The Archaeologists Toolkit: Three Approaches to Excavating Evidence

Spent your childhood digging into the depths of your school-yard sandpit? Have a bizarre (and as yet, inexplicable flair) for finding lost objects?

We’re prepared to take all you amateur excavators on an impressive tour which involves excavating evidence associated with a suspicious death. The work can be grim, but in some situations, it’s eventually immensely rewarding — it does after all, help provide investigators (and ultimately those involved in the legal process and criminal justice system) with the smaller pieces of a much broader and intricate puzzle.

It’s not just the right type of clothing for gruelling outdoor conditions that’ll get you through fieldwork. Archaeologists have a toolkit that would impress even the most diehard gadget fiends. We’ve amassed the most intriguing ones here. It’s time to grab your trowel, pack your handpick and pull on those army surplus boots before you head out into the jungle we call a crime scene.

Here are five approaches to excavating evidence, once you’re accompanied to the right location. Ready to figure out just where you should start digging? Then read on.

 

1. Geophysical prospecting


Surveying the ground using ground-based physical sensing techniques is often referred to as prospecting; one of the most common tools in forensic archaeology. Specialised devices and approaches are used to create entire maps of archaeological features right below the surface; in forensic archaeology, it means that the method might often reveal individual artefacts, especially metal. When the day is done, there are several images of the area to be examined for any likely objects hidden under the surface.

So just what sensors are used? Forensic archaeologists can use anything from electrical resistance meters (metal probes stuck firmly into the soil to give a local electrical resistance reading) to magnetometers (which measure the total magnetic field within a given area). Using different sensors obviously will produce different images, which when utilised together can give a very accurate picture of where an object (and potential evidence!) might be.

 

2. Aerial photography


Just how would taking a picture from higher ground or even from a helicopter help anyone find what’s buried beneath the surface? Strangely, aerial photography isn’t used her along with any other techniques that penetrate the ground. Just getting a feel for what a wide open space looks like before and after a given time point (as in, when a crime took place) helps investigators determine any strange changes in topography.

When the images are developed, the questioning begins: why are those roots dug up? Were those bushes always in that individual’s yard? If not, what could they potentially be hiding? Has that mound of earth grown in size over the last few days or months? Aerial video is one step up from this technique: recording a given area for the purpose of data collection by security agencies, for instance, can even give us a glimpse as to the activities which occurred in a space.

 

3. Surveying


Going back to the basics of land surveying is still one of the most valuable instruments in the archaeology toolkit — and it definitely had to be included in this quick equipment list. This is a technique which allows the expert to determine the three-dimensional position of specific places and the distances and angles between them. The whole point of this exercise is fairly simple: all this measuring leads to the creation of accurate maps that can be utilised to pinpoint the location of items.

These days, there’s less string and yardsticks — they’ve been replaced with GPS (Global Positioning System) which can make this process simpler. Still, even sophisticated satellite receivers have less accuracy than with traditional precise levelling methods.

 

Your Turn: Are you an expert or budding forensic archaeologist with something to say? Have another approach or technique to add to this list? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.

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