‘Criminal Minds’ Brings Archaeology into Mainstream News

By Brigid Gallagher 30/03/2011

Great to see some archaeology on TVNZ news this last week article here and video here.  It did make me chuckle however.  Why is it that something interesting for its own sake, needs to be sensationalised with the word, murder….!? 

Is it the case that the legacy of Indiana Jones and the like are still leading the medias perception of what makes good archaeological news?  Is it that archaeologists themselves feel the need to up-play findings to make the news in the first place.  Or is it as Anna Sandiford wrote in “Talking the CSI Effect” last week, that the CSI phenomenon, or in my case, Criminal_Minds, has so influenced us, that to make this relevant to todays society, crime and forensics needs to be the focus of the reporting.

 The Scene:

The quick recap is that during the new motorway tunnel construction near Victoria Park in Auckland there was a chance find of a pistol.  It was found at the bottom of a Victorian Well…yes a Victorian pistol from Victoria Park…covered in sludge one would presume.  The pistol is loaded, however one shot as been dispensed…da da dahhhhhh….it must be Muuurrrrrrda (imagine Taggarts voice).

 The Facts:

The pistol itself is small, about 20cm in length, and the handle is missing.  The archaeologists with Clough and Associates presume it was wood, but microscopic analysis should later confirm or deny that.  It has a double barrel, which is short.  At this stage it is unknown whether the barrel is in its original form or has been modified at some point…ie it has been sawn off.  It has a double trigger arrangement, one of which is depressed due to firing.  There are no obvious clues or marks to date or identify the maker.  All in all it is a fairly sparse weapon, with little in the way of distinguishing features.  The name of the person who last fired the pistol is inconveniently missing from the scene.

 The Murder:

How does one solve a possible murder years after the fact, particularly when no one is sure that the murder actually happened?  Cold Case has informed me through the years that you need to re-examine the evidence. 

 The Investigation:

Where as on Cold Case the original suspects, family members, best friends and the like are re-interviewed…the archaeologist in the interviews, Sarah Phear, says that in this case they will be searching old newspaper articles for any clues. 

 This is the wonderful thing about New Zealand archaeology of this period.  There are written records! Sometimes this may even lead to new oral histories that can inform what happened the day the pistol ended up at the bottom of the well.   

 But what if the newspaper search reveals nothing about a muuurrrrrrda?

 Can the CSI approach using archaeological forensic techniques be used to help solve the possible Murder?  Can laboratory analysis, where the article states the pistol has gone for ‘preservation’, provide evidence to solve this mystery??

 The key in this instance, and many instances in archaeology where an artefact is lifted from the ground, is that the artefact is washed.  Aggghhhhh! Washing an artefact, prior to professional assessment, is akin to murder itself in the eyes of the archaeological conservator who is often responsible for the treatment of ‘special’ artefacts in these types of situations.

 The reasons for this?

  1. Washing has been proven time and time again to remove vital evidence from archaeological remains.  Evidence that just like in the real crime detective labs, cannot be pieced back together…well very rarely, when you may find the washed residues in your U bend.
  2. The washing of metal, of which the main body of pistols are usually composed, is also a big no no in the conservation of metal.  It tends to accelerate or activate corrosion during the subsequent drying process, further distorting the artefact and changing the potential for some analysis.

The Analysis:

So, what can be done ‘in the conservation lab’?

  1. The internal mechanism of the pistol can be revealed through x-ray analysis. The bullet should be visible within the magazine, and the mechanism inside for firing.
  2. Makers marks and any other evidence regarding manufacture, ownership and etched decorative elements should be revealed through x-ray analysis should corrosion mask these prior to analysis.
  3. Technological information should be gained through the use of microscopic investigation and x-ray analysis.  In this instance it should reveal whether the pistol barrel is sawn off, and whether the body of the gun as caste or forged. If it is unclear in the x-ray due to the presence of corrosion layers, SEM-EDX (scanning electron microscope — with energy-dispersive x-ray spectroscopy) could further be employed to confirm this.  Elemental analysis of the alloy used in the pistols manufacture can also be gained through XRF (X-ray Fluorescence).
  4. Remains of the handle may be revealed through microscopic analysis in the hard to reach places.  Depending its survival, and any sample available of this feature, its potential identification should be revealed from the materials morphology.  SEM-EDX or FTIR (Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy) could also aid this.

 If the pistol has not been washed post excavation, and the burial environment allows for it, you might conduct:

  1. Residue analysis of any remaining gunpowder in the barrel or magazine. 
  2. Fingerprint analysis may be possible due to the acidic nature of finger prints when left on metal.
  3. Blood residue analysis may be possible if the pistol was used on a human at close range, and the blood splattered back on to the pistol.
  4. Microscopy to see if there is any remains of the users hair, clothing…hey,
  5. DNA analysis if there are human remains on the pistol.

 Sounds exciting, doesn’t it!?

The Verdict:

 Who knows, one day archaeology may make the 6-0-clock news under its own steam, rather than the prospect of murder…and a sneaky peeky into the new tunnel.  But in the mean time, there is science out there being used in the study of these historical objects, and that can deliver valuable information to the questions being asked. 

 But, will they solve a murder??  I think I had better call Anna Sandiford to confirm that.

0 Responses to “‘Criminal Minds’ Brings Archaeology into Mainstream News”

  • As a forensic scientist, I can, of course, solve all your muuurrrddddaa-related cases. I will spring through your ‘crime scene’ and select the single item of interest (in the case of the pistol I have decided that it will be a clod of mud that fell from the pistol when it was removed from the well but that happens to miraculously be balancing on a convenient ledge in the well that I will see immediately upon my first shining of the torch down said well). I shall then extract pollen from the mud and tell you the year, month and day on which said muuurrrrddda occurred. Fortuitously, I shall also be able to identify which way the wind was blowing and that it had to have been Ol’ Man Smith who lives two miles upwind of the old pohutukawa who fired the single shot. You will then excavate the site for perhaps 20 minutes (whilst in your scene kit of designer suit and high heels) and find the body of Ol’ Ma Smith and uncover one of New Zealand’s earliest European revenge killings (Ol’ Ma Smith was having a fling with the fisherman down the road – it was recorded in some old diaries that were found when they moved the Birdcage but no-one bothered to read them….until now).
    I can’t wait – ring me tomorrow, we mustn’t waste any time!

    • And here I was thinking Professor Peacock in the library opened a window and threw the pistol 50m across the courtyard, knocking out the butler on the way, after doing away with Miss Scarlett. I should have called you before I posted this shouldn’t I!