UNCOVERING GENOCIDE: WAR CRIMES - THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE
by Richard Wright
[Richard Wright is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the
University of Sydney. The original text of this lecture first appeared
in The Sydney Papers, Vol. 7 (3), Winter 1995, following a lecture
delivered to the Sydney Institute on 23 May 1995. The following text
is taken from an edited reprint appearing in International Network on
Holocaust and Genocide, Volume 11, Issue 3, 1996.]
This lecture will introduce archaeological investigations of mass
killings in Ukraine, perpetrated in 1942 and excavated 50 years later.
The work was done to support three prosecutions made in Adelaide,
South Australia, under the War Crimes Legislation. The question is why
was an archaeologist needed at all?
The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) of the Australian
Attorney-General's Department was determined to forestall two styles
of defense customarily offered in such cases - that the wrong person
has been charged (mistaken identification) and that the events alleged
are imagined or (if not wholly imagined) so polluted in peoples
memories by the lapse of time, and by self-reinforcing narration, as
to be worthlessly distorted evidence. Archaeology had nothing to do
with the first strategy - identification of alleged perpetrators - but
much to do with investigating material evidence for the alleged
Thus this discussion will be about how the graves were found, how the
details of killings were worked out, and how the events were dated,
both by old fashioned stratigraphic methods and modern chronometric
techniques. As an archaeologist my analysis concentrates on the
particulars and does not presume to give a summary of the holocaust in
The first grave was at Serniki, where the excavation party consisted
of, on the forensic side (for assessing sex, age, manner of death of
the victims), Dr Godfrey Oettle, head of the division of forensic
medicine in Glebe, Sydney. Responsible for collecting details in a
form acceptable for a court of law, Detective Sergeant David Hughes of
the New South Wales Police. My wife Sonia Wright, an experienced field
archaeologist, and who is currently writing up her experiences at
Serniki, was my assistant.
There were some preliminary problems. Even with glasnost (well under
way in the summer of 1990) one could not just turn up in Moscow and
announce you were going to do a mass exhumation in the Ukraine. With
this in mind, the trip had been arranged with officials within the
Soviet Government. The Soviet officials had already experienced the
professionalism of the Sydney-based Special Investigations Unit, as
the Australian team had virtually wound up its investigations at the
village of Serniki. Thus the archaeological team inherited much of the
goodwill that the SIU had built up with both the Soviet and Ukrainian
authorities. Responsibility for ensuring the second team's needs were
fulfilled was given to the procurator for the whole western half of
the Soviet Union, Madam Kalishnikova - at times a hindrance, at times
Serniki is on the southern margins of the Pripet marshes, which Hitler
said, in his table talk, would be retained for Wehrmacht manoeuvres
after the war. The work area was, in 1942, well within the German
lines in this area of the Ukraine. The area of the grave is now an
ominous-looking dark pine forest, but feelings of that sort are
illusory. At the time of the killings this was open country. Now in
the late twentieth century, at the site in the forest, the Soviet
authorities had set the team up with a telephone, tents, electricity,
bulldozers, and a contingent of Red Army soldiers. Only the telephone
The local officials wanted to find the bodies as soon as possible, and
did so at what turned out to be one end of the grave. However, the
archaeological interest was first to find a soil feature that might be
interpreted as a grave and only then look for bodies. In this way
damage to contextual evidence would be minimised.
The team was fortunate to find a marked contrast in colour and texture
between the natural soil and the filling of tne grave. This contrast
came right to the base of the existing humic zone at the surface, so
delimiting one half of the grave was possible before disturbing
anything. To do the work, the grave was divided into two halves, with
the Australian team at the end located by archaeological methods, and
the Soviets at the other.
The first job, having delimited the boundaries of ths grave as some
forty metres long and five metres wide, was to bulldoze down two
metres to within twenty centimetres of the bodies. Then, together with
the soldiers, shovels were used to remove the sand until the tops of
the bodies were exposed. Paint brushes were then used to do the final
exposure. At the end of five weeks of gruesome work, the skull count
indicated about 550 bodies in the grave. There may have been a few
more skulls where bodies lay more than two deep, but the torsos had
too much surviving soft tissue to make feasible the task of any
An awful scene unfolded. As the eyewitnesses had said, they were
mostly women and children. The men were old men. They had been herded
down a ramp into the grave. One lot had gone to the left and been shot
while lying down within the grave; the others had gone to the right.
The majority had entry and exit wounds of bullets in their skulls.
Some of them had been clubbed.
At the end the Soviets were working on, the bodies lay face down,
parallel and in rows. At the Australian end the bodies were much more
disorganized. There seemed to have been panic at our end.
In a generally empty area at the middle of the grave, bodies were
found that had fewer bullets to the head. Some had been clubbed. These
people had surviving bits of clothing, whereas the main mass of people
at each end of the grave had been stripped before being shot. Items of
clothing were found right through the filling of the grave, suggesting
that people had picked through a pile of clothing, throwing in what
was unwanted while the grave was being filled. One boot contained a
pocket watch secreted in the heel.
There was grim satisfaction in revealing that the massive grave was
much too large for the number of people in it. The Nazis had obviously
hoped for many more victims.
One of my duties was to concentrate on dating the event. After
cleaning up some of the corroded machine pistol cartridge cases, and
examining them with a lens, my colleagues found that the killers had
used German ammunition stamped with the place and date of manufacture.
