Posted on 13 May 2020 in history, materiality, objects, violence

Tools in the Search for Human Remains: Thinking Through Objects in Forensic Practices

The work of locating, recovering and identifying the remains of the dead is both a social act and technical challenge. Different tools are mobilised at each stage in this process, mediating between the living and the dead, and between layperson and scientist.


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Main Image:
Photo by Heriberto Paredes Coronel

From the late 20th century onward, scientific techniques of forensic investigation have been increasingly applied to cases of death and disappearance resulting from political repression, war and disaster. Forensic techniques are used to locate and recover bodies, identify the dead and reconstruct how they died. Widely reported and well-studied examples include the investigations into Latin America’s Dirty Wars, or the break-up of Yugoslavia.

These large-scale forensic investigations are often associated with states rebuilding themselves after conflict, or as part of political transition, under the auspices of transnational organisations such as the United Nations. Forensics as a means of confronting disaster and atrocity have accrued strongly positive moral associations of objectivity and certainty, perceived as bringing order and emotional closure, and countering historical revisionism or impunity.

Citizen forensics is the emergent phenomenon whereby laypeople, often close relatives of the dead, undertake the scientific investigation of crimes themselves, assuming investigative roles normally associated with state actors such as the police, or technical specialists and scientists. Key examples of this include the grassroots movement to exhume hundreds of Republican mass graves of the Spanish Civil War, and community-led searches for tens of thousands of abducted and murdered civilians in Mexico, in light of the state’s near-total abnegation of this duty over the past decade.[1]

When coming together as an interdisciplinary group encompassing the social sciences and forensics, with diverse geographical and historical contexts including the contemporary violence in Mexico, the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, and the battlefields of World War I, an important starting point was our shared attention to material practices.[2] An attention to the materiality of both the remains of the dead, and the tools used to find, contain and analyse the dead, crossed these disciplinary boundaries. The experience of fieldwork had left each of us with the lasting impression of the physicality of searching for the dead, learning the affordances of tools and equipment that are used. The long, drawn-out process of finding the dead had made us very conscious of the different steps in this chain, and the material transformations that occurred. Reflecting on the material practices surrounding different tools is a useful analytical approach to these encounters and transformations.

The tools considered here—the sieve for recovering fragments of teeth and bone that are mixed into the soil or scattered on its surface; the drill for penetrating through layers of burials that cannot otherwise be exposed or opened for conventional exhumations; the swab that samples the cells of living people so their DNA can be matched with the dead—are all windows into the different stages of the recovery of human remains. These tools are used in traditional archaeology and forensic science. Attending to these objects is particularly pertinent in citizen-led forensics, as the tools are functioning as boundary objects between both layperson and expert, and, more unusually, boundary objects between the living and dead.[3]

A common reality in citizen forensics is that these endeavours are grossly under-resourced, especially in relation to the magnitude of the task. This means that tools may be adapted from other walks of life. The tools then carry associations from their previous uses. The large sieves used to catch fragments of human skeleton are the same sieves used to sort grades of sand and gravel, loosen earth in gardens and farms, or even sift grain for food. Archaeology has a long history of borrowing tools from geology and the natural sciences and repurposing them for human remains. These prior uses may seem jarring at first, but also add new layers of symbolic associations to working with the dead. For example, the extractive nature of the drill, originally designed for the geological sampling of soils and minerals, is highly suggestive of the way the dead and the past are mined as a resource. 

The prior histories of tools such as sieves, spades or probes, are also fundamental to understanding the muscle memory and embodied knowledge necessary to using them successfully. The physical knack that surrounds their usage is transmitted between groups of relatives and campaigners, blurring the boundary of who is an expert and what constitutes expertise in these searches for the dead. Forensic work is popularly thought of as a minute attention to detail, and the reading of faint traces, but much of it is also manual labour. In attending to acts of digging or sieving, it becomes very apparent that the use of these tools is cathartic, and can be a physical expression of postmortem care for the dead. 

Conversely, the workings of these tools expose the violent and reductive processing of human bodies and human identities, and those moments of destruction and selection inherent to forensic science. Dead bodies are frequently imagined as fixed or unitary entities. But an analysis of forensic tools destabilises this perception. Attending to objects reveals how much the physical form and ultimate fate of the dead are conditioned by the tools used to recover them. The breadth of tools needed highlights how many different ways the dead are materialised—in dusty fragments, in traces in the soil, or even in the DNA of their descendants. 

