Skip to main content

What Is Forensic Archaeology?

I worked for many years as a science teacher in Toronto, Ontario, and am a science enthusiast and online writer.

Definition of Forensic Archaeology

Forensic archaeology involves the application of archaeological methods, techniques and principles to forensic crime scene work. It is a relatively new discipline not only to the field of archaeology but also to the criminal justice system.

Forensic archaeologists are employed by police to locate, excavate and record buried remains and artifacts at a crime scene. They deal not only with bones and bodies but also may process weapons, clothing, and other evidence long since buried and forgotten by everyone except the offender. Their expertise is well suited to the field of forensics at crime scenes because:

  • They are trained in the science of excavation.
  • They are experienced in the recovery of buried human remains.
  • They are experienced in working with many different specialists, including DNA experts and entomologists.
  • They are flexible enough in their methodology to adapt themselves to the varied forensic contexts found in criminal or civil cases.

In Great Britain, forensic archaeology has been a separate discipline for more than a decade and is becoming widely accepted by the British police force. Here in North America, it is still in its infancy. Protocols and methods are proceeding slowly and cautiously, and it is slowly gaining respect from law enforcement.

Special Skills Required of Forensic Archaeologists

These are some skills forensic archaeologists are required to have outside the parameters of traditional archaeology:

  • Must have a basic knowledge of law enforcement and legal procedures.
  • Must be able to cooperate with law enforcement personnel.
  • Must be able to conduct investigations under severe time constraints and media attention.
  • Must be able to deal with situations that differ from conventional archaeology, such as interments, including soft tissue.

Years ago, a law enforcement agency investigated a case where the only crime scene evidence was scattered human bones in a cornfield. Old fashioned police work was tremendously enhanced by the assistance of a forensic archaeologist, resulting in the solving of a double homicide. A murderer was brought to justice, and the victims' families received much-needed closure.1

The Three Objectives of a Forensic Archeological Investigation

There are three objectives of a forensic archeological investigation.²

1. The comprehension and interpretation of the site’s history after its creation through the deposite of remains (taphonomic events). Taphonomic events are both natural :

  • Surface runoff
  • High levels of animal or insect activity
  • Tree root activity and growth

· and cultural:

  • Digging due to lack of awareness that the location is a crime scene.
  • Dropping of litter or other items unrelated to the crime event.
  • Human traffic that disturbs the original crime scene.

2. Reconstruction of the events that led up to and occurred during the creation of the site and body dump. This is accomplished by:

  • Complete surface collection.
  • Fastidious excavation methods.
  • Detailed documentation and photography at every stage of the investigation.

Because the archaeological processes themselves are so destructive, all precautions must be taken to preserve evidence and context for any ensuing court case.

3. An informed interpretation of the events surrounding the arrival of the deceased at the crime scene which will help resolve the case.

Investigative Methods Used by Forensic Archaeologists

There are generally three stages to forensic archaeological investigations:

1. Reconnaissance locates the site of interest to investigators. It is typically accomplished through:

  • walking and visual searches.
  • the use of cadaver locating dogs
  • the use of geophysical detection instruments such as ground-penetrating radar which detect ground disturbances.

2. Survey or mapping of the site.

  • through the use of tape measure and compass which creates a plan map or bird's eye view of the area
  • through the use of a digital data recorder that records the site as a three-dimensional map allowing data to be recorded with a higher degree of accuracy and detail

3. Excavation of the site. As in traditional archaeology, there are key concepts that are important.

  • stratigraphy: distinct layers of soil and material culture are encountered as the dig progresses. The patterns encountered are unique to the site.
  • law of superposition: those layers of soil that are furthest down are the oldest and each successive layer above is younger or more recently deposited. There are instances where there are partial reversals in this pattern but they are rare.

Both of these concepts in excavation are important during a criminal investigation so that context of the remains, personal effects and other evidence is preserved. All material collected is carefully documented. Photographs are taken with a ruler or scale bar placed beside each piece of evidence for better interpretation and later crime scene reconstruction if necessary. After all evidence is collected and catalogued according to the proper chain of command, the site is typically back-filled.

This image is a photograph of a human skeleton found lying in scrub in Western Australia, circa 1900-1910.

This image is a photograph of a human skeleton found lying in scrub in Western Australia, circa 1900-1910.

Read About Cases From Around the World Involving Forensic Archaeologists

Focus of Forensic Archaeologists

Forensic archaeologists typically focus on the following types of cases:³

  1. Potential gravesites as in the case of clandestine burial and murder.
  2. Surface body disposal where bodies have only partially been buried or dislocated skeletal remains have been found.
  3. Retrieval of buried crime artifacts such as personal effects including firearms, drugs or contraband.
  4. Mass graves discovered by UN investigations into war crimes, massacres and genocides.
  5. Civil cases where, for example, identifying markers such as buried walls are important evidence in property disputes.
  6. Cases where there are no legal requirements but remains are located to provide closure to the victims' families.
  7. Recovery of victims from natural disasters such as the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004, and hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005.
  8. Recovery of remains from mass disasters such as plane crashes, bombings and terrorist acts.

In the UK, archaeological evidence was first used in a Crown Court in 1988. Since that time, it has become a recognised resource in War Crime Tribunals and at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Sources Cited

¹ Getting in Touch with the Forensic Side of Law Enforcement, Police Link. March 14, 2012

² Obledo, Micaela N. Forensic Archaeology in Criminal and Civil Cases. Forensic Magazine. August 1, 2009.,0 March 14, 2012

³ How forensic archaeology uncovers the truth about the past. Arts and Humanities Research Council. March 14, 2012

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on September 27, 2012:

GlstngRosePetals, glad you enjoyed this one. I am a big fan of Kathy Reichs also! She is a great inspiration for girls wanting an interesting science career!

