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Methods

Some of the methods used by NecroSearch are listed in the panel to the right.

NecroSearch uses scientific methods to locate clandestine graves. We use scientific and law enforcement methods for the excavation of clandestine graves and the recovery of human remains and associated evidence.

Animal Sign and Scavenging

Evidence at a crime scene may be destroyed, altered, or transported by animal behavior. Knowledge about the patterns of animal activity, including scavenging, is important when investigating outdoor scenes.

Human and Nonhuman Bone Identification

When bones are discovered at a site, it is critical to differentiate between human and nonhuman bone, as well as materials easily mistaken for bone. Very often, photographs taken at the scene and emailed to a forensic anthropologist (DLF@HumanIDLab.com) can result in rapid identification of a nonhuman bone.

Botany

Many different things can disturb the vegetation at a crime scene. Branches can be broken by a vehicle, or even by a human moving through the bushes. Dates of disturbance can be determined by botanical evidence. Layers of leaf litter may have accumulated on the grave and can be counted to assist in determining the season of the disturbance. Roots growing into the body can be aged. Small pieces of plant material found in a grave can be identified and can perhaps tie the suspect to the crime scene. The botanist must have a working knowledge of plant taxonomy, plant anatomy and micro-anatomy, succession patterns, the history of the area, and many other subjects. Ideally, the botanist will have access to the site at the beginning of the search to document as much evidence as possible.

Hydrology

The impact of water on a burial site can be important in terms of atmospheric moisture, surface flow and drainage, soil moisture content, and groundwater flow and drainage. Water chemistry may also impact a site. For example, precipitation patterns and surface flow may relate to the transport of evidence on the surface and the type of vegetation and wildlife present. Variations in soil moisture may be indicative of a disturbance (such as a burial site) and could impact decomposition. Ground and surface water may also be important to the distribution of scent in the area (and may affect the patterns of detection by scent dogs). A hydrologist is usually needed to interpret these water related aspects of a potential burial site.

Meteorology

A meteorologist is able to give specific information for a search area regarding the microclimate and general weather before, during, and after the body's presumed disposal. The conditions before and during body disposal could affect where the body may be deposited. Microclimate at a site is also useful for interpreting the patterns and rates of decomposition. Plant species and stages of growth are affected by climate. Weather events resulting in flooding or erosion could transport or otherwise alter evidence.

Geology

A geologist uses knowledge of mineralogy, petrology, stratigraphy, structure, and geomorphology to help recognize and interpret disturbances. Digging a grave disturbs the geology. Soil horizons are disrupted and mixed and material from the depth of the disturbance is moved to the surface. Rocks are re-oriented and the porosity and compaction of the soil is changed. Soil and sediment may be transferred to the perpetrator and to his/her tools.

Geophysics

Geophysical methods are nondestructive and can reduce the time spent on searches. Remote sensing methods include geophysical surveys, which are based on determining contrasts (anomalies) within the subsurface, and can therefore be used to discover disturbances potentially relating to criminal activity. Geophysical techniques can also be used to detect weapons. Many geophysical surveys used by NecroSearch can also be used in water.

Computer Analysis of Search Area Data

Locating clandestine grave sites often involves multiple disciplines such as archaeology, geology, geophysics, botany, entomology, remote sensing, etc. Merging and analyzing the field observations and measurements obtained by these different disciplines has been historically problematic. This is particularly true given the time constraints typically associated with high profile searches. Fortunately, computer methods developed for natural resource exploration have been adapted by NecroSearch to search for hidden graves. These programs are executed on laptop computers in the field in order to quickly isolate targets for subsequent excavation. The foundation for these methods involves the superposition of an imaginary grid over the project area. Numeric values corresponding to observations and measurements are assigned to the individual cells within these grids. Separate grids are created for each type of data set. For example, grid "A" might contain soil conductivity measurements while grid "B" might represent the density of a particular plant species within each cell boundary. These grids are then statistically analyzed and combined in order to identify atypical regions, or "anomalies." These anomalies define the exploration targets that merit additional examination.

Decomp Dogs

Dogs that can detect the odors of decomposition are valuable for detecting human remains, but a dog and handler must be properly trained for this work. Well-meaning volunteers not involved with NecroSearch may claim that their dogs are trained for this work, but caution should be used when employing them.

Entomology

Identification of insect species and observations of their distribution at a site can indicate how long ago a body was deposited and the conditions at the time. Correct collection and preservation is essential.

Search Techniques

NecroSearch members are experienced in organized line searches.

Excavation Methods

NecroSearch uses modified archaeological techniques to excavate. Grid construction, sifting, scene mapping and recording are some of the techniques we use to preserve and demonstrate the spatial relationships between any evidence found.

Landfill Search

Landfill Searches were once thought to be pointless endeavors. New algorithms developed by Lee Reed, a NecroSearch member, make Landfill Searches possible in many circumstances.