'We found bodies with hands tied'

September 7, 2007

Ian Hanson, lecturer in forensic archaeology, Bournemouth University

"There are two ways to deal with a body," forensic archaeologist Ian Hanson tells his students. "You can look at it as an object and try to forget that it used to be a person. The other way is to say: 'This is still an individual' and treat the body as though it still belonged to someone. Personally, I always view the dead as individuals."

When Dr Hanson graduated from Southampton University in the mid-1990s, the study of forensic evidence using archaeology was still a new discipline. The squad of the TV series Crime Scene Investigation , which reinvented forensic science as a glamorous career, was yet to appear on British screens. "I was more interested in conservation," the Bournemouth University lecturer recalls.

A job excavating a medieval abbey in East London in advance of the Jubilee Line Underground extension prompted a change of direction. The work, which required "moving lots of skeletons", sparked his interest. When he was offered a job with the forensic field team working for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1996, he jumped at the chance.

"I was in the Territorial Army, so my boss thought I wouldn't mind working in a war zone," he says. The team's job was to find and identify victims of the Srebrenica massacre - the killing in July 1995 of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serbs.

"We were working in heavy clay soils with anaerobic conditions, so the bodies still had a lot of tissue," he says. "We knew from the investigators that truckloads of men and boys had been taken to a disused quarry and machine gunned in batches down a slope. We found bodies with their hands tied and blindfolded."

The team was collecting evidence from the site to link the bodies with names on lists of the missing and to use in war crimes prosecutions. Despite the grim nature of the work, Dr Hanson says the apprehension before beginning was worse than the reality. "Once you get into it, it's not so bad. You just want to do the best you can for these people.

"The more stressful part was dealing with the living people. The perpetrators were still at large and we received death threats, although we were protected by Nato troops."

While the medieval abbey would fit with the average person's view of an archaeological site, a two-year-old mass grave would not. "A lot of archaeologists would say the same thing," Dr Hanson admits. "As forensic archaeologists, our view is that almost as soon as something is buried there's a role for us to play. Our skill is in peeling off layers of sediment in sequence and reconstructing the story."

After Bosnia, Dr Hanson also helped local teams in Guatemala and Iraq excavate mass graves in between researching for his PhD at Bournemouth.

"There is enormous variety in this job, and the research side is really picking up. Over the past year, there's been a real explosion of interest."

The Forensics Centre at Bournemouth takes between 30 and 40 masters students a year.

The team is currently investigating how scavengers move bodies around by placing carcasses of culled deer in different locations.

"With forensics, as opposed to archaeology, you can do comparative tests," Dr Hanson explains.

Bournemouth's forensic experts regularly assist the police. "Most of what we do is about saving the police time." For example, when building work at a local school unearthed some small bones, the university identified them as those of a dog.

Dr Hanson also takes his students to visit crime scenes to assist on cold cases, which they love. "That's more like CSI. The kids on the undergraduate course all watch it, and they're dying to put on their paper suits.

"I say to them that you have to be a good scientist first."

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk

My first job was picking fruit on the local farms at 14

My main challenge is avoiding injuries to stay fit

What I hate most are jobsworths

In ten years I would like to be married with four children, three dogs, two houses and one professorship

My favourite joke
Johnny the paratrooper came back from the war. He arranged a date with someone he had previously met through a friend. They went to a pub and hit it off, so much so that nearing last orders the young lady said: "Johnny, would you like to come back to mine for coffee?" Johnny said: "Yes, I'll get the coats and then we can go." When he returned, the young lady said: "Johnny, there is something you need to know, I came on my menstrual cycle today." Johnny thought about this for a second and then said: "That's OK, I'll follow you in a taxi." (That's a true story).

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