journal, university

Archaeologists in Court

Last week, there was an optional class teaching fledgling archaeologists to give evidence in court. I thought I’d better make myself available, in case I ever find dead bodies and have to file a report to the police (how on Earth did I get to write such a sentence?)

Some important things:

• Archaeologists hired as expert witnesses are not supposed to be advocates for any party.

POOF! – went some assumptions. I had never questioned that professionals work for their clients, which, in my head, translated to advocacy. Nope nope nope!

In court, Archaeologists give their opinion ONLY what on the uncovered evidence implies. Eg you find a skeleton with nerf bullets, it means the archaeological evidence strongly suggests that the victim went down with nerf bullets, and not with a blow-up mallet or via a ninja sword fight.

🔫 🤺

Seems like that’s it. It is out of bounds to reconstruct the situation and say, “Mr Smith shot poor innocent Mr Jones with a nerf gun in cold blood.”


I mentioned Emeritus Professor Richard Wright in an earlier post – he was the gent who helped the Australian police uncover WWII mass graves – 550 Jewish victims – in Ukraine, 31 years ago. He wrote:

“In evidentiary archaeology, there is no room for the flights of reconstructive fancy that characterise many archaeological reports.” (Wright 2010:97)

People may be allowed to exercise their imagination a little bit with events in Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt, but not in modern investigations.

It is the Court’s job to determine who was likely guilty of a crime, and the Court decides on the social outcome that is meant to benefit overall society the most (eg, victim’s family gets compensated, or a criminal gets put away).

In fact, if the defence lawyer sniffs out bias, you can end up jeopardising the prosecutor’s case…

• A defence attorney can rightfully comb through all your history, your notes and your publications and even your online Twitter account – or blog! – to prove that you are not an impartial person. Yikes.

• If you are a biased archaeologist, they would call you a “Hired Gun” – someone who deliberately weaponises archaeological evidence. The opposing lawyers will try to have you thrown out, and will probably be successful.

Hired Guns have a certain lifestyle, and can make a lot of money by partnering with lawyers but are skirting the lines of ethical conduct. They are blurring the line between the science of discovery and their personal agendas, you see.

Takeaway: work as neutrally, impartially, and objectively as possible, and you are probably all good.

In other news, here is a cool quote from recently:

“Science is about testing the limits of ignorance.”

Dr Neale Draper, archaeologist in South Australia.



Wright, R 2010 Where are the Bodies? In the Ground. The Public Historian, 32(1), pp.96-107.

Gun and mallet images from