Providing evidence of atrocities drives Margaret Cox to excavate mass graves despite being very squeamish, says Jennifer Wallace.
Ten years ago, an archaeological team was sent to a Central American country to investigate some of the many mass grave sites there.
There was an amnesty. With the days of the junta over, relatives were free to reclaim their dead. But, under the new dispensation, the perpetrators of the atrocities were shielded from prosecution and were not to be called to account for their actions. So the archaeologists dug up the dead for humanitarian reasons, not forensic ones. They identified victims by tell-tale signs - the shape of the head, the scar on the ankle - and pulled the bones free of the mouldering remains for the families to mourn and bury. But they did not bother noticing the grave around the body, the disturbance of dirt nearby, signs of vehicle tracks. They did not excavate to the high standards required by the courts, because at that time there were no courts.
In the former Yugoslavia, the situation was very different. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia employed a large team of professional archaeologists to excavate the graves and collect evidence scientifically to prepare the case for the war crimes trials in the Hague. But of the 4,019 bodies exhumed as forensic evidence, only half were individually identified and returned to their families. The relatives were not included in the excavation process, and repatriating the remains was never considered. Now the remains lie frozen in storage and the difficult process of identifying them long after excavation so that they can be properly buried is under way.
Such cases prompted archaeologist Margaret Cox to establish the International Forensic Centre of Excellence for the Investigation of Genocide (Inforce) three years ago. Inforce, housed at Bournemouth University, brings together experts from different fields - archaeology, anthropology, forensic science and human rights law - to investigate mass graves according to the highest professional standards. "Lots of countries would send in forensic teams to look at mass graves, but it was very piecemeal and there was no overarching strategy," Cox explains in the secure and sanitised surroundings of the Society of Arts in London.
"Inforce was a response to a chaotic situation."
Inforce has two major missions. The first is to ensure that forensic and humanitarian priorities are considered when any excavation is undertaken.
In other words, archaeologists must be careful to collect all the data from a grave site, including evidence of killings, such as ballistics and vehicle tracks, as well as the bodies, so that they can build up a picture of what happened when the crimes took place. But they must also take time to identify each body and notify the families so that they can claim their dead. There must be no repeat of the failures in Central America or Yugoslavia.
The second mission is to train local people to excavate graves. "There is something slightly colonial about sending Western teams into developing countries to sort out their problems," Cox says. Training local archaeologists or forensic scientists in excavation techniques that will provide watertight evidence in court allows them to take control of their own justice and to make the decisions that pose so many difficulties to outsiders: whether or not to open up a grave; which grave to dig; how to use the information found in the grave.
"Justice means different things to different people," Cox observes. "The justice has to be for them, and not some sort of sop to Western neglect that allows things to happen." This is precisely, she thinks, what is happening in Rwanda.
The two most recent projects Inforce has taken on have been in Rwanda and Iraq. Cox spent seven months last year in Iraq, and Inforce continued there until this April when the situation became too dangerous and the Foreign Office advised them to withdraw. They were evaluating graves from which the local communities had already retrieved bodies to see if they "still retained any forensic importance". And they were assessing sites to find out whether they contained graves. One site they investigated, Musayib, southwest of Baghdad, turned out to have at least six mass graves within it and in total more than 50 mass graves have been so far confirmed around the country. (There are reported to be 0 graves.) Work was tough. They stayed in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces where nothing functioned. "It was gold taps but no water," Cox recalls. The local people, mostly women, who had lost relatives and so were keen to be closely involved in the investigation, were initially reluctant to deal with women (four out of Cox's team of nine were women). "But once they realised we were quite useful women to have around, they were fine and quite pleased to have us."
Meanwhile, vehicles were scarce and, whenever Inforce managed to secure a couple of Jeeps, they then needed to find an armed escort, so they were severely restricted in their movements.
This begs the question of the influence of politics on forensic archaeology. After all, there has been a long history of the political or nationalistic manipulation of archaeological evidence - think of Mussolini pouring money into the excavation of Rome to boost his fascist state - and nothing would bolster the justification of the war on Saddam by the US and Britain more than the revelation of mass graves and atrocities. A pile of mangled bodies speaks louder than words. Given the restrictions on movement, it would be all too easy to guide archaeologists to the graves the authorities wanted them to discover. So how did Cox ensure that she was not used by the British and Americans to make their case?
"One of the challenges is to make sure that our goals are not influenced by the political regime," Cox replies. "If you are asked to excavate a grave, you have an obligation to make sure it is part of a larger investigative process, so that you know that that grave has been selected for reasons that are about justice and not politics."
In this regard, the earth acts like a memory, holding fast the record of earlier trauma and violence and resisting the attempts of brutal dictators to erase the past. To open a grave and examine the rotting bodies is painful, even horrific. But to know that acts of torture and murder are not forgotten but can literally be dug up again in physical form and presented to the perpetrator is to hang on to a grim satisfaction. In the past ten years, when forensic archaeology has been used increasingly in war crime trials, the ground, it seems, has become a telling medium of justice.
And Cox, who admits to being very squeamish about dead bodies, says that it is the thought of justice and the good that comes from the repatriation of remains to families that allows her to cope with the grisly nature of her work. When I spoke to her, she was about to go to Cyprus to assess whether the request from the Government to investigate graves in the north will lead to reconciliation between Turkish and Greek communities or whether it is a cynical political tactic. She says that she is spurred on by the hope that her work will lead to a more widespread end to atrocities. "It's important to have a process of justice that is very visible. We hope, perhaps naively, that what we do will stop a potential perpetrator from committing terrible acts in the future."
Jennifer Wallace is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge. Her book, Digging the Dirt: The Archaeological Imagination is published by Gerald Duckworth & Co, £14.99.