Forensic anthropology Methodologies: Excavations of Mass Grave sites with Comingled Skeletonized Remains

This week I will explore how forensic anthropologists determine whether or not a human rights violation occurred by utilizing particular techniques developed by forensic practitioners as well as interdisciplinary methods used by archaeologists. Forensic archaeologists employ a variety of methods when excavating mass graves, paying particular attention to whether or not individuals were buried or reburied multiple times by examining the placement and position of the victims’ remains, the associated artifacts, and taphonomic changes to the bone. Collection of evidence and detailed description of mass graves are necessary to reconstruct the events that transpired and ultimately to prosecute the alleged perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Forensic teams investigating human rights violations enlist the help of a forensic archaeologist, who is trained in identifying how a gravesite was formed, filled, and concealed, along with taphonomic alterations to the gravesite and the humans remains.

There are several questions a forensic archaeologist must answer while excavating mass grave sites

How many bodies it takes to constitute a “mass” grave?

-Need only two or more bodies

-Actual examples in Croatia created after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia: 3-750 bodies

-Yet, a grave containing one individual does not necessarily mean that a human rights violation did not occur

So what constitutes a “mass” grave? 

Main definitive factor: nature of the body deposition and manner of which bodies were handled that reflect disrespect. They are distinct from other mass burials in which bodies are carefully placed, indicating a degree of care or at least forethought

How do forensic teams describe gravesites? Is there a gravesite typology?

There is a general typology forensic archaeologists follow when identifying, describing, and excavating mass gravesites

Execution site: location in which multiple individuals are executed; possibly see skeletal materials, bullet cartridges, shredded clothing, human blood and tissue fragments visible on either the ground surface or obscured by grave put or a similar feature intended to inter the human remains and other relevant evidence of a crime

Temporary surface deposition sites: characterized by the presence of residual clothing, personal effects, blood, and bone fragments; the body or bodies were once at this site, and then moved to another location after execution, possibly in an attempt to better hide the crime. Skeletal remains may exhibit taphonomic changes (i.e. weathering, sun-bleaching, insect cases, carnivore damage).

Primary inhumation site: An intentionally constructed pit in which to dispose bodies; typically contains multiple individuals who have been executed and interred soon after death and who share a related cause and manner of death; note that the PIS may be located far from where the victims were killed; human remains disposed in a disorderly manner and associated with evidence of execution, such as bullets and shrapnel; there should be no taphonomic changes, as there should have been no disruption of the natural decomposition process (expect to see “feather-edging” when the peripheral bodies of the bod mass are less preserved than those in the core of the assemblage)

Secondary inhumation site: Remains are removed from the primary inhuman site and moved to a clandestinely created grave; typically, transporting the materials usually results in disarticulation of the skeletal resulting in a disarticulated and commingled remains in a secondary inhumation site

Robbed or looted inhumation sites: Once the remains have been removed from a primary inhumation gravesite, the gravesite is then defined as a “robbed or looted inhumation site.” Usually the perpetrators clandestinely remove the remains for the purpose of creating a secondary inhumation site known to a minimum number of informants. The RLIS will include: clothing, hair, ballistics, and other items small enough to be left behind

This type of grave in particular is important to international tribunals because it assists in linking and reconstructing the sequence of events experienced by the victims

How do forensic archaeologists handle skeletonized human remains?

An additional goal is to maximize collection of disarticulated and commingled skeletal remains in the best possible condition

There are two primary excavation methods: pedestaling and stratigraphic, or “basin” method. The pedestal method focuses on exposing the body or bodies; stratigraphic, or basin method in which the excavator maintains the integrity of the grave features (i.e. grave walls) and its contents

Tuller and Duric (2006) found that the stratigraphic method 1.) had a lower number of unassociated bones; 2.) better maintained the provenience and articulation of remains and 3.) higher recovery rate of smaller bones compared to the team using the pedestal method

Case Study: “Ethnic Cleansing” of Northwestern Bosnia

The anthropological protocol implemented during the investigation mass graves is illustrated from the excavations of mass graves from the “ethnic cleansing” of Northwestern Bosnia in 1992. Hundreds of individuals were disposed in an open cast mine in Northwest Bosnia after being removed by a mechanical excavator from a primary burial site. The perpetrators relocated the remains to a new site, an open cast mine in northwestern Bosnia, and were not particularly systemic or careful with the exhumation, resulting in unnecessary disarticulation of the remains (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006). In the second burial site, one of the walls in the pit was blown up with explosives, causing an avalanche of rubble and rocks that covered the slope, which damaged and caused mixture of the bodies (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006). When the Bosniak Commission on Missing Persons excavated the bodies in 2001, it was crucial for the forensic practitioners to recognize that the final burial site was, in fact, not the primary burial pit and that the remains were interred multiple times and were even subject to taphonomic changes not related to the actual crime (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006). Additionally, the stratigraphic, “basining” excavation method of the primary burial site revealed that the grave pit itself was man-made, suggesting that the disposal of the individuals was premeditated and the perpetrators attempted to hide their transgression (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006).

In sum, archaeological field methods combined with the goals of forensic anthropology specialty affords practitioners and individuals investigating crimes against humanity the opportunity to scientifically investigate mass gravesites. Reconstructing the events that transpired and determining whether or not a mass killing was premeditated together may provide strong evidentiary support for a crime against humanity.

See articles for more information: 

Baraybar, P., & Gasior, M. (2006). Forensic Anthropology and the Most Probable Cause of Death in Cases of Violations Against International Humanitarian Law: An Example from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Journal of Forensic Science , 51 (1), 103-108.

Jessee, E., & Skinner, M. (2005). A typology of mass grave and mass grave-related sites. Forensic Science International , 152, 55-59.

Schmitt, S. (2002). Mass graves and the collection of forensic evidence: genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. In W. Haglund, & M. Sorg (Eds.), Advances in Forensic Taphonomy: Method, Theory and Archaeological Perspectives (pp. 277-292). New York: CRC Press.

Skinner, M. (1987). Planning the archaeological recovery of evidence from recent mass graves. Forensic Science International , 34, 267-287.

Skinner, M., Alempijevic, D., & Djuric-Srejic, M. (2003). Guidelines for international forensic bio-archaeology monitors of mass grave exhumantions. Forensic Science International , 134, 81-92.

Tuller, H., & Duric, M. (2006). Keeping the pieces together: Comparions of mass grave excavation methodology. Forenic Science International , 156, 192-200.

the individuals was premeditated and the perpetrators attempted to hide their transgression (Baraybar and Gasior, 2006).

In sum, archaeological field methods combined with the goals of forensic anthropology specialty affords practitioners and individuals investigating crimes against humanity the opportunity to scientifically investigate mass gravesites. Reconstructing the events that transpired and determining whether or not a mass killing was premeditated together may provide strong evidentiary support for a crime against humanity.

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