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Forensic archaeology involves the utilization and adaptation of traditional archaeological methods for locating, documenting, and recovering human remains and associated evidence from a full range of medicolegal scene contexts. While forensic archaeology developed within the field of forensic anthropology, the application of field methods lagged behind the development of forensic anthropology laboratory methods for skeletal identification. However, proper field methods are now routinely used for various contexts involving recoveries of human remains. At the same time, forensic archaeologists routinely improve field methods through research and provide training to law enforcement personnel and various death investigators.
- Brief History of Forensic Archaeology
- Working in a Medicolegal Context
- Forensic Archaeology Methods
- Searching for Skeletal Remains Deposited on the Ground Surface
- Searching for a Clandestine Grave
- Recovering and Excavating Human Remains
- Applications of Forensic Archaeology
- Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command
- Mass Fatality Incident
- Human Rights and Mass Graves
- Forensic Archaeology Training
- Forensic Archaeology Research
Forensic archaeologists routinely use archaeological field methods when recovering human remains from various medicolegal scene contexts including large mass graves and mass fatality scenes. While this discipline developed within the field of forensic anthropology, the development of laboratory methods for skeletal identification occurred before the development and integration of field methods. However, numerous forensic anthropologists realized that a more comprehensive field recovery was needed as it provided added benefits to the laboratory analysis. Forensic archaeology is now a robust discipline that utilizes and adapts traditional archaeological methods for locating, documenting, and recovering human remains and associated evidence. Furthermore, forensic archaeologists are often involved in improving this discipline through training of law enforcement personnel and research involving improved field methods.
Brief History of Forensic Archaeology
While forensic anthropology has traditionally been a lab-based forensic science, the majority of practicing forensic anthropologists now stress that archaeological methods should be incorporated when recovering human remains. More recently, forensic archaeology has been described as a key development within forensic anthropology (Dirkmaat et al., 2008). However, forensic archaeology methods did not develop at the same pace as laboratory methods for skeletal analysis. The emphasis of incorporating archaeological methods when processing scenes with skeletal remains originated, and was continued, by forensic anthropologists with field experience because they recognized the invaluable contributions that the field component could provide to the skeletal analysis. This initial momentum in applying forensic archaeology methods to process crime scenes involving human skeletal remains and decomposing bodies appears to have begun in the 1970s when a number of publications, including those authored by prominent forensic anthropologists, stressed the important contribution that archeological field methods could provide when processing these scenes (e.g., Morse et al., 1976; Bass and Birkby, 1978; Kerley, 1978; Ubelaker, 1978; Rhine, 1979). These early publications stressed that scene reconstruction involved proper field methods with proper collection and documentation of remains.
While not universally accepted by all forensic anthropologists, forensic archaeology methods were becoming more accepted in the 1980s. These publications included forensic anthropologists and archaeologists emphasizing the application of forensic archaeology field methods as a service that could, and should, be provided to law enforcement and death investigators (e.g., Snow, 1982; Berryman and Lahren, 1984; Wolf, 1986; Brooks and Brooks, 1984; Levine et al., 1984; Morse et al., 1983; Sigler-Eisenberg, 1985). At the same time, the first forensic archaeology manuals were published, which provided step-by-step approaches to proper field methods (Morse et al., 1983; Skinner and Lazenby, 1983). While there were many forensic anthropologists that advocated the use of forensic archaeology methods, Dirkmaat and Cabo (2012) assert that forensic archaeology had remained a peripheral endeavor as the majority of forensic cases received by forensic anthropologists were in a box after the remains were collected by law enforcement, which had not utilized proper archaeological methods.
