Developing an optimised protocol for excavating (clandestine) graves

Bison code: L.28316

Over the years, archaeologists have developed excavation and documentation techniques to study graves and human remains. Increasingly, these methods are also applied by forensic archaeologists to investigate clandestine graves. Careful examination of a clandestine grave may yield important information on how and when an individual was buried. In addition, a detailed documentation of the human remains and associated finds may contribute important knowledge relating to the cause of death, taphonomical and postdepositional processes.

The investigative process starts with locating the grave and documenting associated finds at the surface. Next, an excavation plan is made, paying attention to the documentation of a multitude of features related to the digging of the burial pit, the deposition of the body, the filling of the burial pit, possible later interventions and taphonomical processes. During the excavation, appropriate samples are taken for various analyses, including entomology, pollen, botany and soil chemistry. Since sample collection can be easily compromised and itself interferes with the documentation of the investigation, it is necessary to carefully plan all elements of the investigative process.

Although researchers have focused on the best archaeological methods, little attention has been paid to the inclusion of 3D documentation. Therefore, there is a need for an optimised protocol that integrates evidence-based archaeological methods, relevant sampling strategies and a selection of documentation methods. An important aspect in the design of such a protocol is a focus on preserving the “chain of evidence” and a smart recording of all findings, finds, samples and laboratory results in a robust information system. Ideally this protocol is flexible in a sense that it allows for the inclusion of methods and techniques on the basis of either local availability or the specific requirements of the case under investigation.

The aim of this Smart Solutions Project would be the development of a protocol on the basis of a study of the available documentation and experimental excavation of a series of mock burials. Together with the developed documentation and evidence system, this protocol can then be presented on-line to experienced investigators for critical feedback.

The examination of clandestine graves is an important requirement for the investigation of extrajudicial executions in many countries. Many of these countries have resources in forensic sciences that have not yet reached their full potential. Presumably an optimised protocol and accompanying information system would be a valuable resource for countries and organisations involved in the investigation of clandestine graves.

Cluster: Security & Evidence 2