Detecting grave sites from surface anomalies



Publication Details

Watson, C. J., Ueland, M., Schotsmans, E. M.J.., Sterenberg, J., Forbes, S. L. & Blau, S. (2020). Detecting grave sites from surface anomalies. Journal of Forensic Sciences, Online First 1-12.


Forensic investigations of single and mass graves often use surface anomalies, including changes to soil and vegetation conditions, to identify potential grave locations. Though numerous resources describe surface anomalies in grave detection, few studies formally investigate the rate at which the surface anomalies return to a natural state; hence, the period the grave is detectable to observers. Understanding these processes can provide guidance as to when ground searches will be an effective strategy for locating graves. We studied three experimental graves and control plots in woodland at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (Sydney, Australia) to monitor the rate at which surface anomalies change following disturbance. After three years, vegetation cover on all grave sites and control plots had steadily increased but remained substantially less than undisturbed surroundings. Soil anomalies (depressions and cracking) were more pronounced at larger grave sites versus the smaller grave and controls, with leaf litterfall rendering smaller graves difficult to detect beyond 20 months. Similar results were observed in two concurrent burial studies, except where accelerated revegetation appeared to be influenced by mummified remains. Extreme weather events such as heatwaves and heavy rainfall may prolong the detection window for grave sites by hindering vegetation establishment. Observation of grave‐indicator vegetation, which exhibited abnormally strong growth 10 months after commencement, suggests that different surface anomalies may have different detection windows. Our findings are environment‐specific, but the concepts are applicable globally.

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