burial was shallow, but then I discovered the skull between the child’s thighs. This was a burial rite sometimes used in Roman Britain (the precise reasons why are unknown) and in this instance it is likely that the decapitation had happened after death and not before.

Recording should be detailed throughout the excavation and individual bodies should be ‘mapped’ three-dimensionally using GPS. Scanning and photogrammetry are now being used routinely during excavation to help record the position of bones/limbs and associated personal effects/artefacts three-dimensionally. These contribute towards understanding the sequence and circumstances of deposition.

In situ recording needs to be very detailed. Even the position of the bones within a skeleton can reveal something about the mode of deposition. For example, in a body that was tightly wrapped at burial, the clavicles (collar bones) will decompose in a more vertical orientation than a body that was not. As discussed in Week 1, the skeletal elements may be positioned slightly differently in a skeleton buried in a void (i.e. coffin) compared to one in just an earth grave. Careful excavation can, therefore, reveal lots of ‘invisible’ information about the burials.

All grave fill should be retained for appropriate sieving and sampling – it’s easy to miss small bones or objects.

If DNA analysis is to be undertaken, then steps to reduce contamination from the excavators’ DNA must occur at the excavation stage (see Week 5).

Recording the Grave

The practicalities of retrieving the body or bodies may result in the destruction of the grave cut- particularly if the grave is deep. The grave cut must be properly recorded as excavation progresses because it can provide important and relevant information. The edges of the grave cut may reveal the tools used. During the excavation of a grave, it is important to keep the following in mind:

  • Look for ‘trace evidence’. For example, paint can transfer from the tools used to dig the grave onto stones or objects within the fill.
  • Footprints may be preserved beneath the body.
  • Once the body is removed and the grave cut is recorded further excavation should take place because personal effects (e.g. earrings) may ‘migrate’ beneath the cut.
  • Due to the detailed level of recording, the excavation of mass graves can result in a substantial amount of data. Standardised recording forms are often completed electronically in the field during excavation.

A skeleton is being carefully excavated Two individuals excavate a skeleton, exposing some personal effects.

Excavation Guidelines

There are published guidelines for excavating mass graves and these protocols should be used as a starting point. Excavation can be a slow process, especially if the weather or physical environment is challenging. Furthermore, the excavation and analysis of human remains from mass violence contexts can generate a significant amount of material and evidence. Arrangements and facilities for the storage, curation and analysis of this material needs to be fully considered and resourced for the duration.

Having a Forensic Anthropologist On-Site.

It is vital when excavating grave sites to have the correct expertise to hand. A forensic anthropologist is familiar with the skeleton, how it should look, the degree of normal human variation, the presence of additional calcified structures and small bones and teeth. The likelihood of successful retrieval of all individuals, and in the case of mass graves, the correct reconstitution of human skeletons are all greatly improved if an osteologist is present. Please look at this helpful guide The Role of the Human Osteologist in Archaeological Fieldwork Projects for a more detailed explanation. Whilst these books are focused on archaeological rather than forensic contexts, many of the principles remain the same with respect to excavation and recovery.


  • Techniques of archaeological excavation are extremely well suited to crime scene investigation
  • Excavation is destructive and non-repeatable, therefore, it is crucial to maximise evidence
  • Detailed recording of the skeleton and in situ observations by an anthropologist can provide important additional information
  • The timely use of archaeologists and anthropologists could also save time and money
© Durham University
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