Matériel Culture: The Archaeology of 20th Century Conflict

By John Schofield; William Gray Johnson et al. | Go to book overview

10

Tell the truth: the archaeology of human rights abuses in Guatemala and the former Yugoslavia
REBECCA SAUNDERS Historical archaeology can be said to have become a bona fide sub-discipline in anthropology with the establishment of the Society for Historical Archaeology in 1967. The contributions of an historic sites archaeology to the larger disciplines of archaeology, anthropology and history are still debated in both the academic literature (see for example the Annales approach-Bintliff 1991) and the popular literature (for example Chippindale 2000; Lowenthal 2000; Wiseman 2000). Most of us, however, accepted the CRM-derived cut-off date for a historic site at fifty years before present, and have devoted both our research programmes and our methodological refinements to sites dating before this time. Within the last fifteen years or so, another application of archaeology has arisen; one that applies to the very recent past. Archaeological field techniques have been employed in a number of regions around the world to document human rights abuses. This documentation has served:
1 to counter government or military denials of human rights abuses
2 to provide evidence in litigation against high-ranking individuals under whose direction human rights abuses took place
3 to confirm or correct survivors' accounts (oral histories) by detailing site taphonomic processes
4 to excavate the remains of victims and to discover, through physical anthropology and associated artefacts, the cause and manner of death
5 to identify the victims by comparing physical anthropological data to an antemortem database containing physical characteristics of known victims
6 to notify families so that some closure can take place, and ultimately
7 to deter future human rights violations by demonstrating that the actions of the past are recoverable. 1

Below I will discuss the genesis of the involvement of the two organizations- the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the United Nations (UN)-most committed to an archaeological approach to documentation of human rights abuses and the exhumation of remains. In addition, I present some examples from excavations in Guatemala and the former Yugoslavia; excavations in which I have been personally involved. The different

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