Bournemouth University students have been excavating simulated mass graves in rural Dorset.
The graves imitate mass graves from World War I battlefields in France and also included metal items and simulated potentially dangerous unexploded ordinance.
But they first had to locate the graves, situated in land in Wareham, which had been created by academics some six months before and re-covered.
“The challenge for them first of all is finding it – we just let the students loose on this landscape and see who can spot an area that’s been disturbed,” said Dr Martin Smith, Principal Academic in Forensic Anthropology.
“We’re asking them to spot the obvious things, like depressions or undulations in the surface of the land, but then we’re also looking at some more subtle things like changes in vegetation.”
He added: “This is a week-long excavation where we have set up some simulated, complicated contexts for them to excavate.
“This simulates a First World War mass grave and we set this up some months ago. This has come out of expertise that we’ve got in the department where we have staff who’ve been involved in excavating such things in the real world over several years.”
The experience aimed to give students an understanding of the skills and processes needed to find, excavate and record complicated sites in the real world.
They had to organise themselves into teams and ensure that all finds were logged and recorded accurately.
Martin said: “What we really want them to get out of this week is that it is about process, it’s about logistics and it’s about teamwork.
“We could get shovels and get everything out of the ground by lunchtime, but all the information is lost and that’s the important thing. It’s not just a case of getting this material out of the ground, it’s not just a recovery exercise, it’s about recording it.”
First year BSc (Hons) Forensic Science students were also on the site, on the Trigon Estate, investigating a forest crime scene. They had to record and photograph items including shoes and alcohol bottles.
“One message we like to get across to people is that if you want to work in this kind of field, particularly in anthropology, is that skeletons don’t come from cardboard boxes in laboratories,” said Martin.
“Lots of information that’s going to be useful to us later can be recovered from the burial environment about what has happened to that person, how long have they been there, was the grave pre-prepared or hastily dug, and so on.”