Skip to content

John McIlwaine - Celebrating Archaeological Sciences


The University of Bradford is proud to celebrate top-quality international research especially when it comes to knowledge transfer and the University's strapline of 'Making Knowledge Work'. However, in the area of the forensic work undertaken by Archaeological Sciences at Bradford, it is hard for the University to celebrate their achievements openly due to the work being done as part of an operation for criminal investigation.

Forensic Archaeologist at the University John McIlwaine is proud to be sharing with our readers details of a project that Archaeological Sciences are involved in; the search for some of the victims of Northern Ireland's Troubles.

As far as most of the world is concerned 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland came to an end with the signing of 'The Good Friday Agreement' in 1998. For many in the Province however, there continues to be a powerful legacy of loss, pain and grief. It is said that 'time heals all' but for the families of 'The Disappeared' the suffering has continued for decades.

'The Disappeared' of Northern Ireland were people abducted, murdered and secretly buried during the 1970s and early 1980s by proscribed organisations, principally the Provisional IRA, although other organisations also participated in the practice. The families of 'The Disappeared' have had to struggle with not just the trauma of loss and the pain of bereavement, but also the agony of not knowing how, or why, their loved ones were taken. For them, there have been no funerals. They lack graves to mourn at, and so for them the grieving process has never properly started. In addition, the families have been left feeling isolated and vulnerable as the community has often been silent concerning these cases, due to an underlying fear of the consequences of speaking out. Despite this, the families have continued to campaign for decades, in the face of intimidation, for the return of their loved ones.

In 1999 as part of 'The Good Friday Agreement' a unique organisation, the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains (ICLVR), was established by Treaty between the British and Irish Governments. The sole purpose of the ICLVR (usually referred to as 'The Commission for the Disappeared/ the Commission') is to obtain information, in strict confidence, which may lead to the location and recovery of those listed among 'The Disappeared'. Whilst it is supported by both governments, the Commission acts independently and any information gleaned by it cannot be passed to any other agency and cannot be used in any court of law. This model has attracted a lot of international interest from places where similar tragic events have taken place. In 1999 and 2000, on the basis of information received by the Commission, a number of sites were investigated and several bodies recovered.

However, there are still a number of outstanding cases and the Commission asked independent forensic expert Geoff Knupfer to conduct a review of these cases and suggest a new way forward. Geoff was selected for his expertise having been the Director of the Centre for Applied Socio-legal Studies at the University of Teesside and previously Chief Superintendent with Greater Manchester Police (GMP). During his time with GMP Geoff played a pivotal role in the 1980s investigations of the Moors Murders which saw the recovery of Pauline Reid's body. His review recommended that a team be established that should include specialists in investigation, geophysics, imagery, forensic science and forensic archaeology.

The project began in 2007, with Bradford providing the Forensic Archaeology team. It is an immensely painstaking process. Some, the Press in particular, seem to expect us to literally parachute on to a site with a map containing the location of the remains, excavate a body and go home at the end of the day. It may be like that in CSI and Bonekickers but not in real life. If it was that easy, the bodies would have been recovered during the first set of searches. A lot of background work is undertaken by the whole team. Geoff worked tirelessly out of the public eye to win the engagement of the Republican Movement and other interested parties. This led to the acquisition of vital information as to the whereabouts of the remains but this, together with information provided via the confidential
telephone line, had to be checked and verified. Jon Hill, a former Detective Inspector with the Metropolitan Police's Flying Squad, has been invaluable in sifting and collating this material. He liaises with various agencies and with the families to keep them up to date with the work on their specific case. Once the Commission feels that they have confidence in the information, further background research is undertaken, old maps, imagery, specially trained body detection dogs, geophysics and landscape reconstruction all have to be undertaken so that we can produce a detailed search strategy, and only then can any excavation work begin.

Excavations have been conducted in extremely difficult terrain, from the seashore of County Antrim to exposed mountainsides in County Wicklow, but most excavation work has been in areas of extensive peat bog in Counties Monaghan, Louth and Meath. The precise locations of these clandestine graves are difficult to identify as these areas were specifically selected for their remoteness and to make any recovery of the bodies as difficult as possible. This has led to large areas having to be investigated and substantial amounts of material being excavated. The largest search so far undertaken was in County Wicklow, from which the remains of Danny McIlhone were recovered in late 2008. The search area was just over 10 hectares (20 football pitches) with peat that varied in depth between 1.5 to 2 metres. To make matters worse on this very exposed mountainside, the weather conditions ranged from unpleasant to truly grim, but through persistence and patience Danny was located and recovered. Work on other sites has led to the recovery of Charlie Armstrong, Gerry Evans and Peter Wilson.

