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Beyond Stone & Bone

Behind the Yellow Crime-Scene Tape
by Heather Pringle
May 22, 2009


us_army_cid_agents_at_crime_sceneYou’d never know it from watching the latest CSI episode, but forensic science is currently laboring under a dark cloud in the United States.  Last February, a blue-ribbon committee from the National Research Council issued a troubling report, citing “serious deficiencies” in the way many forensic scientists now investigate crimes.   In one instance, a wrongly identified fingerprint led to the arrest of an innocent man–an Oregon lawyer—for the 2004 terrorist bombings in Madrid.   And such errors are by no means a rare. 

The report pointed to a number of problems.  I was both intrigued and dismayed to read, for example, that basic forensic techniques such as fingerprint and toolmark analysis evolved in a piecemeal fashion, backed by rather sparse evidence and subjected to little or no detailed  review from the scientific community.   In the case of fingerprint analysis,  experts amassed some evidence showing that fingerprints are unique to an individual, but it now appears that the differences in some prints may be so minute that errors in identification might be inevitable.  To determine the extent of the problem,  the report urges forensic scientists to conduct basic studies on the degree of fingerprint variation across populations so that they can establish confidence limits to their identifications.   

I mention all this because many archaeologists in North America are increasingly eyeing forensic science as a career.  And from where I sit as a science journalist, I think this as a good thing:  archaeologists have skill sets that promise to be extremely helpful in many crime investigations.  Archaeologists are highly trained in the science of excavation, experienced in the recovery of human remains, and accustomed to working with a wide array of specialists, from pollen experts and entomologists to DNA experts. 

In Great Britain, forensic archaeology has been a separate discipline for more than a decade now and is becoming accepted among British police departments.   But here in North America, it’s just getting off the ground (no pun intended):  Until recently,  it was just part and parcel of forensic anthropology.   And here’s the thing.  Since forensic archaeology is just in its infancy here, it has the opportunity to avoid the mistakes made by many older forensic disciplines.  Rather than developing its methods piecemeal, it can proceed slowly and cautiously to develop archaeological protocols that,  as  FBI agent Michael Hochrein noted recently at the Society for American Archaeology meeting in Atlanta, “recognize, preserve and document” vital evidence at a crime scene.   

That sounds like a goal well worth struggling long and hard for.  After all, no one wants to see archaeologists helping to put the innocent behind bars.          

I’ll be in Bolivia next week, but my colleague Mark Rose will be pinch-hitting here.  Please stay tuned.



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6 comments for "Behind the Yellow Crime-Scene Tape"

  • Reply posted by John Gruntke (May 22, 2009, 6:38 am):

    During the Picton Pig Farm murder investigation in British Columbia Canada archeologists and their students were recruited from British Columbia University to assist in the excavation and identification of bone fragments retrieved from the property. The investigation involved the disappearence of numerous sex trade workers from Vancouver. The women were believed to have been fed through a wood chipper and the bone fragments were so small and the area being excavated so large police investigators required the assisstance of as many archeologists and students as they could recruit. The case received international press coverage and the assisstance of the archeologists proved essential to many of the murder charges.


  • Reply posted by Heather (May 22, 2009, 7:35 am):

    John: Yes, I am very familiar with that case, because I live in the greater Vancouver area. It was a high-profile investigation of a serial killer, and the local police forces called upon the services of archaeologists and archaeological students to comb sediments excavated from the pig farm where the prime suspect lived. But this was an exceptional case that called for exceptional measures: forensic archaeology is still in a very early stage in North America.


  • Reply posted by Daniel Molitor (May 22, 2009, 1:50 pm):

    If archaeologists become CSI types, can they simply hand artifacts over to a computer expert and order them “enhanced” to reveal everything you’d ever want to know? :)


  • Reply posted by Tina (June 4, 2009, 8:55 am):

    Does the TV show “Bones” — about a forensic anthropologist — cover aspects of forensic archaeology, as well? Or do they strictly deal with skeletal remains?


  • Reply posted by Lloyd Valad on (June 9, 2009, 2:24 am):

    They should really offer forensic science courses. This can make them better professionals and they can deliver their work more expediently and less erroneously.


  • Reply posted by Heather (June 9, 2009, 8:37 am):

    For interested archaeologists in the crowd, I’d like to pass on notice of a workshop on Forensic Bone Histology, to be held in Washington, DC on 13-15 July. For further information, please contact:

    Armed Forces Institute of Pathology
    Dept of Medical Education
    Washington, DC 20306-6000
    Tel: 202 782 2637
    Contact: Isaac Miller
    The faculty are from anthropology/bioarchaeology disciplines.


About Our Blogger:

Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit

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