BU students excavate simulated mass war graves in rural Dorset


BU Master’s students have been out in rural Dorset locating and excavating simulated mass World War I graves.

Around 30 students from the MSc Forensic Osteology and MSc Forensic Archaeology courses at BU spent a week on the Trigon Estate, near Wareham.

The practical exercise involved students working together to locate and excavate simulated mass graves from World War I, using the latest technology and techniques.

Inside the graves were artificial skeletons, complete with artefacts which would have survived in real WW1 mass graves, such as weapons, coins, buttons and personal effects – including photos preserved inside cigarette tins.

Dr Martin Smith, Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, helped to coordinate the simulation.

He said: “It’s really nice exercise that we do that pulls together everything that the students have been doing through the year.

“The anthropologists have learnt lots of theory about the anatomy of the body and how we can interpret types of trauma and disease, how we can tell age and sex and so on.

“The archaeologists have done all sorts of work on how we can find buried remains and how we can excavate them in a controlled and scientific manner.

“This allows us to get them to work together as a team, pull together everything that they have done and put it into practice.”

He added: “Although it’s a very artificial exercise, what we really want them to get out of it is about the process and doing these things in a planned and a controlled manner.”

As well as putting the theory and skills that they have learnt into practice, students also got a taste of how it is to work alongside each other in the field.

Paul Cheetham, Programme Coordinator for the MSc in Forensic Archaeology, said: “It pulls it all together – not only their specialist skills but also working alongside their natural colleagues that they would work with in the field in a professional capacity.

“It really does bring together this idea of working as a team, and bringing different skills together to solve problems.”

The work will now continue back in the labs – the artificial skeletons will be replaced with real ones, and students will have to use the evidence they have found through excavating the graves to write a report, trying to identify the soldiers and how they died.

They will then have to the chance to practice presenting their findings in court, at a mock war graves commission.

Students involved in the simulation said that they felt they had already learnt a lot.

MSc Forensic Archaeology student Elizabeth Knox, who had come from Sydney, Australia to study at BU, said: “It’s very realistic and it is preparing us well.

“We all have to be extremely professional, use all the skills that we’ve come across and work closely with the forensic osteologists.”

MSc Forensic Osteology student Sarah Clark added: “I’ve really enjoyed it, and I’ve learnt the importance of working with different disciplines to get results.

“We’ve all been working together and we know more about bones, and they know more about digging, so it’s been brilliant to be able to talk to them whenever we’ve not been sure of something.”

Find out more about studying MSc Forensic Archaeology and MSc Forensic Osteology at BU