Critical to forensic work is the fact that it does take a special type of individual. There is a lot of pressure associated with forensic work. You need to be not just a highly skilled archaeologist but someone capable of dealing with the psychological issues. These are real bodies and you see some pretty unpleasant things. It is very different from excavating human remains on a standard archaeological site. Normal field archaeology requires a fair amount of patience and determination, but forensic work takes that to a whole new level. You have to concentrate the whole time; if you miss a piece of pottery or a flint on a normal archaeological excavation then it is unfortunate. You have lost an artefact from our past but, in the forensic environment, it could be a vital piece of evidence that could lead to a murderer being arrested. Miss that item and they may not even be arrested much less convicted, potentially killing again.

The work for the Commission is different in a number of respects. Firstly, we aren't there to gather evidence, just to recover the remains for the families. Secondly, the work itself is far from easy. The remains are stained brown by tannins in the peat, so basically you are looking for something brown against a brown background with bits of tree in places that look just like bone would look in this deposit. But added to that you need a special degree of toughness to undertake this work given the terrain and extremely adverse weather conditions often in the rain, sometimes in a howling gale but occasionally snow for a bit of light relief. It is all very different from CSI on TV.

Fortunately, I am not trying to do this on my own. I have the support and expertise of my academic colleagues, Rob Janaway and Andy Wilson, both of whom have substantial amounts of forensic experience with extensive criminal cases work in the UK. They are able to contribute their specialist knowledge which comes from their internationally respected research in taphonomy, textiles, fibre, hair and other forms of trace evidence. Rob contributed significantly to the early stages of the field programme, but as the demands have grown he has taken more of an advisory role due to his heavy work commitments. Whilst Rob had to downsize his direct contribution, our fieldwork continued thanks primarily to the efforts of two key members of the team, Bobby Friel and Niamh McCullagh. Bobby was a mature student with us back in 1999 and has built up a vast array of archaeological and forensic experience over the years, whilst Niamh McCullagh, a highly experienced Irish archaeologist, undertook an MSc degree in Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation at Bradford in 2006/7. She has played a vital role in the project since then. She has undertaken some of the most arduous work and deserves a medal for her efforts. Added to them has been a highly skilled and dedicated team most of which have strong connections with the University. They have been quite simply outstanding throughout a gruelling programme of work in sometimes horrific conditions. For example when the team arrived on site a couple of weeks ago, the temperature was -15C, and when asked by our machining contractors whether the team was going to work, the response was: 'Well, that’s what we came here for'.

Usually as forensic archaeologists, we work for the Police in a criminal case and we know little or nothing about the person we are looking for above the key operational details we need. One unusual feature of this work is that I have come to know the families very well as the Commission has regular meetings with them to keep them informed of the work programme and the developments. I brief them on the work of the forensic archaeology team. This makes it all very real especially for myself and Bobby (Friel) as we both grew up in Northern Ireland during 'The Troubles' and have witnessed at first hand the destruction and suffering that those days brought. The families recognise this; at the second meeting I ever attended one of the driving forces of the families, the brother of one of The Disappeared, asked a couple of questions about the work. He then just looked at me and said: 'This isn't just a job to you is it?'.

It was a privilege to be asked to lead the team but on occasions it has proved very hard and not just due to the constraints of weather and terrain. We have had successes which are wonderful but not every search has been fruitful. When things don’t go to plan it is really tough when you have to tell a family that we can't bring them their loved one home. The worst was a search we did in France. It took nearly two years of tripartite negotiations between the British, Irish and French governments to allow the work to take place. We were led to believe that the intelligence was reliable; however, this proved not to be the case. The team was very down afterwards and personally I was absolutely gutted. The family was very understanding and appreciated that everything that could have been done for their loved one, had been done. It still doesn’t make you feel any better. Bobby and Rob constantly remind me that 'our job is to search for remains and once located, recover them. No matter how good you are, you can't find what isn’t there’. They are right, but still, it doesn't sit well.

However, we have had more success than anyone predicted possible at the start of this project, and there are still a couple more sites to investigate. If new information comes forward on the site where we have not yet recovered the victim's remains we will return to continue our work. Hopefully one day the victims will be recovered and their families can have peace and closure. Whatever happens next, the families can always rest assured that everything humanly possible has been done to bring their loved ones home.

Back to news from 2014