Archaeological Crime Scene Investigation

The relationship between humans and their objects is quite interesting, especially when trying to determine what type of person someone was solely from the physical items surrounding them. A lot can be told about a person’s death as well as the life that he or she may have led. In murder scene archaeology, often times the victim was caught off-guard and was surprised by the attack. Even through art (photographs as well as paintings) we can see many different aspects of a person’s death, life, and what kind of person they were without even knowing their name.


In a George Bellows painting, a crime scene is depicted. Three German soldiers are shown invading a Belgian home. This took place right after World War I. An interesting thing to take note of is the fact that throughout the years, war conflict has become more and more anonymous. During World War I, the soldiers could see their victims come to terms with the fact that their lives were going to be taken from them. However, as the concept of dehumanizing the enemy became more and more imperative throughout warfare, now people may not even see it coming. They may not ever know who killed them. In this Bellows painting, a woman sees the three German soldiers and her dead family members (most likely). She clutches a chair and a table as she recognizes her fate. She knows that she will most likely end up as the people on the floor had. In most George Bellows paintings, there is a sense of impending doom or approaching danger.


In another crime scene piece of art (this time a photograph), the photographer, as well as the victim, remains anonymous. Without knowing anything about this person lying dead on the floor, an archaeologist can use objects in his room in order to understand the life that this man has led. We know that this took place in mid-March, 1946 because of the issues of Post magazine lying on the ground. We also know that the certificate on the dresser was a recent accomplishment. There is also a pistol and a flask hanging somewhere in the room, showing lack of use for them but lingering affection for these objects. The clear ashtray shows that the pipe was not being used; perhaps it was a gift to the victim. We can tell that this young man was religious because of the Bible and rosary beads in his room. We know that the victim may have enjoyed the comics section of the newspaper, as it was open to that section while lying under the bed.

These pieces of artwork show that archaeologists do not necessarily need to be in the room of the crime scene or even know anything about the victims in order to learn something about the types of people they were and the lives that they led. These crime scenes make us think about our lives in general and how we will be remembered. It raises certain questions about our lives and memory after we are gone. Will our deaths be recorded? Will we be analyzed by archaeologists in the future? What will be remembered of us after we are gone?


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Crime Scene Investigation

There is a natural human fascination with mysteries, crimes and murders. Just look at how many shows dealing with these topics exist on television. While it’s fascinating to watch these actors “solve” ridiculously twisted mysteries that have been conjured up for the audience’s amusement, what is truly impressive is being able to do this without writers and with only one picture of the crime scene. What Dr. Beisaw demonstrated was more than simple entertainment; it showed just how useful archaeology is in today’s world.

This show is one of many, many examples of crime and murder related TV shows on air today.

This show is one of many, many examples of crime and murder related TV shows on air today.

Archaeology can be about more than locating and dating pottery from the long gone past. The techniques and methods of archaeology can be applied to many situations to help explain something we don’t understand or don’t have an exact record of. (Even with a record it’s important to check facts and keep bias and left-out facts in mind.) If, from the smallest fragment of a plate an archaeologist can tell you many things about the culture of the people who likely used it, then just imagine what an archaeologist could do with the details of an everyday mystery.

What makes an archaeologist so fit to understand the unexplained is their ability to draw information from the placement of an artifact and to learn from what the purpose of an artifact is and what it represents in a culture.

In the case of the crime scene photo Dr. Beisaw analyzed, she was able to learn the most about the victim not from his fingerprints or DNA analysis, but from the objects around his room. She could almost certainly place the month and year of the murder by noticing which magazine issues were present. She knew the victim was a young man likely in, or just out of high school by a certificate near his dresser and from child-like objects still on his wall. She knew it would likely have been uncomfortable to sit at the desk in his room due to the awkward height of the chair. His shoes were poised in a manner that suggests this young man was caught while getting ready to leave. She knew that during this era it was likely for families to rent out rooms when their children left so the victim may not be the young man who once lived in this room. And she knew he met his fate by being struck from behind due to the positioning of his body.

