'We died at such a place!' The Interaction of Battlefield Archaeology and Forensic Science


  • Battlefield archaeology has begun to emerge as a recognized discipline within the field of anthropology. Battlefield archaeologists use the methods of archaeology to interpret human behavior on battlefields. Excavated human remains and material culture artifacts (remains of weapons and uniforms) may reveal where fighting took place, where tactical units were deployed and how the soldiers in those units behaved (Did they fight or did they run?). The activities of battlefield archaeologists have been popularized in a number of books and in television shows such as "Battlefield Detectives" and "Two Men in a Trench." Forensic science can contribute to battlefield archaeology in a number of ways. Forensic pathologists and forensic anthropologists can interpret injuries such as bullet wounds or blunt and sharp force trauma to the skeleton; firearms examiners can analyze firearms-related artifacts such as bullets and cartridges. Archaeologists Douglas Scott and Richard Fox have used firing pin impressions on expended cartridges recovered from the Little Big Horn battlefield to reconstruct Custer's Last Stand. Scott has used firearms examination techniques to study other Indian war battles such as Cienegilla, Sand Creek and Embrio Canyon. Prof. Rowe is engaged in a similar project involving firearms-related artifacts excavated on the site of the so-called Fetterman Massacre. In 1866 Capt. William Fetterman and his command of eighty men were ambushed and killed by Sioux and Cheyenne warriors a few miles north of Kearney, Wyoming. A large number of fired bullets and expended cartridges have been recovered from the site of the battle. Prof. Rowe will discuss his work on these artifacts and explain how examination of such artifacts can shed light on the Fetterman battle.