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Disaster Archaeology

Posted by Alfredo Gonzalez Ruibal


Review of Richard J. Gould: Disaster Archaeology, The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2007, ISBN 978-0-87480-894-0, 288 p., 55 figures, 5 tables, cloth.

Richard Gould has a long pedigree as an archaeologist concerned with the present: he has made important contributions to ethnoarchaeology, modern material culture, historical archaeology and the archaeology of the contemporary past (Gould 1978, 2000; Gould and Schiffer 1981). His new book shows us the usefulness of archaeology to understand contemporary disasters and the relevance of forensic methods for archaeology both in the past and in the present. Furthermore, the author eloquently defends the key public role of disaster archaeology: through the identification of human remains and personal belongings, it can bring closure to victims’ relatives and allow them to mourn their dead. The book has nine chapters. The first and last chapters are the more theoretical ones, with reflections on the nature of disaster archaeology and the archaeology of the recent past. The rest tackle particular case studies in many of which the author himself was directly involved. Through these cases, we are introduced into the practicalities, methods and problems of disaster archaeology. There are also two appendixes: the first one gives voice to several people working within Forensic Archaeology Recovery (FAR), the group set up by Gould (a nice example of multivocality, by the way), and the second one is a list of all the personnel involved in the FAR initiative. The book is well illustrated throughout with photos and drawings.

The organization of the book partially follows Gould’s own relationship with forensic archaeology and disasters. The narrative is an honest one: failures, doubts and problems are brought to the fore throughout. We join the author in a journey that starts in New York, little after 9/11 (chapter 2). This brutal event was crucial in Gould’s decision to establish an archaeological unit that could help the authorities in disasters. After the marked experience of 9/11, the group was put to work in the Station Nightclub Fire, in West Warwick (Rhode Island), where they proved both the relevance of archaeology for forensic recovery (chapter 3) and that of ethnoarchaeology to understand subsequent phenomena of memorialization (chapter 4). The concept of ethnoarchaeology that Gould deploys is quite different from the old, nomothetic one. It is more akin to modern material culture studies: ethnography with an archaeological sensibility.

Since 2003 FAR has conducted yearly training exercises in cooperation with various agencies and institutions (local emergency response units and forensic teams) in order to become acquainted with disasters in a range of situations. For each and every occasion the scenarios are carefully prepared: a suicide bombing, an airplane crash on land or in water, a two-year old homicide (chapter 5). With each case, Gould describes the successes and failures of the undertaking, the shortcomings and advantages of the methodology used, the problems met (including relevant environmental factors), and lessons for the future. The combination of examples with reflection makes for an extremely valuable guide for other professionals involved in forensic archaeology. Indeed, one of the problems facing forensic archaeologists is that, given their numerous public and legal responsibilities, they can rarely publish the results of their investigation in full. An important amount of interesting work is regularly undertaken without other practitioners realizing the shortcomings or advantages of a given methodology. Books like Gould’s will certainly help to increase dialogue among forensic archaeologists. The training exercises and the investigation on real disaster scenes examined by the author are full of useful hints, solid advice and thoughtful insights into methodology, the intricacies of teamwork, and group psychology.

Chapters 6 and 8 take leave of the recent past for a while and demonstrate how the relationship between forensics and archaeology is mutually beneficial. Archaeologists can help forensic science to recover evidence better and, conversely, forensic science may help us to see the past under another light. Gould, for example, looks at the case of cannibalism in the Prehistoric Southwest, describing how extremely sophisticated forensic techniques (such as the immunological detection assay method, p. 141-142) can clarify a controversial archaeological issue related to cannibalism. Another research project that relies on forensic practice (but without the intervention of physicochemical analyses) is the study of the North Carolina shipwreck in which an attempt to clarify a possible late 19th century crime is made. Chapter 7 brings us back to the present and draws upon the experience of different archaeologists working on human rights abuses.