During the 1990s and 2000s, a large number of important publications (e.g., Connor and Scott, 2001; Dirkmaat and Adovasio, 1997; Haglund, 2001; Haglund et al., 2001; Hoshower, 1998; Scott and Connor, 1997; Skinner et al., 2003; Stover and Ryan, 2001) including additional field manuals in the US and Great Britain (Connor, 2007; Dupras et al., 2006; Hunter et al., 1996; Killam, 1990) discussed why forensic archaeology methods should be implemented for various contexts involving human remains, including human rights investigations. At the same time, forensic anthropology textbooks and manuals started including a more detailed forensic archeology chapter (e.g., Byers, 2002; Burns, 1999). This proliferation of publications is a clear indication that archaeological methods had become accepted within the forensic community. At the same time, investigators also realized the additional benefits of incorporating forensic archaeology methods which included establishing the chain of custody at the beginning of the investigation, providing a more comprehensive trauma analysis, and the reconstruction of past events at the scene (Dirkmaat and Cabo, 2012).
Working in a Medicolegal Context
While traditional archaeology and forensic archaeology both “seek to protect the physical and spatial integrity of potential evidence and remains” (Haglund, 2001: 28), it is important to recognize the differences between the two disciplines. Most importantly, forensic archaeology differs from traditional archaeology because the discipline involves working in a medicolegal context. The forensic archaeologist must be concerned with issues such as rules of evidence, chain of custody, possible court testimony, and their work can be subjected to legal scrutiny (Haglund, 2001). The forensic archaeologist may have a number of constraints when performing recoveries such as foul weather, the media, limited time to perform an excavation for various reasons, and decomposing soft tissues (Schultz and Dupras, 2008; Dupras et al., 2011). For example, the forensic archaeologist may have to perform a recovery regardless of rainy, hot, or cold weather conditions.
Although the field techniques are generally similar between forensic archaeology and traditional archaeology, the recovery goals normally differ (Connor and Scott, 2001). Traditional archaeology is undertaken to answer specific research questions. Conversely, the goal of forensic archaeology is to document the scene and all evidence because it may be useful at a later time. In addition, since forensic archaeologists work under a medicolegal paradigm, rather than an anthropological paradigm, evidence is used to reconstruct single events, and not broad patterns of human behavior (Connor and Scott, 2001). However, the application of proper scene methods allows the forensic archaeologist to understand and interpret the prolonged history of crime scene transformation or change (Skinner et al., 2003). At the same time, it is important to stress that forensic archaeologists must normally adapt and have flexible strategies with their archaeological approach by tailoring archaeological methods for each type of scene (Hoshower, 1998).
Forensic Archaeology Methods
Forensic archaeology methods begin with the search for surface depositions and clandestine graves, and if needed, searches will incorporate multiple methods (Dupras et al., 2011; Schultz and Dupras, 2008). Investigators generally begin with nondestructive methods when searching for surface depositions and clandestine graves to preserve evidence and context of the scene. After nondestructive methods have been exhausted without the success of locating a grave, personnel can then employ a number of destructive methods. At the same time, while nondestructive methods are initially used to locate an area containing a possible grave, a destructive follow-up method is needed to confirm that a grave is actually detected. In addition, while the primary goal of a search is to locate skeletal remains on the ground surface, a clandestine grave, or associated evidence, searches are equally important to clear an area so investigations can be directed to other areas. After the scattered skeleton or grave is located, it is important for the scene to be processed and documented using proper archaeological methods.
Searching for Skeletal Remains Deposited on the Ground Surface
When searching for scattered skeletal remains on the ground surface, searches should be performed in a controlled manner rather than investigators walking over the ground surface without following a particular pattern. At the same time, proper search strategies are used to delineate site boundaries, to locate the primary depositional site, to locate skeletal remains that have been scattered, and to determine the original body position (Dupras et al., 2011; Schultz and Dupras, 2008). Searches normally begin with nondestructive methods such as pedestrian searches and the use of cadaver dogs. For example, a pedestrian search involves personnel searching specific areas while walking side-by-side in a straight line. Larger areas will be divided into more manageable smaller areas that will be searched separately. This search method provides 100% coverage of an area when performed by properly trained personnel. Evidence of a possible body deposited on the ground surface can include a number of characteristics: skeletal remains and soft tissue, clothing and personal objects, decomposition odor, brush or loose trash placed over remains for concealment, animal activity and scavenging, and materials used for wrapping a body (Dupras et al., 2011; Schultz and Dupras, 2008).
