Archaeology provides answers

Visiting archaeologist Prof Richard Wright measures an acrylic skull during a visit to the...
Visiting archaeologist Prof Richard Wright measures an acrylic skull during a visit to the University of Otago anatomy department on Thursday. Photo: Linda Robertson
Archaeologists became more widely accepted in the investigation of war crimes after they found crucial evidence in mass graves in Bosnia, Sydney archaeologist Prof Richard Wright says.

"I think it’s done the profession some good," he says.

Prof Wright (83) gave a public talk, titled "Of What Use is Archaeology in the Investigation of War Crimes?" at the Otago Museum this week.

He is Emeritus Professor of anthropology at the University of Sydney and is the former chief archaeologist for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

English-born, Prof Wright said he had "never regretted" his decision to stand down as professor of prehistory at Sydney in  1990,  and to undertake considerable work overseas.

Prof Wright investigated mass killings of civilians by Nazi forces in the Ukraine during World War 2, and undertook later work for the ICTY (1997-2000), including investigating the Srebrenica massacre.

In this massacre, more than 8000 Muslim men and boys were killed in Bosnia in mid-1995. At times he had experienced "very mixed feelings".

But later he felt a "a sense of justice being done", after the former Bosnian Serb military army commander Ratko Mladic, and former the leader of the breakaway Serb Republic in Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic, were convicted of their crimes, he said.Before this investigation, there had been considerable scepticism in some circles about the use of archaeologists.

One worry was that archaeologists could take far too long to complete their work, during which troops from the Nato-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR) were deployed to protect investigators.

But despite, at times, facing "great danger", the archaeologists showed they could work quickly and recovered a great deal of robust and revealing evidence.

This included tiny pieces of paper with Dutch print on them, which were improvised cigarette papers cut from newspapers previously read by Dutch UN peacekeepers.

Motion-activated watches, which had stopped within 36 hours of the killings,  showed when they had taken place.He had felt "privileged" to be entrusted with uncovering details of "crimes against humanity" and and finding "evidence of guilt".

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