These investigations are hybrid acts that encompass political protest, citizen science, and profound expressions of post-mortem care for the dead. A focus on the materiality of tools and human remains, and the physical practices surrounding them, permits an analytical engagement with these emergent processes as all these things at once, without imposing reductive categories or narrow disciplinary approaches.[4]

Photo by Heriberto Paredes Coronel
Photo by Heriberto Paredes Coronel

The Sieve: On Sifting as an Epistemological and Political Gesture

The use of the sieve in archaeology enables a mode of observation that carries with it political implications, especially in contexts of forensic analysis of clandestine graves in the aftermath of mass violence. Sieving leads to the recovery and salvage of unnoticed material, that would be missed were it not for the intervention of the most humble of tools: the sieve, sifter or screen. In its simplicity, it is meant to divide matter of differing sizes, to better inspect objects once loose soil is eliminated from the observation environment. However, sieving or sifting, as an instrumental and bodily gesture, quickly becomes political as it determines what is deemed interpretable evidence and what is not, remaining outside of recovery efforts and the scope of analysis.

A sieve is such a simple tool that it easily goes unnoticed, yet its function and adequate application can be incredibly transcendental—it can, for example, define if a fragment of human bone, that can lead to identification, is retained for analysis or not. Therefore, it is worthwhile to consider the nature of the sieve as object, and the gestures involved in its application. Usually composed of a wooden frame holding a metal screen, net or mesh in place—a window frame with mosquito netting is its closest cousin—its use involves the depositing of soil, dirt, sand or other matter into its midst, and the subsequent shaking of the frame, resulting in the sieving of the material: the smaller particulate matter falls through the holes of the mesh and onto the ground, while larger objects remain on the screen, allowing further inspection and selection by hand. 

Various models of screen or sieve have been used in archaeological contexts throughout time, and debate frequently ensues about which method is best. Varying materialities of the sieve itself can determine what is considered analysable evidence in a forensic setting, which can have strong political implications. Sieves have varying grades of mesh that will trap fragments of different sizes, determining what will be retained during a search, and what will be discarded. Ash that falls through the holes in a sieve can remain outside the scope of analysis. On a technical level, ash has limited potential to lead to identification through DNA analysis. Yet in the context of mass atrocity involving the burning of human remains, human ash might hold as much affective, political and even sacred value as a recovered bone fragment. The discarding of ash reveals the problems of categorising human remains based on their potential for scientific analysis, rather than on the basis of their significance in the social worlds where the intermixed ash and bone reside. Furthermore, the ash returns to the surroundings as if reintegrated into the natural environment, as if it belonged there all along, as if it was merely soil and not the material result of processes of violence that interrupted and disrupted this place and its inhabitants.[5]

Sieving implies two types of actions, first it separates elements into categories, dividing the world to be observed into at least two parts: what is worthy and what is worthless in the context of a specific act of observation. Secondly, sieving implies extraction: specific types of matter are withdrawn from their original context, to allow for observation and analysis—in a detached setting, be it the mesh, an observation table or eventually a lab bench or a specific instrument for analysis. The act of separation between coarse material and finer particles, leads to a selection process whereby some fragments become salvageable and others not. Matter deemed wanted, worthy of further inspection and analysis remains in the mesh after sifting. Below the screen, sometimes reintegrated into the complexity of context, lingers matter considered unwanted or impossible to analyse.

Sieves and sifting screens are thus decision-making tools intertwined in epistemological processes. Their use determines what is and what isn’t worth inspecting, analysing, and rescuing from an environment characterised by complexity. Sieving disaggregates and separates matter into types; it is not merely an action that performs a step in a process towards analysis of material. Sieves are objects that—through their correct and incorrect use—allow or disallow the construction of signification. In forensic settings, what is and isn’t considered analysable evidence quickly leads to what will and will not be considered as truth. The sieve thus might seem a simple instrument, but its application involves gestures that carry with them always a certain epistemological intentionality and politics of observation.