GlstngRosePetals from Wouldn't You Like To Know on September 27, 2012:

Very well put together hub. A very interesting article, fasinating. I love C.S.I the T.V. show and i never knew there was that many steps for the process. Voted up!!!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on September 13, 2012:

Glad you enjoyed it hockey8mn. I have read a few books by Bill Bass. It was his work that got me interested in this field. His Body Farm novels are very intriguing as well.

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on September 13, 2012:

Glad you enjoyed it hockey8mn. I have read a few books by Bill Bass. It was his work that got me interested in this field. His Body Farm novels are very intriguing as well.

hockey8mn from Pennsylvania on September 13, 2012:

Very interesting hub. A great book on forensics is "Death's Acre" by Bill Bass. He helped advance the field into what it is today at the University of Tennessee with his body farm. Voted up and useful.

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 14, 2012:

I will certainly be interested in reading anything archeologically related. Thanks for the wonderful comment, Archaeoman!

Archaeoman on April 14, 2012:

I'm an archaeologist (burial specialist) and this is a great hub! Thanks for the info! Please feel free to follow me (I'm new), I will shortly be publishing archaeology/anthropology related Hubs.

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 14, 2012:

Trish, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on April 13, 2012:

Hi :)

Very interesting and educational!

Archaeology is a fascinating subject ~ as is forensic archaeology ~ but I think that I'd be a bit too squeamish for the latter :)

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 13, 2012:

brenda, that is so very cool. I wish you luck in your future endeavours and hope you reach your goal of forensic archaeology. Thanks for stopping by to read my hub!

brenda12lynette from Utah on April 13, 2012:

Great hub! I'm currently studying bioarchaeology. I hope in the future I'll be qualified enough to help with forensic cases wherever I end up!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 12, 2012:

Thanks for the positive feedback Daisy. Glad you enjoyed the hub!

Daisy Mariposa from Orange County (Southern California) on April 12, 2012:


I learned something new today! Thanks for publishing this very well-written, informative article.

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 05, 2012:

Cebutouristspot and JKenny, thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed the hub, I love writing about this topic!

James Kenny from Birmingham, England on April 04, 2012:

Hi Teresa, fascinating article, I love archaeology, especially when it concerns digging up fossils of dinosaurs and prehistoric humans. I had heard of forensic archaeology, but didn't know much about it till now, so I really appreciate you sharing this. Thanks. Voted up.

cebutouristspot from Cebu on April 04, 2012:

One new thing I have learn with the help of my fellow hubbers here in hubpages. I hope that this new field last as I can see it can have a great deal of application. Today and past event :)

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 04, 2012:

Bretsuki, so glad you enjoyed the hub. It must have been a fascinating adventure working on an actual dig! Maybe its not too late to try a new adventure!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 04, 2012:

Natashalh, How funny. Your comment is very timely for me as I just finished a companion hub to this one about forensic anthropology. I will check out the cemetary assignment. Thanks so much for the tip!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 04, 2012:

So happy to have you visit again phdast7 and so glad you enjoyed the hub. If I could do it all over again I'd be joining you on those crime scenes!

Natasha from Hawaii on April 04, 2012:

This is such a timely article for me! I just finished up an anthropology project on forensic anthropology. If anyone ever needs a good lesson plan and activity for forensic anthropology, search "mystery cemetery assignment" and you should be able to find it. It was pretty neat!

Voted up and interesting.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on April 04, 2012:

Teresa - Terrific, informative, and very interesting Hub.

My first thought, seriously, "this is way better than CSI!"

If I believed in reincarnation and could control my destiny, I think I would be torn between being an etymologist and playing with words and being a forensic archeologist and playing with crime scenes. Maybe one could be my day job and one could be my hobby. :) Really enjoyed this. SHARING

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on March 22, 2012:

Pannonica, thanks for your visits. I agree that the development of archaeology into the field of crime is a very positive development. Any families of violent crime who can gain closure from the individuals in this field of work will gain some comfort.

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on March 22, 2012:

Thanks for the comment Shanna. Wish I had known more about it before I picked my field of study as well!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on March 22, 2012:

Glad you enjoyed itabise. I on the other hand am definitely a "crimehead". I had great fun writing this hub!

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on March 22, 2012:

I would imagine that the hands on approach is what draws many into the field. It would have great appeal for those of us who love to get out of the office!

Pannonica on March 15, 2012:

Hi Teresa, Thank you for explaining such a tough subject with your easy to understand style. With the modern advances in this field it is comforting to know that those seeking news of loved one's can finally gain closure and the murderers can be bought to justice quicker. Voted up.

Shanna from Utah on March 14, 2012:

Ah! This is an awesome article. I wanted to be a Forensic Archaeologist all throughout high school. It still fascinates me today. Voted up!

Michael S from Danville, VA on March 14, 2012:

A thorough introduction on the subject and very well-written. I'm not a "crimehead"--what I call people into TV crime shows--but I had CSI and others in my head the whole time! This is more interesting though.

Wib Magli from Tennessee and Alabama on March 14, 2012:

Really good info. Can't be scared to get your hands dirty if you are going to be a forensic archaeologist.

William Elliott from California USA on March 14, 2012:

Hello Teresa, thank you for a fascinating hub.

I once worked on an archaeological dig, It was on a Norman Castle in England. At the time I was looking to study archaeology at Liverpool University. That didn't come about but the year long dig was fascinating.

Transfer between the roles of forensic science and archaeology now seems so normal it is a wonder it took so long to combine the two scientific areas of study.

Voted up and awesome.