Documenting a crime scene is actually very reminiscent of documenting an archaeology site. There are a lot of parallels between these sciences.

Documenting a crime scene is actually very reminiscent of documenting an archaeology site. There are a lot of parallels between these sciences.

At first glance, most people wouldn’t notice these details and draw these conclusions. We usually leave actually solving the mystery to the police or the detectives in our TV shows while we sit back and relax. But you don’t need to have police training and experience to see the truth of the mystery for yourself—you just need an eye trained for details and the knowledge of how to use those details to come to a greater understanding of what is in front of you.

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Archaeology or Cold Case Police?

Who knew that one could learn so much about an event from over 50 years ago frozen in time, a picture. We all know that pictures tell stories, but I was pleasantly surprised to find out that a picture can tell you much more than I had previously thought simply by taking a closer look.  For example, Professor Beisaw, an archaeologist, blew my mind with the interpretations she came up with regarding this anonymous photograph below, all that made perfect sense once presented to my eye.

Photograph taken anonymously in the 1940's, a murder victim, unknown, lays across the floor

Photograph taken anonymously in the 1940’s, a murder victim, unknown, lays across the floor


How the position and crinkles in the rug, along with how it appeared he was folding his work clothes suggest he was struck from behind and there was no struggle, especially as there was a letter opener on his desk he could have used if he had seen his attacker. The “Post” magazines, three in chronological order, along with the recent certificate on his desk (not framed) can give a time frame for this picture. How a pipe, used somewhat but the ashtray being empty, and a gun hung around a lamp suggest his age,  around 16-20. I could go on; however, I think I’ve proved my point.

These interpretations and presentation made me realize that there is another dimension to archeologists and what they can do than I, and others, previously thought. Most people think of archaeology as excavating, digging, finding artifacts, etc. And that is a part yes, but here, an archaeologist was able to dive into a murder mystery from over 50 years ago, by using her trained eye to interpret the photograph just like she interprets excavation sites and artifacts she finds, and bring the dead to the present and tell their story, and most importantly, help the future. To bring closure to the family of this mystery boy even 50 years  late.

This is what people usually think about archeology

This is what people usually think about archeology

There’s much more similarity in between crime scene analysis and archaeology that I knew of until Thursday. The main difference primarily being crimes scenes are generally the present, while archaeologists usually interpret the past. Hey, maybe one day we will start calling on archaeologists to solve cold cases.


Anonymous. 1940s. Photograph. The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Poughkeepsie,          NY.The Artful Dodger Goes Late Night. Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 2013. Print.








Archaeology and Murder

Imagine combining the minds of an archaeologist, a police officer, and a detective. The three unique minds of these professions are how mysteries are solved. During the “Scene of the Crime” presentation by Dr. April Beisaw, an archaeologist’s perspective and thoughts were demonstrated in two crime photos. One photo was of an actual police homicide photo, and the other a print by George Bellow named The Last Victim. In the spirit of Halloween, Dr. Beisaw took an interesting approach to demonstrating an analysis of the pictures. She turned her presentation into a ghost story, engaging the audience and keeping them asking questions.

george bellows last vicitm George Bellows “The Last Victim”

How is an archaeologist’s perspective different then one of a detective or police officer? Looking at both of the photos next to each other, a detective or police officer may look at it and analyze them separately. Each photo was taken and made at different time periods that one may not find any similarities between the two. An archaeologist looks at similarities by using different clues to find out the lifestyle of the victim. As Dr. Beisaw explained, both pictures stood out to her because of the similar position of the victim and location of the murder. The first thing an archaeologist notices that may not be noticed by others is the similarities that occur in people across time and cultures. Both victims in the photo had similar arm positions and both were in a similar laid down position. Archaeologists use these human universals to learn and provide more information about all similar situations.