Nazi extermination camp at Sobibór. The location and extent of the graves was determined by augering. The graves have not been exhumed but protected in perpetuity. Photo: Zuzanna Dziuban
Nazi extermination camp at Sobibór. The location and extent of the graves was determined by augering. The graves have not been exhumed but protected in perpetuity. Photo: Zuzanna Dziuban

The Drill: Ethics and Aesthetics of Subsurface Extraction 

There are various methods, techniques and tools that allow human remains to emerge from the soil. The destructiveness of these methods has been a matter of debate in the field of archaeology. The excavation disrupts and alters the ecology and identity of a landscape, gradually stripping it of its layers. Augering, in turn, is considered to cause minimal disruption: a drill merely punctuates the ground and thus maintains its integrity, extracting from below the surface, layer upon layer, only the core of the sediment, the profile of the soil. The investigation of disposals and burials resulting from mass political violence, in which archaeology has often been reconfigured in terms of care for the dead, invites a need to revisit this doxa and to attend to the ethics and aesthetics of the drill as it reaches to, touches and extracts the dense fabric of a clandestine burial. 

While augering has been used in archaeological and forensic contexts to direct and facilitate systematic exhumation of the dead—which involves a gradual and careful uncovering of remains and their equally careful removal—there are cases in which a drill serves as a primary tool to establish the presence and location of graves, whose contents are not exposed further.[6] This may be the case when political pressure, harassment of the investigators and immediate danger prevent a full-scale investigation of a grave. It may be that religious and cultural norms forbid the opening of a grave, or when the landscape as a whole has a protected status as a site of heritage or memory.[7] The subsurface extraction performed by the drill, in this case, is the sole material presence below the surface and enables a unique gaze into those aspects of the graves which are not available to the naked eye, of the invisible-but-imagined density of a burial, composed of different soils, objects, and human remains. 

A drill used to locate mass graves has a diameter of 65 millimeters (2.5 inches) and penetrates the ground to the depth of 8 meters. Driven into the ground manually, it requires physical strength in the struggle against soil resistance, often also against the resistance of tissues and bones. Extracted from a borehole is a cylindrical sample of up to 25 centimeters in length, a soil core providing information on the depth of the burial, its thickness, on the level of decay and condition of the bodies, often also on the form of their disposal. After penetrating through the grave, the drill withdraws layers of incinerated or fragmented bones, of skeletonised or organic remains in various stages of disarticulation and decomposition, and waxy residues of body fat in the form of adipocere. 

What emerges is an epistemically complex material, to be subjected to expert analysis and inscribed into orders of knowledge. But it is also a sensuous matter, not easily readable or categorisable for non-experts, fragmented and fragmentary, comingled, and unruly. It is a matter that proves the drill’s ability to work against the obfuscating capacities of the soil but also speaks to the limits of what can be touched, sensed, seen and imagined: what the drill extracts is a vertical snapshot, a decontextualised element of the dense ecology and identity of the clandestine burial, a dismembered part of a human body. In this way, the drill possesses a certain aesthetic and ethical violence as it punctuates the ground without allowing human remains to fully emerge—the drill disturbs and injures human remains, it incites and, at the same time, arrests the possibility of care. It forces the imagination to further roam below the ground, to the unseen, untouchable, and unreachable. 

The Swab: The Transformation of Self into Sample

The swab used for DNA sampling is normally a cotton bud on a long wand that can be rubbed against the inside of the cheek in a circular motion to harvest the buccal cells, the tissue that makes up the inner lining of the cheek and sheds readily into saliva. This is then fastened into a sterile, tamper-proof tube so that is cannot be contaminated until the sample is ready to be processed in a laboratory. The genetic material within these cells is turned into a DNA profile that may be matched with other living relatives, or against a DNA profile generated from the remains of the dead. 

There are other ways of sampling DNA from the living, for example from blood, but a key technological affordance of the swab is how non-invasive and unintimidating it is to use, requiring no particular expertise to harvest DNA from another person, and even to self-sample. This is part of what makes it such a powerful boundary object. A swab exists at the interface between the layperson and the closed, rarefied setting of the laboratory where the cells captured on the swab will eventually be turned into meaningful data. It is an essential tool for those seeking scientific confirmation of their own identity or parentage, their deeper ancestral origins, and proof of their kinship with others, including their children, grandchildren, or long-dead dead relatives, lost in war or disaster. 