Skeletal remains that have been deposited in outdoor environments are most often disarticulated and dispersed due to a number of environmental variables that can include carnivore activity, gravity, human activity, and fluvial (water) transport (Dupras et al., 2011; Schultz and Dupras, 2008). Proper search strategies for locating scattered skeletal remains should consider the method of dispersal. For example, if skeletal elements were scattered because a body was deposited on an incline and skeletal elements traveled downhill because of gravity, investigators should search along the incline and at the bottom of the incline. It is also common for carnivores to disarticulate and scatter skeletal elements. After cleaning the area containing the primary deposit and mapping the visible elements, the forensic archaeologist can perform an inventory of the skeleton to determine the elements that are missing. It may then be possible to locate additional skeletal elements and teeth by determining the pattern of dispersal, which may indicate a direction that carnivores scattered the elements (Dupras et al., 2011; Schultz and Dupras, 2008). Investigators can then begin searching for additional bones along the paths of dispersal and expanding out from those areas.
Searching for a Clandestine Grave
Searches for clandestine graves can be more difficult to locate because a body would have been buried to conceal its location. Personnel should begin searches with nondestructive methods, such as a pedestrian search, by looking for surface features of a grave that are consistent with digging and concealing a body (Dupras et al., 2011; Schultz and Dupras, 2008). A number of common surface features associated with the burial process include excess mounds of soil, or a mounded area, resulting from displacement of soil due to the body. Digging around the grave may be evident because additional soil was needed to cover the body. Soil color changes, with an absence of vegetation growth, can be noted due to the intermixing of soil horizons comprising different colors. There can also be an increase of vegetation growth in the area of the grave. A primary burial depression, with or without a smaller secondary depression, may occur. It may also be possible to locate a burial from evidence of animal digging and the subsequent disturbance of the remains. In addition, brush piles should also be investigated to determine if brush and tree branches were purposely used to conceal the location of a burial.
Additional nondestructive methods used for detecting a burial include cadaver dogs and geophysical methods. Geophysical surveys are commonly conducted to search for buried bodies and evidence. The majority of geophysical tools used for forensic and archaeological contexts are nondestructive methods that are used to locate and map buried features or objects, such as a grave, without disturbing the ground and scene context. When using a geophysical tool for a search, the application of the method would be used to highlight smaller areas within a much larger search area. These smaller areas would then require limited invasive testing of specific areas, rather than the entire site.
Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) has become the most common geophysical tool used for detection of clandestine graves (Dupras et al., 2011; Schultz, 2007; Schultz and Dupras, 2008) as controlled research has determined it to be the most successful tool used to delineate clandestine graves (France et al., 1997). All of the components of a GPR unit can be cart-mounted and pushed throughout a search area using a grid. The antenna is an interchangeable component, and antenna selection is generally based on soil type and size of the target. The GPR operates by emitting electromagnetic pulses into the ground from the antenna (Dupras et al., 2011; Schultz, 2007; Schultz and Dupras, 2008). As the electromagnetic wave travels through the subsurface, it will be refracted and reflected as it encounters contrasting items and surfaces in the subsurface. The returning wave is then recorded on the monitor of the unit and buried features in the subsurface are recorded as anomalies or reflections. However, these are nonspecific features noted on the imagery that are recognized as a localized area of contrasting properties in the soil. As a result, investigators can sometimes use scene context to determine the origin of a reflection, such as proximity to a tree may indicate detection of tree roots. However, the only reliable method to determine the specific item producing the feature is to perform a destructive follow-up method such as testing the area with a T-bar probe or a shovel test pit. There are drawbacks when using a geophysical tool as scene characteristics such as soil type are a consideration, and clear, flat, and open areas are more desirable for a survey. While the success of a GPR survey is somewhat dependent on scene characteristics, GPR is an optimal search tool when performing a search over a hardpacked surface, such as concrete or pavement, without destruction of the surface as reported by a number of successful case studies (Davenport, 2001; Dupras et al., 2011; Schultz, 2007). When performing this type of search, suspicious areas located under the hard surface by the GPR can be inspected with only minimal destruction.