This book is full of masterful storytelling. Such is the shared conviction of the series editor, James Skibo, as he asserts on the back matter. This is more than a cliché. A point of relevance is to be underlined here, not only because it is absolutely true, but also because the author starts (and ends) the book with a rant against storytelling: “Archaeological storytelling, as a form of quasi-fiction, does not stand up well to the hard glare of forensic science” (p. 12). Yet, as the author himself proves, not all storytelling is necessarily “quasi-fiction”, notwithstanding that fiction is the preferred model among storyteller archaeologists. When it comes to disasters - I agree - fiction is not the best way to tell a story, but this does not mean that telling a story is not relevant. We have to find another way: this is what Gould does. He tells great stories based on hard (and sensitive) evidence. Sure, when he or his team hands in a report, there is no much place for embellishment. Yet I do not know of many archaeological reports with rhetorical excesses throughout, either (except perhaps as conclusions or appendixes). The exhaustive publications of Ian Hodder’s team on Çatal Höyük abound in hard evidence recovered with the utmost precision (e.g. Hodder 2005). This might be an extreme example, but most post-processual archaeologists I can think of produce painstaking and rather sober reports.

This brings me to another issue: is forensic archaeology limited to recovering data from the ground? Are archaeologists just good at picking up, packing up and mapping all the tiniest bits of evidence? From Gould’s book I think that we can grant archaeology another role (which is not incompatible with the legal task of recovery): archaeologists can tell things differently. Gould’s archaeological tale of 9/11 allows one to see the aftermath of the event in a disturbingly alternative, even gothic, light: bits of bone, ashes, gray dust, office paper, personal items and debris dispersed throughout the city, on rooftops and dead ends and parking lots, creating a thin and sinister archaeological layer on lower Manhattan. At least for me, these details made me look at New York as I have never seen it before. Actually, it makes me look at all cities in a new way. What could a forensic archaeological examination of modern London, Madrid or Shanghai turn up? How many abject scars, how many mnemonic traces of horrible events are inscribed on the walls of what otherwise appear to be immaculate buildings in these cities? How many micro-histories may be told by looking at waste matter on rooftops or parking lots? How many crimes to be discovered?

On the other hand, archaeologists, either trained in an anthropological or historical tradition, can hardly be happy with simply documenting the past. This is but one part of our work. In certain situations, such as many of those described by Gould, we must stop at that point for legal imperative. Yet I think that we should try to insert our forensic research into the wider historical picture and address larger anthropological questions. This is precisely what Gould does with the North Carolina shipwreck. He correlates the detailed exploration of the remains with economic, political and technological issues at work in the 1870s-1880s. This procedure should apply also, when possible, to the most recent past: we should be able to manifest something new, as archaeologists, about the truth of the Rwandan Genocide or the war in the former Yugoslavia. Gould does this, though perhaps unintentionally, with 9/11, as I have pointed out.

A deep concern for empirical data crosscuts the book. Data, Gould feels, have been undermined by post-processual approaches, which consider everything in light of the ‘social’. Gould places repeated emphasis on the need to recover good, reliable evidence with the highest archaeological standards. Although this is a bit of a caricature and most people, even Shanks and Tilley (1987), in their book so often quoted (and denigrated), do not deny the existence of a real, material world out there, it is true that the excessive emphasis on constructivism, narrativity and textual metaphor in some recent archaeology is useless, even dangerous, when it comes to the recent past. We want a mass grave to be read as nothing other but a mass grave. I will not ask for a return to the naive positivism of the 1960s (Gould does not claim that either), but I think that the time is ripe to rethink empiricism. After all, some post-processualists, such as Ian Hodder himself, are going through an (sometimes unacknowledged) empirical turn and symmetrical archaeology wants to bring the material hardcore back to the foreground. The interesting point about disaster archaeology, as with many other archaeologies of the contemporary past, is that it forces us to revisit concepts of data, narrative, truth, and multivocality. Modern atrocities are something we do not want to play with. This, however, does not preclude a diversity of theoretical approaches to data. I am an almost Baconian empiricist, yet my ultimate interpretation of the evidence would probably differ from other researchers, given my particular interests and political stance. If two archaeologists examine the ruins of Chernobyl, they can both arrive at the same general conclusion: that it was a disaster produced by a human mistake. One archaeologist, however, might want to frame the problem within the corrupt politics of a totalitarian regime, while another one would perhaps emphasize the negative effects of technological development at all price during the 20th century. What nobody can do is negate Chernobyl or dismiss it as a minor incident. A similar debate is going on in contemporary history.

