Construction and excavation of the world's first 'mock' mass grave

The Bournemouth University-based Inforce Foundation has successfully completed one of the world's most unique training programmes which featured the construction and excavation of the world's first 'mock' mass grave.

The £1 million project, funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, brought 35 trainees from Iraq to Bournemouth for an intensive 5-month programme directed by Prof Margaret Cox, CEO of Inforce - the specialist international forensic centre of excellence based at Bournemouth University for the investigation of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The trainees ranged in age from men and women in their early 20s to mid-70s and represented a range of scientific, medical and forensic backgrounds.

The UK FCO invited Inforce to design, cost and deliver this programme for Iraq to train a multidisciplinary team to undertake the location, excavation and recovery and analysis of human remains (and other evidence) from mass graves and other burial sites. This expertise is needed to undertake the excavation of the mass graves in Iraq, resulting from Saddam Hussein's regime, for both judicial and humanitarian reasons.

The first phase of training comprised theoretical (classroom-based) sessions including an overview of international criminal law, laws of evidence, forensic sciences and expert witness skills. These ran alongside more specialist and laboratory training in forensic archaeology, anthropology, pathology, radiography, scene of crime management, mortuary management, project management and logistics.

Innovatively, and for the first time on such a scientific and complex scale, Inforce constructed two mass graves in the English countryside that were based, in their design and content, on graves similar to those seen in Iraq in 2003. The graves each contained around 30 skeletons (resin anatomical teaching specimens) of adults, children and infants. Some were clothed and had with them objects that most of us carry daily such as jewellery, glasses, ID cards, toys, etc.

"The graves were set up as interment sites, and also as execution sites, so the trainees were tasked with recovering the evidence of the execution and disposal of victims of mass murder," says Prof Margaret Cox. "The sites were investigated as stringently as any scene of crime and were under 24-hour security simulating that provided by armed peace-keeping forces."

Following the recovery of the remains from the graves, the skeletons were transported to a temoprary mortuary in body bags. Upon arrival at the mortuary, the resin skeletons were replaced with real skeletons (from UK archaeological contexts) to ensure that the mortuary process of x-ray and anthropological and pathological analysis is based on real human remains.

"The trainees working on this programme have been an inspiration to us in terms of their dedication, high skills level and bravery," says Prof Cox. "They are risking their lives by undertaking this programme and we applaud their commitment to the future of Iraq."

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