When nondestructive methods are exhausted during a clandestine grave search without success at locating a grave, investigators may continue searching with a number of destructive methods (Dupras et al., 2011; Schultz and Dupras, 2008). Common methods include a grid search using either a T-bar probe or shovel test pits. For example, a T-bar probe is pushed into the ground to detect areas comprising less compact soil associated with digging a grave. Investigators will incorporate a T-bar probe to highlight smaller areas for follow-up testing. Once these smaller areas are located, investigators can further investigate the follow-up areas using shovel shining. This method involves scraping away the soil to discern soil changes associated with digging that could indicate a grave. Finally, when all of these search methods are exhausted, a forensic backhoe, with a flat-toothed blade, may be the last option to clear an area or locate a grave. When operated properly, the backhoe is used in the same fashion as shovel shining to discern evidence of disturbed soil that could indicate a possible grave.
Recovering and Excavating Human Remains
Since processing a scene is a destructive endeavor, the ultimate goals are to document scene context, to reconstruct prior events, or behavior, and to recover evidence properly (Dupras et al., 2011; Schultz and Dupras, 2008). To achieve these goals, the forensic archaeologist must perform a recovery or excavation that utilizes proper methods. Scene documentation first includes note taking that is continued throughout the entire recovery process. While scene photographs should be taken to document the entire process, photographs should also be taken to document the terrain of the surrounding area. In addition, all evidence and bones must be mapped to record the spatial location of this material.
When presented with a surface recovery of a skeleton in a wooded area, investigators should not begin by immediately removing bones without any documentation method. The visible bones and surrounding area should first be cleaned of leaf litter to expose the ground surface along with the skeletal elements and evidence. Prior to physically removing the bones, investigators should record the scene using notes, photographs, and a mapping method that involves recording the special location of all bones and evidence. The bones and evidence should be removed carefully to limit any postmortem damage, and then the material should be placed in labeled bags using a notation system that allows investigators to reconstruct the exact scene location for all of the evidence and bones. The forensic archaeologist would then scrape the ground surface with a trowel and then screen the removed soil to make sure all of the evidence and bones were recovered. In addition, if the skeleton was scattered, they would formulate a strategy to search for additional bones. The recovery will also consist of collecting additional scene evidence, such as entomological and botanical, that can be used to assist with time since death. The detailed recording of scene information can then be used to reconstruct the scene, which will include detailed maps.
Applications of Forensic Archaeology
Forensic archaeology methods are routinely used in various contexts when recovering human remains. While forensic archaeologists are commonly involved in the recovery of remains, usually involving single individuals, for law enforcement agencies, medical examiners, and coroners, they are also involved in other recoveries that can pose additional challenges. A number of the noteworthy examples include the recovery of the US serviceman listed as missing in action (MIA) or prisoners of war (POW) from previous conflicts, processing mass fatality incidents (MFIs), and the excavation of mass graves involving victims of human rights abuses.
Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command
An important military organization that utilizes forensic archaeology is the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). This organization is operated through the Department of Defense and is the largest forensic skeletal identification laboratory in the world (Holland et al., 2008). The headquarters and the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) are located near Honolulu, Hawaii at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The mission of JPAC is “to achieve the fullest possible accounting of the US service personnel missing from past wars and conflicts” (Holland et al., 2008: 47). In order to achieve this mission, JPAC regularly conducts missions to areas of prior conflicts throughout the world utilizing a mix of archaeological principles and crime scene investigation procedures to locate and recover the remains of missing US service personnel. Since 1976, JPAC and its predecessor organization Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii (CILHI) have performed recoveries in over 40 countries representing different types of terrain such as the jungles of South America and Southeast Asia, the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet, the Mediterranean Sea, the frozen tundra of Siberia, the beaches of the Solomon Islands, and the desserts of Iraq (Holland et al., 2008).
