What is forensic archaeology?

Archaeology is a very interesting field of study considering it’s everywhere beneath our feet. In that regard, it’s very similar to geotechnology, my first love in engineering. Investigating the cause of failures and accidents in the built environment are my loves now.

Archaeology v. Geotechnology

Geotechnology studies the different layers of soil at a site and their physical properties. This is done for supporting structures in the built environment. (Ref. 1) Archaeology studies objects found in layers of soil to learn how people lived in the past and engaged with the environment. Objects like tools, pottery, jewelry, stone walls and monuments.

Similar exacting investigative procedures are used in both fields of study – the identification of different layers of soil and the identification of objects in the layers. I was struck by the similarity on reading up on archaeology.

A difference is that archaeologists want to see objects in the soil and geotechnologists don’t – geotechs don’t want anything messing up the engineering properties of the soil.

Archaeological specialties

There are different specialties in archaeology like industrial archaeology, coastal and marine archaeology, building archaeology and battlefield archaeology.

Marine archaeology was practiced by Eric Allaby, author of The Sea Wins, a report on more than 40 ship wrecks in the Bay of Fundy. He dove on the wrecks of many of these ships. I imagine similar was done in study of some of the approximately 250 ship wrecks on Sable Island.

There are no extraterrestrial archaeologists yet, though NASA does employ an archaeologist to study satellite images.

Historians also study the past, but they do so by using the written and oral records. Archaeologist can delve deeper into the past to study the thousands of years of human endeavour that occurred before written or oral records began.

Treasure hunting and archaeology

The treasure hunting on Oak Island near Chester on the South Shore of Nova Scotia can easily be seen as a form of archaeology in practice.

Forensic archaeology

Forensic archaeology is an emerging science where archaeologists collect evidence for recent criminal investigations – especially in cases involving murder, genocide and war crimes. It’s also relied on for victim identification following disasters such as earthquakes, flooding, terrorist attacks, fires or plane accidents. We’ve had our share of those in recent times.

The science is well described in a Practical Encyclopedia of Archaeology. (Ref. 2) (I must say I liked seeing the word Practical in the title.) Forensic Science, the Basics is also a good read. (Ref. 3)

Forensic archaeology is also used to solve ancient puzzles, such as the identity of Jack the Ripper – a woman who was hung for another murder about that time, and only identified as Jack the Ripper years later. Or identify the cause of Beethoven’s death – lead in the medicines he was prescribed. (Ref. 2)

Forensic archaeology is being relied on today in the investigation of reported war crimes in Ukraine.

Like geotechnical engineers, what forensic archaeologists bring to the forensic process is a detailed knowledge of how to excavate the ground for buried remains, what to look for and how to analyse the data found. Both fields of study start with simple walk over surveys and aerial and drone photography.

Archaeologist have taught the police how to proceed from these simple tasks and be systematic and precise when excavating the ground beneath their feet – read, the emerging field of forensic archaeology.


  1. What is geotechnical engineering? Posted December 21, 2021
  2. Catling, Christopher and Bahn, Paul, The Complete Practical Encyclopedia of Archaeology, 512 pp, Hermes House, England, 2013. See the chapter on Forensic Archaeology page 226
  3. Siegel, Jay A. and Mirakovits, Forensic Science, the Basics, 505 pp, CRC Press, 2nd edition 2010

(Posted by Eric E. Jorden, M.Sc., P.Eng. Consulting Professional Engineer, Forensic Engineer, Geotechnology Ltd., Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, March 26, 2023. ejorden@eastlink.ca)   

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