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For earlier periods, archaeology must be our main source of information, while historical documents help to illuminate more recent events.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.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Discussions
View all discussions

Opinions

digest of the most read and current commentary pieces

Starting a Band: The Four Cities You Should Visit for Inspiration

Starting a Band: The Four Cities You Should Visit for Inspiration

Black Metal takes Norway’s Everyday Racisms to the Extreme

Black Metal takes Norway’s Everyday Racisms to the Extreme

The Strange Connection Between Politics and Extreme Metal

The Strange Connection Between Politics and Extreme Metal

Damsels and Demons: Transgressive Females from Clarissa to Carmilla

Damsels and Demons: Transgressive Females from Clarissa to Carmilla

Events

& Venues

Festival Rock al Parque Endurance for Cultural Diversity

Festival Rock al Parque Endurance for Cultural Diversity

John Martin and the Promethean Theatre of Subversion

John Martin and the Promethean Theatre of Subversion

Tattoo artist

The Moscow Tattoo Convention returns June, in Russia

‘Vampyr, Der Traum des Allan Grey’ Review

‘Vampyr, Der Traum des Allan Grey’ Review

‘Between Two Worlds’ (‘Der Müde Tod’) Review

‘Between Two Worlds’ (‘Der Müde Tod’) Review

‘Witchcraft Through the Ages’ (‘Häxan’) Review

‘Witchcraft Through the Ages’ (‘Häxan’) Review

Reviews

& Critics

Impact

& Visual

Medicine, Martyrs, and the Photographic Image 1860–1910

Medicine, Martyrs, and the Photographic Image 1860–1910

Distinguishing Early Nineteenth-Century Modes of Cameras

Distinguishing Early Nineteenth-Century Modes of Cameras

A Scanty Post-Mortem History Of Spirit Photography

A Scanty Post-Mortem History Of Spirit Photography

Updated

& Recent

The Scottish Crown, the Protestant Church, and Witch Trials

The Scottish Crown, the Protestant Church, and Witch Trials

Lesbianism and the Vampire in “Christabel”and Carmilla

Lesbianism and the Vampire in “Christabel”and Carmilla

The Enduring Sexual Appeal of Vampires

The Enduring Sexual Appeal of Vampires

Introduction to the Monstrous Women of Dracula and Carmilla

Introduction to the Monstrous Women of Dracula and Carmilla

Blogs

Voices

Delighted with Horror: Reconfigurations of the Everyday

Delighted with Horror: Reconfigurations of the Everyday

Awe-inspiring festivals that revere the gothic subculture

Awe-inspiring festivals that revere the gothic subculture

Festival Rock al Parque Endurance for Cultural Diversity

The cultural divulges injected in the world’s music

01. Special
Edition
Bloody Serial Killers of History’s Worst Murder Sprees

Bloody Serial Killers of History’s Worst Murder Sprees

This article discusses how serial killers do not resemble those we see in cinema or literary works. In truth, the percentage of female serial killers has been...

The Vile Atrocities of Blood Countess Erzsébet Báthory

The Vile Atrocities of Blood Countess Erzsébet Báthory

Countess Erzsébet Báthory continues to draw the interest of historians, critics, artists, and in the process, one could argue, the victimising of...

‘Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural’

‘Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural’

‘Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural’ is an attempt to explain, as accurately and in the simplest terms as one can...

Share to...