Forensic archaeology

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Forensic archaeology is the application of a combination of archaeological techniques and forensic science, typically in law enforcement.

Forensic archaeologists are employed by police and other agencies to help locate evidence at a crime scene using the skills normally used on archaeological sites to uncover evidence from the past. Forensic Archaeologists are employed to locate, excavate and record buried remains, the variety of such targets is large and each case is unique in its requirements (hence the need to use an experienced professional forensic archaeologist). However whilst the types of target that forensic archaeologists are asked to investigate are diverse the most common can be generally grouped as follows:

  • Buried small items or personal effects from a victim of crime, which may be used to corroborate a statement or contain other evidential value. This group includes evidence buried by a perpetrator of a crime in order to hide their involvement (e.g. weapons, money, mobile phones etc);
  • Potential gravesites, forensic archaeology attempts to locate and recover any human remains whilst also recording all evidence in association with the remains in order to reconstruct events that took place prior to the burial of the victim or victims. The grave may be sought as part of an investigation of an unsolved crime or may in some rare cases result from information gained from an individual already convicted of the crime in the absence of a grave.
  • Surface body disposals where a recent victim has been concealed under fallen walls, tree branches, rubish etc. In this case the application of archaeological stratigraphic recording to the removal of the layers of material concealing the victim can be of great evidential value. The collaboration of a forensic archaeologist, entomologist and forensic botanist in cases of this sort can allow very detailed reconstructions of the timing of the disposal and have in previous cases been decisive in proving a death was not accidental but an intentional criminal act.
  • Mass graves, usually as part of an international organisation's investigation (e.g. The UN) where the recovery of remains is focused on both evidential recovery for future indictments (e.g. The War Crimes indictments in the International Criminal Court) and the identification of individuals remains for surviving relatives which may form a crucial role in reconciliation and breaking the cycles of violence that can continue to occur over generations in such conflicts.

Excavating a grave under archaeological conditions can provide valuable evidence on the time and circumstances of burial, the manner of death, and the tools and techniques used for interment.

Associated disciplines can aid in the fine detail from such investigations, for example the analysis of pollen, plant remains and ash from within a grave by a forensic botanist may allow the reconstruction of the environment a victim has been in prior to their burial in the grave. Similarly a Forensic Entomologist may help with the analysis of insect remains to determine the time of day or year a victim was buried.


Forensic archaeologists participate in both the location and excavation of buried remains, recovering human remains, personal effects, weapons, stolen goods, and other potential evidence of the crime or mishap. Forensic archaeology has developed alongside disciplines including archaeological object conservation, as a knowledge of the chemical and biological processes involved in the degradation of materials (known as taphonomy) is required for both forensic archaeology and archaeological conservation. The forensic archaeologist studies and predicts the survival of items buried within the ground in order to explain the pattern of evidence found, whereas the archaeological conservator studies the same processes in order to stop them further destroying archaeological artifacts. Study of the degradation processes of a human body after death correlates to the survival of associated items and trace evidence (e.g., fingerprints, hairs, DNA, paint flakes, etc.) useful to law enforcement or other authorities.


Forensic archaeologists call upon both a high degree of experience in field craft as well as several technological methods to help locate buried objects. The technological methods employed include geophysical prospection, aerial photography, satellite imagery, and surveying.

When dealing with human remains the traditional disciplines associated with archaeology can also be of benefit to an investigation and the study of osteoarchaeology (the archaeological study of the skeleton). This has led, in the UK, to the adoption of the US field of study of forensic anthropology, which uses the human skeletal remains to help determine the age, sex, height, manner of death etc. of an individual. The addition of techniques from palaeopathology (the study of human skeletal remains to understand the health of individuals in the past) to forensic anthropology has allowed the examination of injuries prior to (ante-mortem), around (peri-mortem), and after (post-mortem) the time of death of a victim as well as helping identify individuals from their medical records.

Prior to the development of forensic archaeology in the mid 1990s, it was more common for police to dig out a grave hurriedly in pursuit of the body without looking more closely at its archaeological context. The use of 1-m grids often led to a confused evidential record with items found in the soil from a grave being associated with several grid numbers instead of labeling the grave soil & body (a context number) and associating items found in the grave (evidence) with that label.

As well as being used in individual criminal cases, forensic archaeologists have been employed by international organizations such as the UN to excavate war crime or genocide graves at several sites in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Iraq. There is also a role in the developing area of Disaster Victim Identification (DVI), where archaeological approaches to large disaster scenes may help with both the correct identification of bodies or body parts and also any later police or other authorities investigation (e.g., terrorist attacks, plane crashes).

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