Mass Graves and Experimental Archaeology

The Forensic Anthropology Center at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has embarked on a really interesting new project that combines elements of both experimental archaeology and physical anthropology.  A highly detailed news story on this project was published just this morning in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, and you may read the article and view the related videos at the following URL:

http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2013/apr/14/body-of-evidence-ut-using-donated-corpses-in/

Kim Jong Un and other dictators may have a new problem on their hands.  As Jesus once said, “…those things done in secret will be shouted from the rooftops.”  I would like nothing more than to see my old alma mater make it happen.

While reading through the newspaper article, a few questions came to mind.  I do not have answers to these questions, but they are posed here for thoughtful consideration:

1)  A major underlying assumption of this project seems to be that mass murder and mass burial of the victims usually occur during the confusion of war or in some other circumstance where the perpetrators can be counted on to behave in haste, be thoughtless, and demonstrate ineptitude in effective disposal of bodies.  In other words, the perpetrators believe they can quickly and carelessly bury the bodies in a small mass grave and the problem will be over—and no one will ever know about it.  If this has been the pattern of behavior most often seen in the past, can this pattern really be counted on to continue into the future?  Mass murder and other serious violations of international law and human rights are a matter of increasing concern around the world, and more mass murderers are making a terminal journey to The Hague for prosecution.  Will the prospect of capture, undergoing an international  tribunal,  and lifetime incarceration lead the perpetrators of mass murder to better educate themselves and their underlings about the most up-to-date means for detecting mass burials and spur them to develop and implement better technological methods to cover their tracks?

2)  The article mentions that mass graves can be detected because the decay of buried human bodies causes significant subsidence of the overlying soil, and this subsidence would be potentially detectable with remote sensing technology such as LiDAR imaging.  The only problem is that such decay-based subsidence can be rather easily prevented by encasing the bodies in cheap, corrosion-proof containment that can easily resist the overlying weight of soil in a shallow mass grave and do it for a considerable span of time.  Containing any off-gas from the decay process is also possible.  Those of us who spend a great deal of our careers in the environmental protection field are well aware of the technological realities and potentials here.  What would prevent a murderous political regime from developing and deploying such technologies to elude detection of small-scale mass burials?

3)  Successful criminal identification and prosecution in the United States often depend on inept criminal behavior that is acted out with unawareness of the forensic technology available to detect such behavior.  Current forensic technology might work just fine if “Benny the Dip” gives up pickpocketing and commits a murder.  However, government-sponsored mass murder is a very different matter.  Unlike Benny, totalitarian governments often have the economic and scientific resources necessary to elude detection of small-scale mass burials—if they know the details of the technological methods investigators will use to find the burials.  Is it really wise to publicize the details of mass burial detection research in newspapers and eventually publish research results in even more detail in scientific journals?  Would it not be better to keep such details a secret for as long as possible so the international bad guys do not use those details to develop effective countermeasures?

These questions should not be taken as critcism of the new project.  Rather, they were just a few random thoughts that came rapidly to mind during my reading.  The Archaeology in Tennessee blog wholeheartedly supports this UTK Forensic Anthropology Center project and sincerely hopes that Kim Jong Un (otherwise known in some circles as that Fat Little Bastard ) and his totalitarian cohort will fall prey to it sometime in the next 50 years. 

Does anyone out there have answers to the foregoing questions?  What do you think about this new line of research?

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