The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 100

Issue 100

May / June 2008


There is more content online than usual for this bumper issue!


Early Scottish gardens unturfed

Axes could be 0.5m years old

In the press

Listing lobby was no hot air

Kent Anglo-Saxon cemetery could be royal

Poetry to assist transfer of Hadrian's Wall collection

In Brief & Phase 2


John Wymer
Mike Pitts introduces an archaeologist with a fine eye for illustration

The Lost Royal Cult Of Street House, Yorkshire
The excavation of a unique Anglo-Saxon cult cemetery

Born digital: Making People Believe
How computers have changed the world of archaeology

The Office: Heritage and Archaeology at Fortress House
John Schofield finds unexpected things on Savile Row

Green Men & The Way of All Flesh
Richard Hayman uproots a fashionable myth

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones considers archaeological imagery, and The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland has a new website

100 letters & news

Some of the letters we received and news stories we revealed in the past 100 issues

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Communication is king, says Mike Heyworth, celebrating nearly 60 years of magazines

Extra online content


Sebastian Payne asks, what do forensic archaeologists do?

Mick's travels & more travels

Mick Aston looks for early saints in Cornwall, and an introduction to visiting Cornwall's sites & monuments

my archaeology

Phil Harding, the man with five guitars


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


A grave is not just a hole in the ground

Forensic archaeologists have recently been in the news over investigations in Margate, Kent, and at a Jersey care home. Sebastian Payne, chief scientist at English Heritage, asks, what do they do?

Many archaeologists were surprised, when the Fred West serial torture and murder case hit the news in the 1990s, to see policemen on television digging untidy, muddy holes in gardens: evidence was undoubtedly lost. It is good to know that archaeologists are now playing a much more active part in crime investigation.¹

This is particularly important in finding and investigating burials – including war-crime mass graves. Archaeologists bring a number of particular skills to the table: the identification of ground disturbance from surface indications and from geophysics; meticulous excavation, detailed recording and the recovery of small objects; and the identification of decayed and fragmentary finds, particularly animal and human bone. Just as important is the archaeological awareness of context and sequence. A burial site is seen by forensic archaeologists as an opportunity to reconstruct a series of actions, not just as a hole from which human remains are recovered.

When a prostitute was murdered in Wolverhampton, police searches, which included a yard and a very recent bonfire, did not find her body. Some months later, the identification of her DNA in a suspect's flat focussed the search again on the yard. A more detailed archaeological investigation of the bonfire recognised a number of ash layers. The lowest layer contained small cremated human bone fragments, including a burnt tooth, and the victim's front door keys clinched the identification. The upper ash layers contained cremated animal bone which might have misled investigators less aware of stratification and of the identification of tiny burnt fragments.

An understanding of history and sequence can be just as important in eliminating an area from investigation, saving time, disruption and money. A few years ago, during the search of a 1930s house for the remains of someone killed, the archaeologist suggested bringing in a joiner. He was able to show that the floor of one room had been last repaired long before the victim's disappearance, so the inquiry could move on to other parts of the building.

In a similar situation, archaeologists located a burial in concrete under a suspended floor without the need to dig up the whole floor area. Voids below the floor were located using ground penetrating radar. Holes were drilled so that the voids could be examined with an endoscope, and blow-fly puparia on the end of the endoscope led the investigators to the burial. This illustrates two characteristics of good forensic investigation: intelligent planning combined with the use of techniques in combination, and an openness to understanding the significance of unexpected observations – in this case the puparia.

As this suggests, archaeologists have much to contribute to the detection of crime. At the same time, archaeologists and archaeological specialists involved in this work have to adapt in many ways. They benefit from working with a wide range of other skilled specialists, and from resources on a scale undreamed of for other archaeological field research. But they are not in control of an investigation – they have to work as directed by the police officers running the excavation, often to very exacting timescales; and they have to work meticulously and record what they do in a way that satisfies critical examination in the courts. Some of the work is unpleasant, some uninspiring: pets buried in strange places, deaths concealed for benefit fraud. But it is another way in which archaeology contributes to society.²

Many thanks to John Hunter, Rob Janaway and Jennifer Miller for help in the preparation of this piece

More science

  1. Forensic Archaeology, by J Hunter & M Cox (Routledge 2005)
  2. Courses in forensic archaeology are given at Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bradford and Cranfield Universities. Professional registration is available through the Council for the Registration of Forensic Practitioners

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