Painful Archaeology: A Look At Handling Mass Graves

mass graves

Human history is tragic. We’ve waged wars for eons, causing innocent victims to lose their lives at the hands of ignorance and power. One such war in recent memory is the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina where nearly a quarter of a million people lost their lives during the Bosnian War between 1991 and 1995. The International Committee of the Red Cross has estimated that about 15,000 to 20,000 people were still missing as of June 2000 due to the conflict. Anthropologists speculate that the missing may likely be buried together in discreet, mass graves sites –- deep within the country’s forests, mountains or fields.

A year after the war ended, members of the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), uncovered almost 2000 skeletal remains and bodies from such mass graves in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Still, this only makes up a small portion of those missing and presumed dead. Lack of documentation, personal belongs and clothing also makes identifying the bodies a challenging feat — but carefully analyzing mass grave sites and relying on forensic tools can help.


Zeroing in: trawling and identifying the right place

Due to the secrecy of mass grave sites, it’s hard to know exactly where people were buried. Given the sensitivity of the circumstances, multiple witness accounts are not always reliable, but are the best source when trying to locate the mass grave.

The appearance of the ground can also provide clues about a possible burial site: cracks or imprints in the ground, unique plant species and different types of soil all suggest a newer grave site. Yet the same visual cues can’t be used for older burial sites. Instead, excavators can use metal probes, magnetometers, and cadaver dogs to help detect metal bullets or sniff out dead bodies. Ground penetrating radars (GPR) can sometimes help, as they can zoom 1.5 to 2 meters deep into most types of soil. The GPR produces specific patterns that can only be interpreted by experts with an understanding of soil science.


Bits and pieces: putting together the skeletal fragments

Forensics anthropologists begin the challenging task of identifying an uncovered skeletal remain. The key difference between a forensic anthropologist and forensic pathologist is the type of samples they look at. An anthropologist looks at hard bones, like molar teeth, arm or leg bones; a pathologist looks at soft tissue. Given that skeletons mainly remain at mass graves sites, the expertise of a forensic anthropologist is integral to identifying the bodies via DNA analysis.


Remains of the day: hard bones, soft tissues

Studying the pelvis, arm bones, leg bones and – to a lesser degree – the skull, can also help investigators figure out whether the person was a man or a woman. That said, it’s more difficult to find the sex of younger children, since their bones are not fully formed.

Bone tissue can reveal a lot about when the person died. As we grow, new bone tissue continually forms. Our body does this in a timely fashion: it regularly spurts out bone tissue around specific times of development, from birth to about the age of 15. These bone tissue merge at specific times of development too. For instance, before birth, we have about 800 soft tissue growth centers. As the fetus grow, these centers merge together, explaining why we only have around 450 of these soft tissue ‘hotspots’ at birth. Sometimes, these bone tissue growing centers can still be found in the skeleton remains and can help uncover the age the person died.

All of these techniques can be applied in solving any missing person case — from uncovering a homicide site or finally learning the identity of missing soldier from previous wars. Human tragedies are a part of our history, but it’s useful to know forensics can help many grief-stricken families find closure and attempt to put the horrific past behind them.


Your turn: Do you have a personal experience of an excavation of a missing person? Are there any other techniques employed to recover the whereabouts or the identity of a person long gone? We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a comment here.



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