Our (training) grave was robbed!!

By Anna Sandiford 03/07/2012


Well, maybe, anyway.  I spent a couple of days last week in a field in Oxfordshire, England, training specialist police officers/crime scene examiners how to collect samples for soil and pollen analysis from outdoor body locations as part of criminal investigations.  My ‘crime scene’ was under a tree and involved the use of a mannequin who used to be a star player in the BBC’s Silent Witness.  Here’s a long shot of her (it wouldn’t be appropriate to show a closer image of her):

The tents in the rear left are the site of training graves where, last year, two skeletons were placed into the bottom of two holes so that this year’s attendees could excavate a grave and remove the bones without compromising potential evidence (unlike some famous disinterrment scenes where evidence was lost by just going at the site with a spade and no archaeologist).

The police officers that were on the training course spent time at each of four sites throughout the practical day: the entomology site (collecting maggots from a carcass exposed for the previous two weeks), the anthropology site (counting bones to determine how many skeletons were scattered across the grass; identification of bones that can assist with age and gender identification); the pollen and soil site (collection of samples from a “body”, dump site and vehicle to help link people with places and items) and the archaeology site.

For a change, it was a warm day for those not used to heat or sun (remember: this was England in the summer) and the graves took about six hours to plot and excavate, each team of police officers taking turns to do part of the work and learn the techniques.  Excitement rose as a plastic bag was recovered, followed by a key and then some coins being removed – the “bodies” must be near, close under the surface.

But alas, after toil in the soil for a day in the sun, not a single bone was located.  Nothing.  Nada.  Not in either grave.

This led to phone calls to the chap who had buried the skeletons after last year’s course: had he really buried them?  He was fairly sure he had, and when you think about it, if he had spent a day excavating two skeletons with a training crew and then was tidying the site at the end of the day, he would have noticed if, after filling in the holes, he had two skeletons left over.

To me, this shows either:

a)  he didn’t bury the bones but just took them home again at the end of the day when the whole point of the exercise was to dig them out and then re-bury them; or

b)  someone else came along afterwards, dug up the graves and removed the bones for a laugh.

My pesonal feeling is that b) is more likely – people do the strangest things, particularly if they might have watched the training day in progress and thought it would be fun to see what happened if they pinched the ‘remains’ so that the following year the trainees spent a day digging holes for nothing.

The test will be whether or not it happens again for the next training course….