A swab is the mechanism for taking a substance that already exists in your body and separating it off into a partible sample of yourself. This selection is the first stage in simplifying a complex person down to their essentials, for ease of comparison with others. The transformation of self into sample reveals the forensic potential of your body as reference data to serve in the identification of others, thus foregrounding the connection of your body to other bodies, living and dead. The web of spatial and temporal connections revealed by a DNA match radiate outward from the sample, but as we make sense of the results, these connections are drawn back into the embodied self, changing one’s sense of identity.[8] For many laypeople participating in genetic testing, the swab is the only materialisation of their DNA that they get to see firsthand, and it is certainly the most tangible and readily apprehended. The swab is more relatable than the microscopic world of the cell, or the readout of a DNA test, peaks on a graph, which are abstracted into a genetic code and then interpreted by experts. 

See also: Gifts From Arms Fairs

The cheap mass-produced nature of the swab gives DNA technology some of its paradoxical tensions as a field of citizen science. The laboratory analysis, and subsequent interpretation and matching, are dependent on specialist knowledge and prohibitively expensive analytical equipment, located in highly controlled environments.[9] Yet there is a very low barrier to entry into this technology, as this chain of complex actions can be set in motion with just a cotton-tipped swab. The swabs are cheap and easy to procure when compared to other forensic tools. This means it is possible to rapidly accumulate large numbers of DNA samples from living donors, drawing a large number of relatives and supporters into networks around the dead.

The sample on a swab can be preserved and held in stasis for relatively long periods, even before it is processed. This makes the swab an interesting tool of political leverage. Even if those relatives and activists engaged in citizen forensics do not have the resources to process the sample in a laboratory, the inherent potentiality of the sample is powerful. The swab requires further analysis and so represents an incomplete action. It is a site of political tension, waiting for the money, expertise, and collective will, to resolve it. This can be strategically useful to compel state authorities or NGOs to commit their resources to analysing the samples. The taking of a swab initiates a chain of operations with it own momentum. This kind of material agency is subtle, and builds over time, mobilising our technocratic expectations of the state.

Genetics as a tool of human identification profoundly alters our accepted chronologies around death, memory, and the transmission of loss between generations. Fundamental to this is the transmission of DNA between generations, meaning that someone may be a viable source of DNA for a relative who died one hundred years ago, or a relative who died yesterday. For those who donate a DNA sample, and match with a long-dead relative, this collapse in time between death and identification, between skeletonised remains and living bodies, frequently induces a sense of vertigo. With these collapsed chronologies, it is no longer possible for state authorities to wait for past abuses to fade from living memory, in order for the missing or dead to be consigned to history. Campaigns to recover and identify the dead can potentially now operate with much greater historical range and sustain their political momentum for many generations. Even in the absence of more conventional sources on the past such as testimony, memory, or archive, the swab expands into these spaces.

Dr Layla Renshaw

Associate Professor of Forensic Science, Kingston University London

Layla Renshaw is an Associate Professor of Forensic Science at Kingston University, London. Her research interests include the role of archaeology in post-conflict investigations and public perceptions of forensics. She is currently writing a book on the identification of World War I soldiers, exploring the link between genetic testing and memory.

Marina Álamo Bryan

PhD Researcher, Columbia University

Marina Álamo Bryan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University. Her work examines violence alongside the possibilities and impossibilities of its representation, most recently considering forensic evidence as a form of representation of violence marked by a dynamics of legibility and opacity. Her current research has been funded by Wenner-Gren Foundation and Social Sciences Research Council.

Dr Zuzanna Dziuban

Senior Post-doctoral Researcher, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Zuzanna Dziuban is a senior postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Culture Studies and Theatre History of the Austrian Academy of Sciences within the European Research Council’s Globalized Memorial Museums project (grant agreement No 816784). Her current research focuses on material, political and affective afterlives of the former Nazi camps, and the post-Holocaust politics of dead bodies.

Dr Claire Moon

Associate Professor of Sociology, London School of Economics and Political Science

Claire Moon is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is also the Principal Investigator on a research project funded by the Wellcome Trust entitled Human Rights, Human Remains: Forensic Humanitarianism and the Politics of the Grave. Claire is currently writing a book on the history, politics and ethics of forensic investigations of mass graves, as well as conducting research on the social and political denial of atrocities in the context of Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’.

Claire Moon


[1] See Ernesto Schwartz-Marin and Arely Cruz-Santiago (2016) “Forensic Civism: Articulating Science, DNA and Kinship in Contemporary Mexico and Colombia,” Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal 2, pp. 58–74 (DOI: 10.7227/HRV.2.1.5) amongst their important and pioneering body of work in this field, also first developing the concept of citizen-led forensics in their 2014 ESRC-funded project on the subject.