Duchenne-FacialExpressions human universals:facial expressions

Another interesting thing archaeologists bring to a crime scene is looking around for ordinary objects that are found in the room to infer a date, profession, lifestyle, and everyday activities of the victim. The daily routine or what type of person the victim is does not concern detectives on a case, but by using various ordinary clues, more information can be found.  In one of the photos, Dr. Beisaw pointed out the childish wallpaper of the room, some magazines, and an academic certificate. All of these ordinary and simple items that may have been overlooked by a police officer let us to think about the victims family and lifestyle.

The presentation by Dr.Beisaw left the audience asking questions and thinking about crime scenes in a different light. At the end of the presentation the audience even started thinking like an archaeologist and trying to further the analysis of the unknown victim. The presentation was a fun way to get the audience thinking and was perfect for continuing the Halloween mood!


Photographs: More than Just a Pretty Picture

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but to an archaeologist a picture can mean so much more. Although archaeologists can use photographs to assess sites they have never visited, there is an even greater promise in the combined futures of archaeology and photography. Because of the innovations that have been made in regards to photography, it is now possible that it can become a tool to capture the process of archaeology instead of just the end results.

When many people think about archaeology, they immediately think of the artifacts that archaeologists discover. However, there is an entire process that leads to finding these artifacts. When field work occurs, archaeologists spend time planning and surveying before they begin excavating, which is when the discovery of most artifacts occurs. With digital photography, it is now possible for archaeologists to document every step of the process that occurs at any given site. Instead of just having photographic documentation of the artifacts, archaeologists can now utilize photographs of the entire field work process to analyze how well each step of field work was executed.

An example of how the steps of an excavation can be documented.

An example of how the steps of an excavation can be documented.


Digital photography is a development that has changed the way objects were captured and remembered. Once people could see what the photos they were taking looked like, it opened up an entirely new perspective on the possible uses of photography. Digital photography allows archaeologists to make sure that photos are in focus, that they have sufficient lighting so that people can see what is in the photograph, and that objects are captured in correct colors so that analysis may be as accurate as possible. Digital photography allows a photographer to capture numerous pictures, whereas cameras that required film were much more limited in the number of photographs that could be taken. The increase in the number of available photographs allows archaeologists to capture multiple elements of a site as well as the entire process that occurs at a site. Digital photography no longer limits how many pictures can be taken.

Another important aspect of digital photography is that it allows archaeologists to return to a site without physically having to visit it. If there are multiple photographs from multiple angles, then an archaeologist can continue to analyze different aspects of a site long after they have left the field. Digital photography allows the archaeologist to recreate the story of the site by analyzing its objects, landscape, and surroundings.

Pictures allow archaeologists to capture the landscape of a site.

Pictures allow archaeologists to capture the landscape of a site.



Jansen, Alex. “Exploring the Future Roles for Archaeological Photography.” March 2012. <>

“Short Guide to Digital Photography in Archaeology.” June 2006. <>



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Further Reading:

Crime Scene Archaeology

Though one won’t find crime tape around an archaeological site, these two disciplines have many similarities (“Crime-scene-tape”).

Though one won’t find crime tape around an archaeological site, these two disciplines have many similarities (“Crime-scene-tape”).

You won’t find your favorite television detective like Adrian Monk or CSI investigators scouring an ancient Egyptian site. Similarly, archaeologists with their khakis and trowels don’t usually investigate crime-scenes. These two seemingly different fields are surprisingly similar as I learned from an archaeologist’s lecture on a crime-scene photograph taken in 1940s New Jersey.

Archaeologists use objects from the past and people’s interactions with those objects to learn about the past. Crime-scene analysis also uses people’s belongings and how they interacted with them to solve a crime. Below is a photograph of a simple bedroom with a dead body lying on the floor. From the everyday objects found in the room, one can use archaeology to learn about the crime.

This photograph was taken anonymously and has no further background information (Anonymous).

This photograph was taken anonymously and has no further background information (Anonymous).

The deceased’s face cannot be seen; therefore, artifacts in the room can determine who the victim is. Toys hang from a light fixture on the left wall. The artifacts’ provenience (it’s 3D location) shows they aren’t used anymore since they look decorative and are in an inaccessible location. A pipe on his dresser with wear at the mouth-end is in association with an empty ash-tray. If he smoked frequently, the ash-tray would be dirty. These three artifacts show that the victim was likely between 16-20 years old; he is growing out of childhood (toys on the wall) yet doesn’t fully embrace adulthood (an empty ash tray along with a pipe).

