modern burial excavation

The Value of Archaeology to Forensic Anthropological Casework

Guest post by Michelle Hamilton

Forensic anthropologists conducting a surface search for scattered remains
Forensic anthropologists conducting a surface search for scattered remains

Forensic anthropologists work with law enforcement agencies and medical examiners in cases involving decomposing, skeletonized, or otherwise unidentifiable human remains. Their expertise is based upon a rigorous understanding of the human skeleton, and the ability to discern biological markers on the bones that may indicate sex, age, stature, health, and other features of a once-living individual.

The forensic anthropologist may be asked to assist with establishing the positive identification of a deceased individual, or they might be called upon to examine trauma in order to help understand the cause and/or manner of death. They are often asked to determine whether a discovered skeleton is modern, or if it represents the remains of an individual that died in historic or even archaeological times. These kinds of analytical investigations are usually morgue or laboratory-based, and are conducted on remains that have been brought in from the original discovery location.

There is another investigative activity that forensic anthropologists are often called upon to assist law enforcement and medico-legal authorities with, that is not laboratory-based. This involves the search and recovery of human remains in outdoor settings. This field-based aspect of forensic anthropological investigations might involve searching a wide area for the remains of someone who died in a field and whose bones were scattered by animals, or it could require the excavation of a clandestine grave where someone has been murdered and buried. These kinds of field recoveries require background training in archaeological methods and techniques in order to correctly identify, document, and collect all items of evidence at the scene.

While I was a graduate student specializing in forensic anthropology, over the course of about ten years I regularly participated in CRM archaeological projects during weekends and over the summers to help pay my way through school. These projects ranged from pedestrian surveys (identifying evidence of historic or prehistoric cultural material on the surface of a property), to full-on archaeological excavation of sites to determine site boundaries and recover associated biological and cultural artifacts. On a couple of these projects, my boss was Todd Ahlman, now the Director of the Center for Archaeological Studies at Texas State University. The archaeological techniques I learned from him and others over the course of these projects became invaluable skills that have since assisted me numerous times in my career as a professional forensic anthropologist. Some of the ways that I’ve drawn upon my archaeology background in forensic anthropological contexts include-

Site approach: Just as with an archaeological project, you must first survey the location in order to determine the size and scope of the crime scene. If you are looking for scattered skeletal remains on the surface, you will use an archaeological approach to understand how geographical and environmental factors such as dry creeks, slopes, hills, alluvial deposits, river edges, and even animal dens can affect where evidentiary items might be located. If you are looking for a clandestine grave, archaeological training in the assessment of landscape and subsurface characteristics is crucial to identifying areas of ground disturbance that might indicate a grave. Natural and man-made features such as tree/root falls, historic foundations, post holes, river deposits, flood detritus, root cellars, and other features might confuse someone without archaeological training.

Documentation (photography, mapping, note-taking): Taking photographs, mapping the site, and taking detailed notes are standard hallmarks of every archaeological excavation. These practices are directly translatable to forensic investigations as well. My approach to documenting the crime scene comes from my experiences in archaeology, where the mantra is ‘document everything because even the act of excavating destroys information.’ This is absolutely true in forensic anthropology casework, where you might be called upon to testify in a court of law about remains you analyzed months, years, or even decades previously. Having complete notes, maps, and photographs of the scene will insure that you are prepared for expert witness testimony.

Screening is one of the many archaeological techniques used during forensic recovery.
Screening is one of the many archaeological techniques used during forensic recovery.

Excavation techniques: Knowing how to properly excavate archaeological units means you can use the same techniques and methods to excavate a grave. This approach lets you institute very strict controls on how you recover evidence, and it also allows you to carefully document where you recover evidence. Having archaeological experience means you can distinguish whether you are looking at a recent grave shaft, of if the soil stratigraphy is actually reflecting rodent burrows, ancient root falls, post holes, or other non-forensically significant sources of ground disturbance.

Big picture: Determining what the forensic anthropologist needs to accomplish at the crime scene utilizes the same skills and methodical approaches used for archaeological site assessments. How large is the area I need to investigate? Are there items on the surface that I need to flag for further analysis? Does that mounded dirt potentially indicate the presence of a grave, or is it a natural feature of the landscape? How do I set up my mapping grid? What photographs do I need to take before I start? What excavation tools are the best to use? Where should I screen the dirt so it doesn’t interfere with the excavation? What is the best way to search for bones on the surface? How do I ensure that at every point along the way, I am maximizing recovery of all potential items of evidence and documenting it correctly for the purposes of courtroom testimony? These concerns are all important to take into account because as the forensic anthropologist, you are responsible for conducting a professional investigation for medico-legal authorities, and an archaeological background will give you the necessary skills to be able to accomplish that.

Archaeology is the scientific study of human history through the recovery and analysis of artifacts and other physical and biological remains. In many respects, those are also the aims of a forensic anthropological investigation; to recover and analyze human remains and associated items of evidence and to understand, in a controlled scientific manner, the history and events that occurred leading up to that individual’s death. The value of archaeological training to a forensic anthropologist is critical. Anyone interested in pursuing a career in forensic anthropology must have archaeological skills in order to properly locate and recover items of evidence found at the crime scene.

Michelle Hamilton is an associate professor of anthropology at Texas State University, specializing in biological anthropology and bioarchaeology.