Page last updated at 01:38 GMT, Saturday, 12 July 2008 02:38 UK

A grave job for student archaeologists

by Sarah Mukherjee
BBC environment correspondent, in Bournemouth

Student Anne Marie Day
Student Anne Marie Day says working on a real grave will be difficult

A grim inevitability about many recent conflicts is the discovery of mass graves, requiring the expertise of forensic archaeologists. Bournemouth University runs the only course of its kind in the world, where students uncover a simulated mass grave.

On a patch of waste ground, under a white tent to keep off the driving rain, a team of three, dressed in forensic investigators' white suits, carefully brush away the earth surrounding a pile of bones.

It looks very similar to any other forensic investigation - photographers are taking pictures, and in other tents, teams are working on other remains.

Sometimes the skeletons are discovered bound and blindfolded. Sometimes the team finds spectacles, or toys, with the remains.

The bones are in fact made of plastic, stained with fence stain for effect, and the clothes are soaked in tea to age them.

What I try and teach the students is to stick to the science and retain your objectivity
Dr Ian Hanson

Indeed everything has been buried in the last few days, but Dr Ian Hanson, the course leader who has had extensive experience of uncovering mass graves from Iraq to Guatemala, says he and his colleagues make it as real as possible.

"We chose this location because it's very like sites we've worked on in Bosnia, Croatia and other places," he says.

"It's messy, surrounded by banks and piles of rubble - and of course in real cases this is where the disappeared end up. They're treated as rubbish by the perpetrators and disposed of in these locations."

Dr Hanson says that when he started doing this work, in Bosnia in 1997, he had little idea of what to expect, and the priority was to return the remains to the communities to allow them to grieve.

Now the evidence he gains can help bring the perpetrators to justice.

Fake burial site
The fake skeletons and clothes are all buried a few days before

This course teaches the students how to identify, mark out, dig and photograph mass graves and attracts students from all over the world, including Iraq and Croatia.

Anne Marie Day, an undergraduate from New Zealand, says she's well aware that the job will be a lot harder when she's uncovering real human remains.

"You've got to be professional every step of the way," she says. "You have a job - to determine what happened and get closure for that person and their families."

"What I say to the students is it can be very difficult," Dr Hanson says, "especially if you are working in places like Central America where families and even survivors are there.

"You may have the media around, be surrounded by police or security guards, there are political pressures - all kinds of things.

"What I try and teach the students is to stick to the science and retain your objectivity."

Dr Hanson says that using aerial surveys, local intelligence and even the local plant life can help identify sites which the criminals responsible have tried hard to hide.

Certain plants, he says, like disturbed ground - poppies being the best known example, which is why so many flourished in Flanders after the horrors of the First World War.

Forensic archaeologist students
The students work on a simulated mass grave

He and his team have used this technique with some success in Bosnia, where Artemis flowers thrive in ground that has been recently dug over.

He hopes that, as techniques improve, the fact that forensic archaeologists can put together strong cases against war criminals could even act as some sort of deterrent.

"We know from the trials in the Hague following the Srebrenica massacre the impact of forensic evidence.

"That case is a very good example. The investigators were quite enlightened in investing in as much forensic science and physical crime scene investigation as they did. I see that as a model for the future."

But he also knows that in the years to come there will, unfortunately, be no shortage of opportunities for his students to practise their skills.

Srebrenica reburies 300 victims
11 Jul 08 |  Europe

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