Archaeology, History, Crime and Punishment

Julie Wileman
Julie Wileman

Murder, assault, thievery, fraud — for as long as there have been groups of humans living together, these and many other forms of crime have been committed. In this article, we shall take a look at the record of crime and punishment in this and other countries, and at the contribution of archaeology, history and forensic science to the identification of crimes, victims and perpetrators, as well as forms of punishment.

For earlier periods, archaeology must be our main source of information, while historical documents help to illuminate more recent events. Even when studying more recent times, however, archaeology is playing an increasing part in helping us to understand crimes and the ways in which societies have dealt with criminals.

In the 1970s and 1980s, police forces started to ask archaeologists to help find important evidence at scenes of certain types of crime. Subsequently, the methodology and skills of archaeologists were put into service for the investigation of other types of events, such as mass disasters, and the finding and identification of victims of war crimes.

Today, the police and other agencies regularly employ forensic archaeologists to help them locate and evaluate material evidence at scenes of crime. Their job is to look for buried items — to give names to victims and to find items that may help to identify criminals, such as the weapons used in the commission of an offence.

They are also asked to help find bodies and to establish how and when they died and were buried. Some of the most harrowing work in this area occurs during the investigations of massacres committed as war crimes. Not only is the forensic archaeologist responsible for helping to identify victims for their families, but also to recover the evidence needed to prosecute their killers.

Forensic archaeologists work at disaster scenes such as air crashes and tsunamis to identify the dead. In addition, they also investigate ancient crimes, using modern forensic science to shed light on murders that took place centuries ago, and to try to determine whether a death found during the excavation of an archaeological site was the result of unlawful killing, execution, accident, ritual or warfare.

The forensic sciences have a very long history, if not always firmly scientifically applied. In the medieval period, Chinese doctors learned how to distinguish the causes of death, and fingerprints were used to validate documents, although they were not systematically recorded.

One of the earliest stories about the use of a forensic approach to investigation suggests that, during the third-century BC, Archimedes was asked to make sure that a golden votive wreath destined for a temple was actually pure gold, or whether a fraud had been committed. He could not damage the crown in any way. He realised that a wreath made of pure gold would be less buoyant than one to which a lighter metal had been added. He was able to prove that the wreath was fraudulent.

Physical evidence began to be used to identify criminals in the later-eighteenth-century, and analysis of the ink in a document is first recorded in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth-century, around the time when microscopes began to be used to identify bloodstains.

Within a few decades, tests were establishing whether poison had been used, and providing ballistic evidence. The invention of photography added new dimensions to criminal investigations, both to identify convicted criminals and to record details of crime sites. Following earlier theorists, Sir Francis Galton published a book on fingerprints and their ability to help solve crimes in 1892. In the twentieth-century, forensic science began to be formally taught, the first university to offer courses being Lausanne, in Switzerland.

Medical, technical and photographic advances rapidly added to the tools available over the next hundred years, and new types of evidence were introduced — forensic botany which is used to identify plants, pollen and other vegetable material at a crime scene or on a suspect, forensic entomology to study insect behaviour at crime scenes, isotopic analyses and DNA studies for identification of victims and criminals. The very first police crime laboratory was set up in Lyons in 1910. Since then, the use of computers and the world wide web have enabled investigators to collate, compare and share information internationally.

Many police investigations require the application of normal archaeological skills, such as stratigraphic recording, the sampling of soils and microfossils, and meticulous removal of even the tiniest scrap of materials and artefacts from the ground. The techniques used to study the minute details of the past have proved to be very useful in providing evidence for court prosecutions in the present.

Archaeologists bring a number of particular skills to the table: the identification of ground disturbance from surface indications and from geophysics; meticulous excavation, detailed recording and the recovery of small objects; and the identification of decayed and fragmentary finds, particularly animal and human bone. Just as important is the archaeological awareness of context and sequence.

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