Archaeologists can use relative dating (using another item’s age to date something else) to determine when this crime occurred. Two consecutively published Post magazines date the crime-scene to mid-March 1946. On his bed rests a shirt and pants with the belt still in them next to a hanger. The victim is nicely dressed showing that he likely just undressed after returning home from work or school and is preparing for a formal event or job. Nothing is in his hand, the rug shows no sign of struggle, and a letter opener rests on his desk. If the victim fought back, he would likely have grabbed the letter opener as a weapon. The only blood present pools out from his head. He was likely leaning over his bed ready to hang up his clothes when from behind, the murderer struck with something blunt.

Be it 6 hours or 6,000 years ago, archaeologists and crime-scene investigators analyze objects from the past and how people interacted with them to paint a picture of what actually happened. The next time you watch your favorite detective show look for the things used to solve the crime and compare them to artifacts archaeologists study. You’ll often find little difference.

  Works Referenced

Anonymous. 1940s. Photograph. The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Poughkeepsie,          NY.The Artful Dodger Goes Late Night. Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 2013. Print.

Beisaw, April M. “The Scene of the Crime.” Vassar College, Poughkeepsie. 31 October            2013. Lecture.

Crime-scene-tape. Digital image. 5 REASONS WHY A CRIMINAL JUSTICE ONLINE          DEGREE IS RIGHT FOR YOU. Florida National University, n.d. Web. 2 Nov. 2013.

Forensic Archaeologist Turned Art Historian

People do not often associate the work of a forensic archaeologist with that of an art historian. A forensic archaeologist solely studies crime scenes and physical remains, right?

Not at all.

As illustrated by Professor Beisaw’s lecture, forensic archaeologists can use photographs and paintings of crime scenes to solve murders that occurred years prior. By analyzing a photograph of a crime scene as an art historian may study a classical antiquity, a forensic archaeologist can actually learn a significant amount about the events that led up to the murder of a victim.

In “The Last Victim,” George Bellows illustrates an event that he did not actually witness. However, he depicts a moment of intense human struggle precisely. Without actually being at the crime of the scene, a forensic archaeologist can tell that the slightly upturned rug indicates that the victims struggled to flea from the perpetrator. The anguished faces of those still alive suggest that the attack was unexpected.

"The Last Victim" by George Bellows

“The Last Victim” by George Bellows

In a second work of art, an unnamed police homicide photograph taken in New Jersey by an anonymous artist , a man lays dead on the ground, a pool of blood forming under a nearby desk chair. Through the use of modern technology, an archaeologist can zoom in on different objects in the room of the crime scene. These artifacts not only help in determining the date of the homicide, but also, provide clues to the victim’s identity.

It has been determined that the photograph was captured shortly after World War II because of several artifacts found in the room, including copies of the Saturday Evening Post from February and March 1946.

Example of Saturday Evening Post that was enlarged to determine an estimated date of when the photo was taken. (Not actual issue in photograph).

Example of Saturday Evening Post that was enlarged to determine an estimated date of when the photo was taken. (Not actual issue in photograph).

Due to the fact that the man’s face is obscured by a desk, a forensic archaeologist needs to employ other methods in order to determine an identity. Additional artifacts were enlarged just enough to recognize that that man in the picture had a long first name, but a short last name and that he “lettered” in a sport in high school. A piece of paper with a list of names on it likely contains the name of the victim in the photograph. Upon further investigation, this list may hold the key to identifying the victim.

As demonstrated in Professor Beisaw’s lecture, art historians and forensic archaeologists both use art as a means of learning about the past. While the art is studied from very different angles, the works allow art historians and forensic archaeologists, alike, to solves mysteries of the past.


Beisaw, April M. “The Scene of the Crime.” Vassar College, Poughkeepsie. 31 October

2013. Lecture.