Of course, many questions come to mind when reading the book, but I wonder why it was not called “Forensic Archaeology” instead of “Disaster Archaeology”. The first title would be more accurate, even appropriate, since, as the author himself acknowledges, not all case studies belong neatly to the category of “disaster”. This is the case with Puebloan cannibalism or even the North Carolina shipwreck. They are nice examples of the application of a forensic methodology to archaeological cases, but the label of disaster is arguable. It is also debatable whether “disaster” is the best term to define human right abuses. Disasters are often perceived as something natural (such as an earthquake) or dreadful events produced by humans unintentionally (a fire due to negligence, for example, or an industrial accident). However, the choice of the title is understandable as a matter of shifting emphasis. Although things are changing, forensic science is still very much associated with the examination of corpses and, therefore, it is reduced to forensic anthropology. As a matter of fact, most books on forensic archaeology tend to give preference to the exhumation and study of human bodies (e.g. Hunter and Cox 2005; Ferllini 2007). This is not the case with the many manuals available on crime forensics (e.g. Inman and Rudin 2000; Horswell 2004), where archaeologists have a few lessons to learn. Forensic science is much more than physical anthropology and, hopefully, Gould’s book will help to popularize a wider appraisal of its methods and potentials among archaeologists. At the same time, by providing a more complete image of forensic work, Gould shows the important connections between archaeology and this sister discipline in a clear way.

There are two things that I feel are missing in the book: a chapter or section on ethics and politics and a stronger connection with other forensic archaeological traditions. Regarding the first point, Gould discusses many points that have to do with both themes, but they deserve a fuller treatment as an independent chapter, especially given the importance conceded to ethics in current archaeological research (e.g. Scarre 2006). There are some worrying ethical issues in certain forensic research. Admittedly, my stance derives from me being both a [quite radical] leftist and a European: things are seen from a different angle in the United States. For example, I would never participate in any forensic project that may end in a death penalty—a true risk in many places of the US. Likewise, I would never cooperate with an invading army in an illegal war—no matter how repulsive and despicable the former regime was. These are personal viewpoints, of course, but I am sure that many other archaeologists would agree with them. The relationship between the military and archaeologists, for instance, has been the object of a passionate controversy in the WAC mailing list during a couple of months this year (2007). Another issue has to do with the recovery of military personnel in places like South East Asia. There is an enormous asymmetry between the efforts put at the service of recovering one or two American servicemen and their relative weight in the totality of losses in the Vietnam War made worse by US intervention: 5.1 million Vietnamese (4 million civilians) and 58,226 Americans died as a result of the conflict. Gould says that 4,500 hours of digging were spent in a crater to recover the remains of a single individual (p. 199). Personally, although I fully understand the sorrow of American soldiers’ relatives and find the quest truly legitimate, I would rather put my skills as an archaeologist at the service of other relatives, those who do not have the economic means or the power to search for their missing ones.

The other point that I find wanting is the scarcity of connections with similar projects (they are mainly to be found in chapter 7). This is due in part to the fact that many forensic undertakings cannot be published, as I have pointed out, or only partially, or they are published in venues that lie outside the usual scope of archaeologists (e.g. Blau and Skinner 2005). This is the case with the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, who has worked since 1988 in 30 countries all over the world, from Bosnia to Eastern Timor. The EAAF are pioneers in disaster archaeology (http://eaaf.typepad.com/eaaf__sp/). Although they focus mainly on exhumations, their work has also mobilized forensic and archaeological methods in other contexts, as proved by their recent research in Darfur. The work of Polish archaeologist Andrzej Kola (2001) in Nazi concentration camps is also pertinent to Gould’s research. He has excavated at the camps of Belzec and Sobibor and his team has recovered a large amount of artifacts and other elements that reveal the criminal activities that took place there. The problem with forensics in extermination camps is the resistance among contemporary Jewish communities to unearth corpses: Kola discovered large amounts of well-preserved human remains in sondages, but he did not touch them. Nevertheless, a fierce controversy followed his investigation (http://www.hir.org/amcha/belzec.html). Issues of collective memory and amnesia, memorialization, justice and closure recur in other contexts. Many of Gould’s points, for example, would certainly be shared by archaeologists working with victims of fascist terror during and after the Spanish Civil War (cf. Ferrándiz 2006). Finally, much archaeological work on the contemporary past has points in common with disaster archaeology, especially the subfield of conflict archaeology (e.g. Schofield et al. 2002; Saunders 2007).

What we need now is to mix the many insightful archaeological approaches to the recent past that are being proposed by different practitioners to make the most of them. Disaster archaeology, conflict archaeology, cultural resource management and forensic archaeology are related in at least two ways: they are all shattering the traditional frontiers of the discipline and they are proving that archaeology is not only useful but crucial to society at large.

Gould’s new work is a great contribution to this revolutionary way of doing and thinking archaeology. I wholly recommend it.

