Jan
02
2009

Forensic Archaeologists search for evidence of genocide

Archaeologists excavate mass graves in Iraq.
Archaeologists excavate mass graves in Iraq.Courtesy US Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District and Regime Crimes Liaison Office
It’s the last weekend to go check out the CSI exhibit which takes visitors through the process of gathering forensic evidence and solving a case and the January issue of Archaeology magazine offers a really interesting look at how forensic techniques can be used on a large scale. It follows the role of American archaeologists in gathering evidence used in the trial of Saddam Hussein and other leaders for the 1988 mass murder of Kurdish people in Iraq.

Investigators had many documents suggesting the previous Iraqi leaders were guilty of genocide and had found what looked like mass graves. However, they looked to excavating the graves and locating the bodies in order to prove that the previous Iraqi government had targeted a civilian population of a particular ethnicity.

Mobile camp to analyze remains and artifacts
Mobile camp to analyze remains and artifactsCourtesy US Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District and the Regime Crimes Liaison Office
A team of archaeologists from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the desert and found 10 burial pits all oriented in the same direction. They uncovered one of the pits and photographed it. Then they removed each body with its clothes and belongings one at a time, marking each one’s position. They made a case file for each victim and analyzed each individual’s clothing, bones, and DNA samples to reconstruct what had happened.

I was shocked to read that of the 114 people they found, 84 were children. From the belongings people had with them, the team thought that the victims expected to be relocated but were instead led into a one of 10 already dug pits and shot.

The archaeological evidence was used in court along with government documents and eyewitness accounts including the testimony of a man who had survived the massacre. Hussein had been sentenced to death in another trial, but five of the other six defendants were convicted.

The team of archaeologists stayed to excavate and return the bodies to Kurdish officials, who held a reburial ceremony and plan to use some of the objects for a holocaust museum.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

bryan kennedy's picture

Thanks for this compelling story. It's fascinating how modern day criminal science is making its way into the practice of archaeology more and more. I suppose the flow of information goes both ways.

posted on Mon, 01/05/2009 - 12:38pm

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