Forensic Archaeology in Britain

Article excerpt

Forensic archaeology is a relatively recent development in the UK but has already shown its worth on a number of scenes of crime; it has a particular role to play in the location and recovery of buried remains, notably in homicide investigations. This paper explores the overlap between archaeology and criminal investigation and considers areas of mutual interest, experience and potential.


In December 1962 William Jennings beat to death his 3-year-old son Stephen at their home in West Yorkshire. He wrapped the body in a sack, carried it to the edge of woodland and laid it against the base of a drystone wall. Having covered it with stones he went home and later reported the boy missing. Despite an intensive search the following winter the boy's fate was unknown, until in 1988 his remains were partially exposed by a dog. They were subsequently excavated and recorded by an integrated team which included specialists in archaeology, forensic science and forensic pathology, as well as senior detectives and a scene of crime unit. The recovery of the boy's remains and surviving clothing marked an important stage in the application of archaeological techniques in forensic contexts in Britain. When William Jennings was convicted of murder, his trial set a precedent for the use of archaeological evidence in a British court.

Archaeological methodologies have been successfully applied in a number of investigations, including the Moors Murders enquiry of 1986. In other investigations, however, it has been conspicuously absent: in the 1953 murders at Rillington Place; in the 1983 Nilsen murders at Muswell Hill; and in a well publicized enquiry centred on Cromwell Street, Gloucester in 1994 -- all reminiscent of earlier American experiences in which surface skeletons were 'collected with a garden rake and buried bodies with a backhoe' (Morse et al. 1984: 53).

Forensic archaeology, a distinctive area of study which conjoins archaeology and criminal investigation and a relatively recent development in the UK (see Boddington et al. 1987), has been the subject of some research (Martin 1991) and comment (Davis 1992). In the US forensic archaeology is both better grounded and further advanced with a useful volume of case studies for comparison; the annual number of homicides (20,000) is much greater than in the UK (around 450 according to Home Office figures), and the demand for archaeological support proportionally higher. Only approximately one murder in fifty involves burial. Much early American expertise originated from within the discipline of physical anthropology whose forensic application has been well documented in papers (e.g. Snow 1982; Iscan 1988). Most feature landmark identification cases, notably Dwight's work in the Parkman murder of 1849 and Dorsey's identification of the remains of Louise Luetgert in the vats of her husband's Chicago sausage factory in 1897 (Stewart 1978). Britain's best recorded contribution occurred some 40 years later when Buck Ruxton, a Lancaster GP, dismembered his wife and housekeeper before (unsuccessfully) removing their identifying features and dumping their remains over a bridge (Glaister & Brash 1937). The Second World War, Korean and Vietnam Wars, whilst providing skeletal material on which methods of identification were later based, created a new need for victim identification, and the skills of biological anthropologists subsequently became engraved in textbooks (e.g. Krogman 1962; Stewart 1979). Snow notes the wider acceptance of the term 'forensic anthropology' in US literature of that time (1982: 107), subsequently reinforced by its application to the Chicago DC-10 disaster of 1979 and in attempts to identify the remains of Josef Mengele and Mozart.

Much of the relevant US literature, from a physical anthropological base, has come to notice the importance of field recovery and the application of archaeological techniques (e.g. Snow 1982: 117; Sigler-Eisenberg 1985). …