[2] This piece emerged from presentations and discussion during the ISRF residential project Citizen Forensics: Materializing the Dead from Grave to Gene in 2019. The original invitees to the project include Marina Álamo Bryan, Arely Cruz-Santiago, Zuzanna Dziuban, Claire Moon, Ernesto Schwartz-Marin and Sarah Wagner, convened by Layla Renshaw. The authors would particularly like to thank Sarah Wagner for her valuable contributions and insights to these discussions of forensic tools.

[3] See Claire Moon (2013), “Interpreters of the Dead: Forensic Knowledge, Human Remains and the Politics of the Past,” Social & Legal Studies 22(2), pp. 149–169, which incorporated Star and Greisemer’s ‘boundary object’ idea (1989) into the study of forensics and human remains to theorise the ways in which human remains sit at the intersection of diverse sets of interests, relationships and temporalities as well as political and ethical imperatives.

[4] For a foundational work detailing the social and cultural impact of a war crime investigation, and the differing valences of the scientific techniques employed in this process, see Sarah Wagner, To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica’s Missing (Berkeley, CA 2008: University of California Press). For an in-depth example of how the lens of material and visual analysis illuminates forensic practices, see Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman, Mengele’s Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics (Berlin/Frankfurt am Main 2012: Sternberg Press/Portikus). For a close semiotic reading of other forensic practices, not covered here, see Zoe Crossland (2018) “Forensic Afterlives,” Signs and Society 6(3), pp. 622–647. For a discussion of how forensic tools and equipment contribute to the transformation of bodies and objects into forensic evidence see Layla Renshaw, “The Forensic Gaze: Reconstituting Bodies and Objects as Evidence,” in Zuzanna Dziuban (ed.), Mapping the Forensic Turn (Vienna: New Academic Press, 2017), pp. 215–235.

[5] On further consideration of the epistemology of ash, see: Jacques Derrida, Cinders, trans. Ned Lukacher (Minneapolis, MN 2014 [1987]: University of Minnesota Press).

[6] Augering, followed by exhumation of the dead, was performed by archaeologists searching for the Polish victims of the Katyń massacre in 1940. The same team of archaeologists deployed this method to locate disposal pits at the former National Socialist extermination camps Bełżec and Sobibór. The latter graves have not been unearthed. For a detailed account of this archaeological method and its application in the contexts of political violence, see Andrzej Kola, Archeologia zbrodni. Oficerowie polscy na cmentarzu ofiar NKWD w Charkowie (Toruń 2011: Wydawnictwo Naukowe UMK); Andrzej Kola, Bełżec: The Nazi Camp for Jews in the Light of Archaeological Sources. Excavations 1997-1999 (Warsaw/Washington: The Council for the Protection of Memory and Martyrdom/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum).

[7] For a more detailed analysis of religious and political implications of and constraints to the application of augering in the archaeology of the Holocaust, see Zuzanna Dziuban, “(Re)politicizing the Dead in Post-Holocaust Poland: The Afterlives of Human Remains at the Bełżec Extermination Camp,” in: Jean-Marc Dreyfus and Élisabeth Anstett (eds.), Human Remains in Society: Curation and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Genocide and Mass-Violence (Manchester 2017: Manchester University Press), pp. 38–65.

[8] For a wide-ranging discussion on the imaginary of DNA see Dorothy Nelkin and M. Susan Landee, The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004). Some fascinating analyses of the role of genetics in human rights investigations across generations have emerged in relation to ongoing work in Argentina. See for example Ari Gandsman (2009), “‘Do You Know Who You Are?’ Radical Existential Doubt and Scientific Certainty in the Search for the Kidnapped Children of the Disappeared in Argentina,” Ethos 37(4), pp. 441–465. For an exploration of self, personhood, partibility and kinship in relation to developments in biotechnology, see Marilyn Strathern, Kinship, Law and the Unexpected: Relatives Are Always a Surprise (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[9] For a rigorous examination of the role of technology and power relations underpinning global human rights investigations, see Lindsay A. Smith (2017) “The Missing, the Martyred and the Disappeared: Global Networks, Technical Intensification and the End of Human Rights Genetics,” Social Studies of Science 47(3), pp. 398–416.