Tape with "Crime Scene do not cross" written on it. Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Carl Drexler, Arkansas Archeological Survey
"Archeology is..." series - July 2024

Archeology is often interpreted as the study of things from long ago, and while that is true, “archeology” can mean a lot more. It has some very important applications within law enforcement, and many archeologists work with the authorities at some point in their career in some specific ways. I want to focus on two: heritage theft and forensic archeology.
Geophysics is just one of the techniques that can be used to locate burials at a possible crime scene.
Archeologists assist law enforcement with cases of heritage theft when people are arrested for breaking one or more state or federal antiquities ordinances. In those situations, people are in trouble because they have removed bones or artifacts illegally. Archeologists can assist law enforcement by both providing information about the things taken and documenting, in the field, the extent of the damage, which can be important in prosecuting the offenders. They can be called to provide expert testimony in court and to help in repatriating recovered items to the appropriate communities.
All archeology put in service of law enforcement is called “forensic archeology,” though we usually reserve that term for excavations used in legal proceedings. Forensic archeology is conducted by both by full-time specialists and by archeologists who maintain an interest, but not a primary focus, on the subject. They do this work in several different contexts.
Police departments sometimes call on archeologists to assist with locating, documenting, and recovering human remains, particularly in wooded environments. Locating isolated burials requires many resources, including geophysics, cadaver and historic grave dogs (there is a difference, as the dogs must be trained differently), and traditional techniques like walkover survey. Forensic archeologists are trained to look for surface or landscape anomalies that could indicate an isolated or clandestine grave, such as differential plant growth or slumping/settling of dirt. Once located, archeologists can aid in both recovering the remains and documenting information about the grave to aid in prosecution. Tool marks from the implements used to dig the grave can be recorded, as can small things thrown into the grave around the body which could be important to the case. Also, forensic archeologists will sometimes sweep the bottom of the grave with a metal detector, in case the perpetrators shot the victim while they were in the grave.
The twentieth century has been called the “Century of Genocide” (see Weitz 2015) for the proliferation of situations involving massive and deliberate genocidal acts. From the former Yugoslavia to Rwanda to the Katyn Forest in Poland, it was a century soaked in blood. In some instances, international and national governing bodies have sought to prosecute those responsible. Archeologists have been brought in to exhume the remains of people buried in mass graves from some of these events, with their results being used in criminal prosecutions. For instance, the trial of Saddam Hussein included testimony from archeologists who had exhumed the bodies of people from Kurdish communities in northern Iraq that had been gassed on Hussein’s authority in the 1980s. Though a hard, dangerous, and often traumatizing experience for those involved, forensic archeology can be very valuable, not only for prosecuting the perpetrators but also providing closure to the loved ones of the deceased, who can now bury the remains properly and with dignity.

“Archeology is…” Series Information

In this series we plan to highlight the many and various things that Are Archeology, from Art to Zoology and everything in between. We hope you enjoy learning a bit more about the variety of things that archeologists do and specialize in and maybe it will inspire you to be an archeologist even if you love learning about things in another field. You can find all the entries here.