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Danielle Santos
April 2, 2014
Research Review: The Contribution of Forensic Archaeology to Homicide Investigations
In the United States forensic archaeology is not fully acknowledged for its potential application
in homicide investigations. Although forensic archaeology is acknowledged as its own discipline in the
U.K., the U.S. has placed forensic archaeology as a sub-discipline under forensic anthropology.
Undeniably its used for crimes against humanity cases and in forensic cases across the world.
Unfortunately, often time’s archaeologists and forensic anthropologists are not trained and are
unfamiliar to criminalist protocols, processing and chain of custody. Most archaeologists are also
unaware of potential health risks associated with handling human remains. However, law enforcement
does recognize that archaeology can provide an array of opportunities in medicolegal significance.
Information on forensics applied to archaeology is limited as seen in the lack of literature since its
development in the 1990’s, but the significance of the methodology is not limited as demonstrated in
cases involving forensic archaeologists and anthropologists and through its practice elsewhere (UK,
crimes against humanity cases). The merit acknowledged as early as the mid 1970’s.
Forensic archaeology uses traditional archaeological skills and employs these skills to locate
evidence for law enforcement and other agencies. A forensic archaeologist is trained in three areas:
assisting law enforcement in locating remains, excavation/ recovery of remains and recording through
documentation. To achieve collecting valuable evidence specialists must be flexible in applying unique
requirements pending what the case needs. Types of evidence associated with crimes include: human
remains, personal effects, weapons, etc.. Graves can provide cause of death, manner of death and how
interment (burial) was accomplished. The forensic archaeologist studies the evidence in context of the
site and can predict based on survival and patterns of evidence remaining.
Both Dupras and Schultz in there article The Contribution of Forensic Archaeology to Homicide
Investigations acknowledge the distinction of the two fields of forensic anthropology and forensic
archaeology. Both authors have a background in forensic biological anthropology and archaeology.
Schults and Dupras’s discuss the significant importance and benefits of anthropologists cross trained in
‘proper’ archaeological methods for Homicide investigations. Within the article the primary viewpoints
derive from U.S. literature on research done by Forensic Anthropologists. Many specialists are needed in
effectively collecting and processing evidence in forensic cases. As noted within the article Forensic
Archaeologists are often consulted with by law enforcements for expert witness testimony pertaining to
crime scene investigations relying heavily on the trained ability of documentation.
The article discusses the history of the field and distinguishes the differences between forensic
archaeology vs. anthropology. They continue to acknowledge that often time’s forensic anthropologists
are untrained in performing archaeological techniques as illustrated in a Table 1 p.401. They also
distinguish the differences in the modern application of non-forensic archaeology. Crist is quoted to
define Forensic archaeology as- “the application of archaeological theories and recordation and recovery
methods to processing of criminal scenes.” (2001) The authors refer to using ‘proper’ application of
archaeological methods yet do not define what these methods are, they do give an example of how this
applies to taphonomy, but don’t seem to illustrate or outline what ‘proper’ application of forensic
archaeology is. This concept of ‘proper’ forensic archaeology becomes even more convoluted when you
think back to the idea that each case needs be handled through site specific parameters. The ‘proper’
methods are assumed under the discretion of the professional forensic archaeologist. Without ‘proper’
methods damage to remains is most likely guaranteed as proper methods are imperative in mitigating
The article also explains the notorious two categories of methods: intrusive and non-intrusive
shown in Table 2 p. 406. These are the types of search methods used to gather material evidence. This
along with meticulous documentation methodology allows for the forensic archaeologist to create
detailed reports that can be used if expert witness testimony in court when necessary for a case.
Fundamentally the contributions of documentation and delineation of context are what signify the
importance of the role of a forensic anthropologist from other (sub)/disciplines. Reliable inferences on
human behavior can result from reconstructing what took place at the scene. However, using intrusive
methods or from other sources of disturbance can alter the scene disassociating the context. The
disassociation of intrusive methods for future arguments in court relies heavily on proper methods
illustrated in the documentation and illustrates how valuable there assistance is at the planning phase
and field search.
Advocating the use of forensic archaeology uses for criminal justice cases the US military also
recognizes the importance and is noted as the largest employer in the United States of forensic
archaeologist/ anthropologists. Outside of the US the assistance is valuable in the evidential regime
central to convictions in human rights violations. The issues not acknowledged in this article are of its
the ethical use, in regards to cultural sensitivity within human rights cases and regarding the cost benefit
analysis and time needed for local applications. Although useful and effective when conducted properly
forensic archaeological investigations are timely. Noted from personal experience and through
literature, law enforcement and international cases enforce time sensitive parameters which often do
not permit the use of ‘proper’ methods. This time cap arguably hinders the ability of these professionals
to carry out non-biased/ objective results that would otherwise derive from ‘proper’ methodology.