According to Holland et al. (2008), the identification process begins with the field recovery that includes a team of 12–14 personnel. Team members also include military personnel, a medic, a linguist, as well as specialists in explosive ordinance disposal, photography, aircraft evidence analysis, and communications. The recovery leader of the team is normally a civilian anthropologist who is trained in human osteology, archaeological techniques, and evidence-handling techniques. The field recovery involves three stages: research and analysis, investigation, and recovery (Emanovsky and Belcher, 2012). Research and analysis include a historical overview of records to identify possible cases for field investigation. The investigation stage involves trying to correlate the exact location of a specific loss incident and traveling to the area to perform an investigation. Cases are then selected for recovery based on the probability of locating remains. Upon completion of a mission, all recovered remains of service personnel and material evidence are brought to the JPAC-CIL for analysis and identification by forensic anthropologists.
Mass Fatality Incident
In recent years, forensic archaeology methods have become standard practice when processing MFIs. Since September 2001, many jurisdictions have been preparing for a wide range of disaster scenarios (Dirkmaat, 2012). At the same time, investigators may revisit prior mass disaster scenes to implement continued search strategies for remains of victims. For example, when human remains were unexpectedly located near the World Trade Center (WTC) site in New York City in 2006, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner renewed efforts to locate additional remains of potential victims (Rainwater et al., 2008). The goals of the renewed efforts were to “identify the boundaries of the WTC debris deposits, excavate and document all material that may contain WTC victims’ remains and personal effects in a continued effort to identify victims” (Rainwater et al., 2008: 562).
One of the most important forensic archaeology contributions for MFIs occurred in the field recovery protocol of airplane crashes. Mass fatality scenes had historically involved random searches over a few days, usually along paths of least resistance, to flag the largest items that would be collected after a few days without noting the provenience of the recovered items (Dirkmaat, 2012). The search for human remains would continue again to locate any remains not discovered during the initial search, while not noting provenience of the remains. According to Dirkmaat (2012), this inefficient method of processing the scene of an aircraft crash was the result of not considering the scene as a crime scene because all of the individuals died of a catastrophic event. Eventually, processing of the scene would end after a couple of weeks, because it was believed that additional human tissue could not be used to identify the individual.
It was finally recognized in the early 2000s that this inefficient processing method needed to change because DNA was now being used to regularly identify fragmented remains, including small fragments, and that criminal intent, particularly through terrorism, could result in MFIs (Dirkmaat, 2012). In the late 1990s, Dirkmaat and colleagues developed and implemented large-scale scene processing recovery protocols to be used at MFI scenes such as airplane crashes (Dirkmaat, 2012). These protocols involved straight-line searches through the crash site, where personnel would flag all significant evidence (human remains, personal effects, and identifiable plane parts). A second team would then document and map the location of the evidence prior to the collection phase. Overall, advantages of implementing these forensic archaeology protocols when processing a mass disaster scene include 100% search coverage of the ground surface, provenience and chain of custody is maintained for all recovered evidence, and the proper reconstruction of crash dynamics (Dirkmaat, 2012).
Human Rights and Mass Graves
Forensic archaeologists are important team members in the search, recovery, and identification of victims of human rights violations around the world (e.g., Latin America, Croatia, Bosnia, East Timor, Iraq, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia). Archaeologists have been recruited, along with numerous other forensic experts, by the United Nations and human rights organizations (e.g., Physicians for Human Rights) to excavate the individual and mass graves associated with investigations of war crimes, genocide, and political killings (Stover and Ryan, 2001). The history of properly recovering and analyzing human rights victims began when noted forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow was asked to recruit a qualified forensic team to assist with exhumations and identifications of individuals that died during the Argentinian Dirty War (Doretti and Snow, 2009). Applying techniques from forensic archaeology and anthropology, Snow’s team conducted exhumations using proper field and laboratory methods. Snow retuned to Argentina many times between 1985 and 1990 to train and work with the team that was formally organized as the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team in 1986.
The majority of methods used to excavate mass graves were developed in standard archaeological practices and applied to contemporary mass graves (Tuller, 2012). The forensic archaeologist is involved in determining the location of a grave, the delineation of the grave, the excavation of the grave, and body removal (Haglund et al., 2001). While witness testimony is the most successful method for locating graves (Haglund et al., 2001), the forensic anthropologist working in human rights investigations may also be involved in interviewing witnesses (Tuller, 2012). Once a grave is located, the archaeologists will need to confirm or deny the presence of a grave using standard archaeological methods, including geophysics (Tuller, 2012). At the same time, it may be necessary to delineate the horizontal extent and amount of overburden of large mass graves with tens or hundreds of bodies prior to determining an appropriate excavation strategy (Haglund et al., 2001).
