When archaeologists and police team up, you get plastic skeletons


By AGENCY

During a joint exercise on a fictitious murder case, criminologists and archaeologists in Germany worked on an excavation of a plastic skeleton. Photo: Hochschule der Sächsischen Polizei/dpa

Steffen Schulz has just buried a skeleton, and he's not giving away any clues about its whereabouts.

The senior police officer in the German state of Saxony has solved major cases and now teaches at the state police training academy.

Schulz is busy passing on all he knows – and sometimes that means burying a plastic skeleton.

He's accompanied by forensic archaeologist Patricia van der Burgt, whose job is to secure and analyse clues, as anyone who watches TV shows such as CSI is well aware.

But van der Burgt isn't really a fan of such series. She sees her job as an interdisciplinary adviser, teaching the next generation of officers how to use her skills in their investigations.

Forensic archaeologist van der Burgt looking at a file with information from a training exercise for police in Germany. Photos: Miriam Schoenbach/dpaForensic archaeologist van der Burgt looking at a file with information from a training exercise for police in Germany. Photos: Miriam Schoenbach/dpa

For police, forensic archaeology means locating bodies or objects – such as weapons – and excavating them. The aim is to find out everything possible about the perpetrator, the victim and the crime so it can be documented well enough to stand up in court as evidence.

"Archaeologists approach excavations differently from forensic technicians. They often uncover one bone after the other at the site where they were found, take photographs and remove them piece by piece. The archaeologist uncovers the entire skeleton before starting to document their findings," says Schulz, which is not his real name.

Schulz set up this collaboration between Saxony's state archaeology office and the police academy a few years ago. He says it's unique in Germany and draws interest from other police departments.

He and van der Burgt fondly remember how they first uncovered a plastic skeleton at a "crime scene" behind the college building, aided by eight top Saxon investigators. Photographs of the excavation taken during the training exercise show how carefully participants removed the top layer of soil and divided the area into a grid.

At a police academy in Germany, officers get a crash course in the field of forensic archaeology with the help of a professional. At a police academy in Germany, officers get a crash course in the field of forensic archaeology with the help of a professional.

Van der Burgt and Schulz glance at the photos. Taking the approach preferred by archaeologists means it's possible to reconstruct the way a body was lying when it was buried, with its hands folded, for example, or tied up, or if the body was lying on its stomach.

The exercise for the trainee officers also involves clothes and buried objects. The body is supposed to have been buried for a year and a half, but the surrounding possessions are in good shape, though slightly dirty, and there are weeds growing around the wallet.

"We can find fingerprints that are on any of the credit cards in there, using the fuming chamber. We can also identify any traces of DNA," says Schulz.

His view is that there's no such thing as a crime without a trace.

Items found at a crime scene during a training exercise are displayed on a table in Germany. Items found at a crime scene during a training exercise are displayed on a table in Germany.The detailed business of sifting through the crime scene for clues is ever more important, says Hanjo Protze, vice rector of the Saxon police training academy in the eastern town of Bautzen.

"Forensic work is becoming more and more important for the police because fewer and fewer people are making statements, accused and witnesses alike."

Suspects often refuse to give evidence, meaning convictions are based on evidence that can be found at the scene; that's why collaboration between police and archaeologists is growing increasingly important.

Van der Burgt sees value in the collaboration for her profession too.

"We archaeologists benefit from the different thinking of criminologists. We think a lot about our findings, but we don't always have enough evidence to back up what we're thinking. The police come up with several possible theses, weigh them up and compare them with the facts to find the one that fits best."

Well-established in the United States and Britain, the field is new in Germany.

Van der Burgt completed her forensic training in Britain and at a new course in Cottbus. "In Germany, around 500 people are murdered each year, and one per cent of them are hidden or buried." Both of those rates are much higher in the United States, says van der Burgt.

She works with several police training colleges throughout the region and takes questions any time from officers who want to discuss their investigations.

For now, that plastic skeleton buried behind Saxony's training college is still waiting to be found by trainees – it will be a few more months, however, until they will get their shot at finding it. – dpa

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