The cases dated from the years 1939, 1940 and 1941. These cases were
like coins found in conventional excavations. Thereby the team had a
date of 1941, later than which the killings must have taken place.
It proved more of a problem to get a date earlier than which the
killings took place. The fir trees grew in parallel rows and were
clearly a plantation. Some fir trees grew in the filling of the grave.
The growth rings of the trees were examined. The greatest number of
rings found was 29, indicating that the killing had taken place before
Dating narrowed down significantly on return to Sydney, Australia.
Radiocarbon dating of hair showed no trace of the so-called hydrogen
bomb effect in their proportion of carbon isotopes. So the killing
must have taken place before hydrogen bombs were first detonated in
Turning now to 1991, when work commenced at Ustinovka, a year later
than Serniki. Sergeant Steve Horn replaced David Hughes, and Dr Chris
Griffiths, a specialist in forensic dentistry at Westmead Hospital,
Sydney, joined Godfrey Oettle on the forensic side. He was needed
because of a particularly awful allegation about the killings there.
It was alleged that after a hundred or so adults had been marched two
kilometres to a grave and shot, a fellow had asked where the children
were. 'We didn't think you wanted to shoot the children', the
organisers of the round-up had said. At that, some of the men returned
to the village, commandeered a cart, and drove the children back to
the grave. It is then alleged that they threw the children off the
cart and into the grave, and shot them. Apparently the SIU
investigators had interviewed the mother of three of those children
(the father was a Jew, she was not), who had said she returned from
the fields for lunch one day, and her children were not in the house.
She asked the neighbours whether they had seen the children. The
neighbours told her they had been taken away to be shot.
Dr Griffith's services were required because of the need to work out
the ages of the children, if found, from the stages of eruption of the
milk and permanent teeth.
Ustinovka is 500km east-southeast of Serniki, in the fertile black
soil loess belt. Unlike at Serniki, the locals had only a vague idea
of where the grave might be. There was no sign on the surface.
Standing in a vast paddock of 10 cm tall peas and maize, I felt
helpless. How were we to start looking? Where were we to start
One idea was to look for evidence of disturbed soil -young crops like
disturbed ground, trenches showing up from the air as greener
features. However, even from the air this proved fruitless, and thus
more mundane methods were initiated.
With a backhoe, a shallow trench was put across a likely area. We
began examining the scraped walls for lateral discontinuities in
colour and texture. In this way the side of a deep cutting was found,
which turned out to be the grave. At Ustinovka, unlike at Serniki,
there was success in defining the whole area of the grave before
disturbing any of its contents. When looking for a buried body your
archaeological objective should be first to find the grave and only
then direct attention to the body. This is a fundamental principle in
conserving evidence that Australian police should pay more attention
to. Archaeologists too rarely get called in to assist the police in
Remembering the story that children had been killed after the adults,
the stratigraphic evidence provided stunning support for this story.
The team came upon the children's skeletons first, and then what
seemed to be the bottom of the grave. But twenty centimetres below the
children lay the adults. The witnesses did not actually mention that
the grave had been partly filled after the adults were killed, but
obviously the stratigraphic observations provide important material
evidence for their statement that children were killed later.
There were about twenty children. The youngest one was about six
months and virtually destroyed in the soil, except for the teeth. The
oldest one was about twelve or thirteen years old.
Thus evidence was gathered that would have been missed without
attention to scientific methods of excavation. At Ustinovka, maybe
even the grave itself would have been missed. I conclude that
archaeological methodology has a role in the investigations of
I want to conclude by looking more widely than the events in the
Ukraine. I am obviously not alone in thinking that archaeoogical
methodology has a role in the investigation of killings. The
University of Bradford has a postgraduate diploma that majors in
forensic archaeology. I hope to visit John Hunter there when I go over
to the United Kingdom later this year [see 'Investigating War Crimes -
An Update' at the end of this article).
Closer to the topic of what I have been discussing in this lecture is
the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. It was formed in the
mid-1980s, when it became politically possible to investigate the fate
of the so-called 'Disappeared' of the 1970s. Horrified at the shambles
the police were making of the exhumations, they formed themselves into
a group of archaeologists and forensic anthropologists. They impressed
on the authorities that their methods would allow better opportunities
for identifying specific individuals, by proving the association
between artefacts and particular skeletons. It was not merely enough
to dig up the skeletons and take them to a morgue for identification.
This dedicated tearn has lent its services to authorites elsewhere in
South America and the world.
The Boston based Physicians for Human Rights has been approached by
the United Nations to assist with prosecutions relating to atrocities
in both the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. As their title indicates,
they are primarily a forensic team of volunteers. But they routinely
incorporate the services of archaeologists. I am privileged to have
been invited last year to join their group of experts, though I cannot
say that it is an invitation that I accept with relish.
The primary archaeological interests of my career have been twofold -
environmental changes at the end of the Ice Age and models for
computer aided multivariate analysis of archaeological data. But as
you can see, the invitation to work in the Ukraine dragged me away
>from those worthwhile, but relatively arcane, pursuits to a nasty
awakening in the archaeology of the twentieth century. Nasty it may
have been, but I have not regretted it. Even though no Australian has
been found guilty by the courts of the atrocities we investigated, we
have brought forward new material evidence of three particular
episodes in the Holocaust that no persons, even those labouring on
behalf of Holocaust deniers, have sought to contradict. Material
evidence is harder to contradict than memories.