Listening Topic: Archaeology – Radio interview with a forensic archaeologist

A. Listen to the interview and answer the questions.

 How can archaeologists help solve crimes? _________________

 What kinds of difficulties do forensic archaeologists encounter? _________________

B. Listen to the interview again. Write T for true or F for false for each statement. Listen again if necessary.

1   Forensic archaeologists study bones and hair to discover when a person died.

2   Forensic archaeologists can determine the exact time that a person died.

3   Forensic archaeologists can determine if a person had a sports injury or suffered from domestic violence.

4   The forensic archaeologist is often bored by his work.

5   Kennewick Man was fund in 1896.

6   Native Americans feel studying the dead is disrespectful.



Answer may vary slightly.

1   They find and examine evidence from a crime scene to determine what happened.

2   It is sometimes difficult to collect and examine evidence without damaging it. It is also sometimes impossible to determine the details of a case.


1 T   2 F   3 T   4 F   5 F   6 T


A = Steve Jensen, B = Dr. Roland Jeffries

A:   Welcome back to Spotlight. With us now is Dr. Roland Jeffries. He’s an archaeologist, but not the kind of archaeologist you might think. You’re much more likely to find Dr. Jeffries at a crime scene then you are to find him looking for fossils or ancient statues. You see, our guest helps solve crimes. He’s a forensic archaeologist, and he’s here to tell us just what that means. Welcome to the show. So Dr, how does an archaeologist help solve a murder mystery?

B:   Well, let me start by saying that the type of archaeology I practice is called forensic-forensic archaeology. And although it’s a pretty new field, I guess you could say that detectives have been using some of our techniques for a long time. You see we basically look for clues. Clues that will hopefully help solve crimes-murders and other types of crimes as well. We use techniques from archaeology to find physical evidence at a crime scene.

A:   So, you’re sort of like an archaeological detective?

B:   Right. You could say that.

A:   So what skills do you bring to the job that an average detective might not have?

B:   Well, the process of recovering evidence from a crime scene is really tricky because it can be destructive. It’s very easy to damage or alter the evidence that you’re trying to collect. But as archaeologists, my colleagues and I have the training and the experience necessary to conduct a methodical, meticulous search and recovery process while still protecting the scene so that it isn’t harmed and important evidence isn’t missed or overlooked. But only a portion of our work takes place at the crime scene; the rest takes place in the laboratory.

A:   So what kind of evidence are you usually looking for?

B:   Well, that depends very much on the case. I’ll give you an example from a recent scenario. Several months ago a body was found at a construction site in the city where I work, Chicago. Construction workers were diggings and came across the remains of a person. The police were notified, and soon afterward my team was called to the scene. The first three things we wanted to find out were: 1. Who was this person? 2. When did they die? And 3. How did they die? There wasn’t any clothing or personal effects on the person-like a wallet, handbag, or driver’s license-but by applying techniques from archaeology we were able to find enough evidence to identify the person, determine the approximate time of death, and the cause of death.

To do this, we had to conduct several tests. For one thing, we studied the victim’s bones and teeth. This helped us determine the age and when he died. Later we found traces of poison in his bones and in his hair. Based on the type of chemicals we found, we believe the person was murdered-poisoned to death. The police were able to take our evidence, follow up on it and eventually make an arrest.

A:   This sounds like a complicated process. How long does an investigation like that take – I mean gathering the evidence and running the tests.

B:   Again, it depends. It could take weeks, months, or even years. And, unfortunately, we don’t always come up with definite answers. We can’t always tell, for instance, exactly when someone died. But we can usually estimate. Sometimes it’s even difficult to determine a victim’s age.

A:   So in the case you just told us about, you discovered the cause of death by finding traces of poison in the body.

B:   Right.

A:   But what are other signs that a person has been murdered? I mean, how else can you determine the cause of someone’s death?

B:   Well, we always look for evidence of trauma – that is, damage to certain parts of the body that might indicate that the person was attacked or harmed in some way. If we find injuries, then we have to look closely at what types of injuries they are. Some trauma might indicate a sports injury or an accident. Other injuries, however, like fractures to bones in the face, ribs, and hands could suggest violence. So based on the type of injury, we can determine, for example, whether a person was hurt playing a sport or whether they were the victim of domestic violence.

A:   Doesn’t it get a little tedious sometimes-all that detailed work?

B:   No, at least not for me. Each victim has a different story, a different mystery to unravel. So when studying those details, it’s almost all I can think about. Every case presents brand new challenges, so it’s very exciting.

A:   Off the air, you and I were talking about Kennewick Man. Can you tell our audience about who he is and why that’s an important case in the history of forensic archaeology?

B:   Yes. Kennewick Man-that’s the name given to a skeleton that was found in 1996 near Kennewick, Washington. When the skeleton was first found, all kinds of questions were being asked about it. A forensic archaeologist was called in. Based on the shape of the skull, he thought it was probably a European man. Then he found an ancient arrowhead embedded in the hip. The arrowhead turned out to be over 9,000 years old!

A:   Wow!

B:   The story was covered in the national papers and on TV, and many people became curious about the case. Many scientists wanted the chance to study the skeleton. And that’s where the conflict arises. A local group of Native Americans claimed that Kennewick man belonged to their tribe. I’m not familiar with all the details of the case, but it seems they went to court and demanded that the Kennewick man be returned to them for burial.

A:   That’s right. And they didn’t want scientists to study him at all.

B:   Yes. Since he was an ancient member of their tribe, they claimed that the archaeologists had no right to remove him from his grave and study him. The Native Americans consider this disrespectful of the dead. There are many cultures that agree that desecration of bones is unforgivable and can’t be justified even for science. So, that case certainly had an effect on our field. It appears that it might even lead to the passing of new laws protecting the remains of the dead. It also made the people in my field more aware of boundaries-of what we can and can’t do in order to solve a case, or settle our curiosity. As scientists we’re looking for facts, but as caring humans we can’t ignore how serious an offense it is to a particular group for us to subject what they consider holy and sacred remains to testing.

A:   Dr. Jeffries, thanks very much for stopping by.

B:   My pleasure.

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