Forensic Archaeology

Last week I headed off on a four day adventure as a forensic archaeologist. I was helping out using ground penetrating radar and gradiometry on a pretty high profile cold case and because it’s an ongoing investigation, I can’t say anything about the case itself, so instead I’m going to write about the similarities and differences between this job and other “normal” archaeology I’ve been involved in.

First of all, the most attention you get as an archaeologist tends to be from locals, cracking the timeless “have you found gold yet” joke, or if overseas, local kids practising the handful of phrases they know in English. On this case all the TV stations were parked out the front with satellite dishes and cameras at the ready. They knew we were coming and when we pulled up they rushed over, waiting for the GPR to be unloaded from the back of the ute.

I didn’t know exactly how to react to this, but the police are used to it, and later told us stories about the different ways they interact with the media, depending on whether the publicity will be good or bad for the case. If they want publicity, they’ve been known to walk around carrying empty evidence bags or fake fingerprint dusting for the cameras. If they don’t want the attention, they have to put up gazebos to work under, and make sure their notes are never facing the sky in case news helicopters can read them.

This case was fairly high profile, we were to make sure the media didn’t talk to us at all and make sure we didn’t all crowd around the same spot at the same time in case they thought we’d found something. At the same time, we knew we would end up on the news and in the papers, so it was a matter of just doing our jobs and ignoring the cameras. The hardest part for me was to keep a serious face the whole time. The job was a serious one, but I like to laugh and joke around a bit when I work. However, on a two minute news bulletin, laughing and joking doesn’t come across well!

Part of having so much attention from the media meant having attention from those who were affected by this case. When you find something heartbreaking on an archaeological dig, like an infant burial, it’s sad, but it’s easy enough to move on knowing that it happened hundreds or thousands of years ago. The papers had go onto some people who had been affected by the case and their reports of how it had changed their lives on social media. They had said things like how they wanted closure, how they were glad the police were looking into it again, how they so hoped that this time, they would get some answers. It was heartbreaking, and I know that we all wanted the same thing.

The next thing that took some getting used to was the sheer amount of resources the police have at their disposal. When you’re working on an archaeological site and say, a building is in your way, built right on top of the corner of some amazing thing, well too bad. Working with a GPR means having enough room to manoeuvre around in. At our slightest suggestion, a police officer would immediately chainsaw tree branches out of our way, dismantle fences, or hire the local bobcat driver to move big things with no hesitation at all. I’m sure that if we’d casually suggested that our lives would be easier if several buildings were demolished, they would have had a wrecking ball there in no time.

It was also strange having a very specific list of things to look for. On an archaeological dig, you can make an educated guess about what you might find, but you’re not looking for anything in particular. On this case, we knew, in great detail, what we were looking for.

When we had looked over the GPR data and flagged areas of interest, I think we all found it hard to watch the police dig. We had to tear ourselves away when we realised we were hovering over them.

Maybe the worst part is, now that we’re home, we can’t know what’s happening. Everyone was so invested in this case, we were all hoping to find what we were looking for, but now, unless we get asked back to help again, we might never know.


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