References cited

Blau, S. and Skinner, M. 2005. The use of forensic archaeology in the investigation of human rights abuse: Unearthing the past in East Timor. The International Journal of Human Rights 9(4): 449-463.

Ferllini, R. (eds.) 2007. Forensic archaeology and human rights violations. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas.

Ferrándiz, F. 2006. The return of Civil War ghosts: The ethnography of exhumations in contemporary Spain. Anthropology Today 22(3): 7-12.

Gould, R.A. (ed.) 1978. Explorations in ethnoarchaeology. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Gould, R.A. 2000. Archaeology and the social history of ships. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Gould, R.A. and Schiffer, M.B. (eds.) 1981. Modern material culture: the archaeology of us. New York: Academic Press.

Hodder, I. (ed.) 2005. Çatalhöyük perspectives: reports from the 1995-99 seasons. London: British Institute at Ankara; Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Horswell, J. (ed.) 2004. The practice of crime scene investigation. Boca Raton, London, New York, Washington DC: CRC.

Hunter, J. and Cox, M. 2005. Forensic archaeology. Advances in theory and practice. London, New York: Routledge.

Inman, K. and N. Rudin. 2000. Principles and practices of criminalistics: the profession of forensic science. Boca Raton, London, New York, Washington DC: CRC.

Kola, A. 2000. Belzec. The Nazi camp for Jews in the light of archaeological sources. Excavations 1997-1999. Warsaw-Washington: US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Schofield, J., Johnson, W.G. and Beck, C.M. (eds.) 2002. Matériel culture: the archaeology of twentieth-century conflict. London; New York: Routledge.

Saunders, N.J. 2007. Killing time. Archaeology and the First World War. Sutton: Stroud.

Shanks, M. and Tilley, C. 1987. Social theory and archaeology. Cambridge, UK: Polity/Blackwell.


Alfredo, you raise a critically important issue concerning the absence of a lengthier discussion in Gould’s book about the relationship between forensic archaeology and political / ethical issues. This is very timely, considering the recent creation and activities of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, many of whom are protesting the US military’s employment of Anthropologists in war zones and political conflicts (see: http://concerned.anthropologists.googlepages.com/home). Here are a few points that, like many raised in Gould's book, are really just the beginning of lively discussions to come.

I can, as a member of Forensic Archaeology Recovery (FAR), attest that our group members are very conscious of the implications of our work, whether in investigating recent crime scenes, mass graves, natural disasters, or historical sites. We also recognize, however, that this type of work raises many uncharted ethical dilemmas that should be explored in greater depth.

Of course, I completely respect personal oppositions, like yours, to participating in a disaster or forensic archaeology undertaking whose results may conflict with one’s ethical principles. More often than not, the legal outcomes, punishments, consequences, etc. are unknown at the outset of recovery operations, making this practice of archaeology more akin to crime scene investigation than sociocultural anthropology. Because of these unknowns it’s important to recognize that the ethical issues surrounding disaster archaeology are not black-and-white, they are difficult to anticipate and complicated to undertake. Even in some cases where the outcomes may be more predictable, ethical dilemmas persist and deserve to be points of consideration and maybe even activism. Take, for example, the case of the war tribunals in Iraq in which Saddam Hussein and “Chemical” Ali were sentenced to death for genocide. Their convictions were directly shaped by the cultural and biological evidence collected archaeologically from mass graves. Yet, the contributions of disaster archaeology did not end when “justice” was served. Consider also the hundreds of victims (mostly women and children) recovered from the graves and their families, who will receive their repatriated remains and personal effects. I know that the international team of archaeologists who worked with these materials was aware of the tension between the dark political outcome and the tremendous measures of comfort, closure and memorialization that their work provided to the victims’ families.

Gould asserts that, in practice, a disaster archaeology deployment is never politically driven or oriented. The recoveries should stick to the guns of archaeological method, letting the scientific results do the talking in courts of law or courts of history. And, as he demonstrates through his several case studies, they can. But what happens afterwards? What are the implications of the forensic recoveries after cases are closed and sites are transformed? If this is an theory-less, scientific approach, why then is Gould considered to be an “activist archaeologist” by so many of his colleagues in Anthropology, as well as by the communities of victims’ families who his work has impacted directly (i.e. the 9/11 victims and families to whom he dedicates the book)? I think that this groundbreaking book has opened a huge can of very productive and interesting worms…

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