In recent years debates over the politics of archaeology and ownership of 'the past' have received substantial attention in the archaeological literature. The role of forensic archaeology in present-day conflicts has however been neglected, perhaps because of the difficulties of writing about such an emotionally charged subject. Public interest in forensic techniques may be gauged by the prominence of reports in the popular media, especially during the 1990s, concerning the excavation of mass graves. The potential prurience of these reports has perhaps also contributed to mainstream archaeology avoiding the topic. However, the increasing worldwide use of forensic excavation to assess and attest to human rights violations highlights the importance of these archaeological techniques. I am not myself a forensic archaeologist, and I have no personal experience of forensic excavation techniques. My interest in this topic was stimulated by a visit, which I made in 1992, to the forensic excavations in Avellaneda cemetery, Argentina, where I was introduced to the work of the Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team. This study demonstrates the importance of forensic archaeology to interpretive archaeologies, arguing that far from being a marginal element of archaeology, forensic archaeology engages with epistemological and ontological issues that are relevant to the discipline as a whole.
The focus of this study is the reaction to the work carried out in Argentina by the Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF). The EAAF was responsible for excavating the unmarked graves of people who were 'disappeared' during the military dictatorship of 1976-83. Much of their work was used as evidence in the trials of the military juntas that took place in the mid-1980s. While the majority of the exhumations that they carried out in Argentina took place during the late 1980s and early 1990s, after the restoration of democratic government, their work retains a high profile due to the widely publicized search for the children of disappeared women, who were born while their mothers were detained by the military. Additionally, the recent indictment of Chilean ex-president Pinochet has brought the issue of disappearances in the Southern Cone of the Americas back under international scrutiny.