More recently, mass grave excavations have focused on collection of evidence to assist with cause of death and an understanding of site formation processes (Skinner et al., 2003). In order to reconstruct the events at a site before, during, and after the creation of a mass grave, the excavation should be conducted to determine the order, or depositional events, that made the graves, as each depositional event should be present as distinct strata (Tuller, 2012). Furthermore, proper documentation of each article of evidence is essential during the excavation of a mass grave as this information can be important in linking evidence from multiple sites (Tuller, 2012). For example, linking evidence can be used to confirm that perpetrators were acting in an organized manner on specific orders from superiors, or acting independently.
Forensic Archaeology Training
Personnel trained in forensic archaeology methods may also be involved in training and research associated with this endeavor. Many forensic archaeologists routinely provide training lectures to death investigation personnel. They will lecture on various topics that can range from a general overview of forensic archaeology or anthropology, more specific archaeological methods such as the application of geophysical methods, nontraditional searches, and they will normally include case studies. This generally occurs when they are invited by a death investigation organization (i.e., law enforcement agency) to provide a lecture about forensic archaeology that normally is 1 or 2 h in duration. In addition, there are a variety of forensic archaeology short courses available in the United States for death investigation personnel to learn basic forensic archaeology techniques. More recently, forensic archaeology training courses are available for learning protocols for processing an MFI scene (Dirkmaat, 2012). Death investigation personnel normally attend these lectures as continuing education training required for their employment. These courses are designed to provide participants with proper search, excavation, mapping, and documentation techniques, as well as collection and proper packaging methods (Dupras et al., 2011; Schultz, 2007; Schultz and Dupras, 2008). In addition, participants are taught how to recognize, collect, and preserve different classes of associated evidence such as botanical, entomological, and soil samples.
The participants learn the various archaeological methods through a number of mock scenarios devised by the instructors. For example, one common scenario includes scattering a skeleton and associated evidence over a moderately large area. Participants would then learn the proper methods that are first needed to locate all of the skeletal elements such as performing a pedestrian line search and visually looking for the individual bones. After they locate and mark the location of all of the bones and associated evidence, they would then learn how to map the scattered skeleton and properly document and collect the bones and associated evidence. Another common mock exercise for the participants is to learn the methods for excavating a grave. The graves will commonly contain a plastic human skeleton or animal carcass such as a pig (Sus scrofa). Part of the exercise may first include trying to locate the grave by recognizing ground surface characteristics. Once the grave is located, participants will learn how to set up an archaeological grid that is used to maintain spacial controls before performing the actual excavation.
Forensic Archaeology Research
Research has been instrumental in improving and integrating traditional archaeology methods to forensic contexts. In particular, research focusing on various technologies used to search for graves and mapping scenes must be undertaken to understand how these technologies can be integrated as part of the multidisciplinary protocol. For example, controlled research has been instrumental in understanding how geophysical technologies such as GPR could be implemented for clandestine grave searches (France et al., 1997; Schultz, 2008; Schultz et al., 2006; Schultz and Martin, 2011, 2012). Researchers commonly devise a number of grave scenarios using pig carcasses as proxies for human bodies. They then control a number of variables such as carcass size, grave depth, soil type, length of internment, and possibly scenario type. While the research provides experience to the personnel, it also allows them to make predictions concerning grave detection during actual forensic GPR searches.
More recently, forensic archaeology research has explored the use of mapping different scenes using a differential global positioning system and analyzing the scatter with global information systems. This research involves devising a number of different surface deposition scenarios in open and obstructed environments (Walter and Schultz, 2013). The scenarios were then mapped and the degree of scatter was analyzed based on the type of scenario. Overall, recommendations were provided for integrating this mapping technique based on scene variables when recovering a scattered skeleton.
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