Digging In The Establishment of the Forensic Archaeology Section of the West Midlands Police Force By Karl Harrison, with contributions from Elizabeth Cormell Synopsis Over the past three years, the West Midlands Police Force has kindly entertained the establishment of a new service, which, to the best of my knowledge remains unique within UK policing. Whilst other forces may have employed and made use of individual members of staff with a background in archaeology, the West Midlands Police is believed to be the first to offer a comprehensive in-house Forensic Archaeology Section, at this disposal of CID officers across the region, 24/7. What is Forensic Archaeology? Forensic Archaeology is the application of archaeological techniques within a forensic context. Forensic archaeologists utilise many of the same skills that traditional archaeologists rely upon to generate information about the past. Most notably, these skills are used to search for and excavate victims of murder who have been subject to concealment by burial. In these circumstances, archaeology not only assures the complete recovery of the contents of the grave, but can also say a lot about how the grave was prepared and who prepared it. Archaeological Misconceptions Archaeology is all about the ancient past Even though most of archaeology seen by the public consists of historical sites, some of great antiquity, the same principles can be applied to recent scenes. As soon as the ground is altered; a hole dug, a pile made or building knocked down, the archaeological record is altered. This can be meaningful whether it happened this morning, last month or last century. Archaeology Takes Forever Most of the jobs we undertake are completed in less than a day. We can work quite quickly, with a small amount of excavation, get to a depth where it is obvious that either nothing, or a family pet, has been buried. Other jobs may just
involve looking at bones and the context from which they come. The majority of these turn out to be animal bones and this can be established within minutes (usually) of our arrival.
A Team of Police Officers could dig for a body far more quickly This may be correct (although we dig holes quite quickly too) but the skills we use to identify pertinent markers and items are not routinely taught to Police Officers. This experience can lead to the maximisation of any evidence that may be contained within a hole, be it a grave or just a disposal site for weapons etc..
The FAS The Forensic Archaeology Section (FAS) consists of three dual-trained crime scene manager / forensic archaeologists, whose primary employment is in dealing with major and volume crime scenes on their respective Operational Command Units (OCUs). In addition to this, they share a responsibility to attend and examine a range of scenes where their abilities as forensic archaeologists might prove useful. One of the factors crucial to the success of the FAS is that it is not merely staffed by Scenes of Crime Officers with a general awareness of archaeological issues. The archaeologists involved are not only competent scene managers, but have in excess of thirty years archaeological experience between them, and all can act as expert witnesses within the field. Whilst keeping up the day job of scene examination, they also maintain an academic profile, keeping close links with Professor John Hunter, widely recognised as the father of UK forensic archaeology, at the University of Birmingham. Additionally, they provide awareness training within West Midlands Police, as well as academic lecturing at universities and forensic service providers across the country. The Work Whilst it might not seem at first thought that an urban area such as the West Midlands would generate much archaeological interest, as officers have come to appreciate the range of cases in which archaeology might play a part, the workload has steadily grown. Simple jobs, such as the identification of bones recovered by members of the public form a large part of the volume
archaeological work, whereas more involved cases, such as long-term searches for missing persons, or the investigation of sites suspected of harbouring clandestine graves tend to be far more time-consuming. The demand has proved surprising. From a standing start in mid-2003, establishing a brand new service which had no tradition of existing within a police context, the FAS has dealt with in excess of 60 cases, in addition to regular commitments for officer training. As awareness within the force continues to grow, it is expected that this demand will continue to rise. The Establishment of the FAS In the past, UK police forces have traditionally relied upon the work of independent experts to provide archaeological expertise as and when required. This initially raises the thorny prospect of who is then to judge which jobs might be advanced by an archaeological understanding, and at what point should an investigation consider bearing the cost of an external contractor? By developing this internal service, the West Midlands Police has optimised their response to such work. The in-house archaeologists can be utilised for a range of jobs that might otherwise have been thought financially imprudent to use external agents, such as the identification of mystery bones within the force area, or perhaps more importantly, the long-term advisory capacity offered to missing persons searches. Where required, the close links between the FAS and University of Birmingham allows for the rapid use of external specialists where the internal archaeologists feel it most appropriate. Additionally, the FAS has links to a wide range of experts in other related disciplines, such as anthropology, geophysics and sedimentology; and can refer to them as and when required. Related Disciplines Forensic Anthropology the examination of skeletal material. Anthropological analysis most frequently aims to identify an individual from their bones by determining their sex, age at death, time since deposition, and any damage to the bones that occurred whilst the individual was alive. Forensic Geophysics Geophysics is the science of interpreting remote-sensing images taken of underground features. Geophysicists have worked closely with archaeologists for a long period of time in using electrical, magnetic and radar-
based methods to produce images of buried archaeological features without excavating them. Forensically-trained geophysicists are extremely useful in searching for and locating buried bodies. Forensic Palynology Palynology is the study of pollen given off by plants and trees. Profiles of many types of pollen can be highly individual to a location. Therefore, by gathering samples close to, or within a grave context, some conclusion may be reached as to where a body has been transported from, or in what month a body may have been buried. Case Study In April 2005, the partial remains of a skeleton were discovered on waste ground in the West Midlands. Due to a number of ongoing murder enquiries, these remains were immediately treated as those of a murder victim, until proved otherwise. The West Midlands Police Forensic Archaeology Section, in conjunction with Scenes of Crime Officers and external specialists, were able to ascertain that the remains were elderly, and unlikely to be those of any outstanding individuals believed to be victims of murder. We then went about systematically recording and recovering the remains. During the course of this operation, we located a pacemaker still within the chest cavity of the individual. By means of the unique markings on the pacemaker, as well as the recorded context in which the remains were found, we were able to positively identify the individual, and establish that he was a long-term missing person unlikely to have been the victim of a violent assault.
Skeleton found on waste ground Other Scenes The excavation of clandestine graves is far from the limit of forensic archaeology. The techniques of excavation and spatial recording are equally applicable to the understanding of collapse sequences in fire scenes, the supervision of police exhumations, or potentially in the dispersal caused by explosives.
Complex fire scenes and police exhumations are both scenes where use of a forensic archaeologist might be considered. Future developments within WMP Through continued internal training courses, awareness-raising exercises and involvement in major incidents, we envisage that the burden of casework on the section will continue to rise to some extent. Similarly, it is hoped that the
potential to expand the service and offer it over a wider strategic area might be recognised and capitalised on, as with other pooled specialist resources, such as underwater search teams and mounted units. Likewise, the link back into an academic context would seem to be more pertinent now than ever, with an increasing proportion of new Scenes of Crime Officers being drawn from the ranks of forensic science graduates. Academics involved in the teaching of forensic disciplines face a constant challenge of keeping their exposure to operational work up to date, and specialists such as the FAS offer an unprecedented opportunity to lend research establishments the benefit of their experience. Authors Karl Harrison is a member of the West Midlands Police Forensic Archaeology Section. He is a Consulting Forensic Archaeologist and an Associate Researcher and Lecturer at Cranfield University. Elizabeth Anscombe is a member of the West Midlands Police Forensic Archaeology Section. She studied archaeology under Professor Hunter at the University of Birmingham.