FGG 2008

Geoscientific Equipment & Techniques at Crime Scenes

Programme and Abstracts of the 2nd FGG Conference

The Geological Society, Forensic Geoscience Group

Burlington House, London

17 December 2008


Welcome and foreword


It is an honour and a privilege to welcome you to the second meeting of The Geological Society, Forensic Geoscience Group (FGG 2008), held at The Geological Society, Burlington House, Piccadilly, in London.  This is the second day of a two-day event, held in association with the Environmental and Industrial Geophysics Group (EIGG). The theme for the first day, held on 16 December 2008, was; ‘Recent Advances in Archaeological Geophysics’ and the theme for the second day is; ‘Geoscientific Equipment and Techniques at Crime Scenes’.  The main focus for FGG 2008 is aimed at, but not necessarily limited to, presenting, discussing and debating the use of existing and innovative equipment, techniques and methods that potentially may be applied to crime scenes.

In recent years there has been a tremendous increase in interest in Geoforensics (known also as Forensic Geoscience or Forensic Geology), in academia, industry, consultancy, police, law enforcement, military, universities, schools, the public and the media. Geoscientists and geoforensic specialists increasingly are supporting serious crime investigations such as; murder, rape, kidnapping and fraud. What is more, forensic science and geology both also have captured public interests and imaginations, and have benefited from increased coverage in the media, film and on television over the past decade or so. It is perhaps now timely and appropriate to reflect on some of the principal events in Geoforensics which have taken place, in particularly in the UK, over the past few years.

Fourteen years ago I began to apply and develop conventional and innovative geological techniques to help search for a murder victim’s grave. At this time geologists rarely, formally, supported police investigations, apart from occasionally when soil, rock or man-made materials on clothing were analysed. In British universities there were relatively little, if any, courses or research specifically focussed on, or drawing attention to geoscientists and their potential role in supporting law enforcement. However, this gradually began to change after 2002, when I was invited to give a presentation on ‘Forensic Geology’ in Westminster Palace, House of Commons, as part of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Earth Science. This raised the profile of forensic geology in the UK and drew attention to the potential support which may be provided by geoscientists to help the police and other law enforcement authorities in certain types of criminal investigations.

Six years have now passed since an article on forensic geology was published for the first time, in ‘Geoscientist’ (Donnelly, L. J. 2002. Finding the silent witness. Geoscientist. The magazine of The Geological Society of London, 12(5), 16-17). This was followed by the publication of a second article in ‘European Geologist’ (Donnelly, L. J. 2003. How forensic geology can help solve crimes. European Geologist. Journal of the European Federation of Geologists, 16, 8-12). Since then there has been a rapid explosion in interests in geoforensics, in particular in the UK, but also internationally. This has occurred at an alarming rate in academia, industry and within law enforcement. In 2004, The Geological Society hosted a forensic geoscience conference, which further fuelled interest in forensic geoscience (Pye, K. & Croft, D. J. 2004 (eds) Forensic Geoscience: Principles, Techniques and Applications. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 232). Following the Westminster Palace presentation a proposal was submitted to The Geological Society to set up a new, ‘Forensic Geology’ specialist group (Donnelly, L. J. 2005. Considerations for a Geological Society of London Forensic Geology Specialist Group. The Geological Society, London). The Geological Society approved the ‘Forensic Geoscience Group’ (FGG) which was formally launched at its inaugural meeting in Burlington House, in London, on 20 December 2006.

Since 2002, there have been at least seven international meetings on forensic geoscience, at least five ‘books’ have been published on forensic geology, and many papers on the use of geology in forensic investigations of crime, search, engineering, geotechnics, mining, disaster and warfare have also been published (see for example: Ruffell, A. R. & McKinley, J. 2008. Geoforensics. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, UK; Murray, R. C. 2004. Evidence from the Earth: Forensic Geology and Criminal Investigations. Mountain Press Publishing Company, USA and Ritz, K., Dawson, L. & Miller, D. 2008. Criminal and Environmental Soil Forensics. Springer, UK).

Together, these events since 2002 all demonstrate the wealth in activity and interest in geoforensics in the UK and world-wide. There are now over 120 courses in the UK which feature ‘forensic’ in their course title, although some of these ‘teach’ geology there is much scope for improvements. Teaching and research in geoforensics is now established in a number of universities, on BSc courses and as part of PhD research. Furthermore, many practitioners regularly provide geological advice to the police and law enforcement agencies as part of their routine professional services as geoscientists.

Published in this booklet are the abstracts for the papers presented at FGG 2008 and in general, these seem to continue the main, two-fold, division of geoforensics, as follows:

·         Firstly, mainly laboratory based geoscientists (including for example; geochemists, sedimentologists, mineralogists, petrologists, micro-palaeontologists and isotope experts). This involves the collection, analysis, interpretation, presentation and explanation of physical (trace, or micro-scale) evidence, which can be soils, rocks, micro-fossils or man-made materials (such as concrete or bricks). Using evidence sampled from a crime scene, human remains (such as skin and finger nail scrapings), vehicles, clothing or other objects. A forensic geoscientist may be able to assist the police in determining the possible location where a crime took place, linkage of the offender or evidence to a crime scene, linkage of the offender to the victim, assess the possible movement of human remains, or eliminate potential suspects or offenders. Although these types of ‘geological’ samples are analysed in a laboratory it is important they are properly collected by the geoscientist, from the crime scene, object, or body.

·         Secondly, mainly field-based geoscientists, whose skills in the mapping and exploration of the Earth’s (ground) surface and ground investigations are used to help the police search for locating (and sometimes recovery) buried or concealed organic remains (such as a murder victim’s graves, mass graves and human remains) or non-organic objects (such as clothing, weapons, firearms, improvised devises, explosives, drugs, stolen items, money, jewellery and antiques). These searches may take place in urban, rural and remote locations, in both the terrestrial (land) and marine (including also underwater such as canals, rivers, streams, seas, lagoons, estuaries, reservoirs, lakes and ponds) environments.

Forensic geoscientists may also be called upon to be an expert witness or to provide expert opinion in a range of investigations, which may include for example; domestic incidents, international terrorism, humanitarian, environmental, geohazards, mining, geotechnical, civil engineering, materials engineering and fraudulent investigations; all which may be regarded as part of the emerging and growing discipline of ‘Geoforensics’. Some examples of such investigations are presented in this conference. These are not necessarily associated with supporting directly law enforcement (police) investigations, but nevertheless may be regarding as ‘forensic’ in its broader definition (for further information see for example: Shuirman, G. & Slosson, J. E. 1992. Forensic Engineering. Environmental Case Histories for Civil Engineers and Geologists. Academic Press, Inc., California, USA and Day, R. W. 1998. Forensic Geotechnical and Foundation Engineering. McGraw-Hill, USA).

Perhaps some of the principal challenges which forensic geoscientists may face in the future include for example; (a) improving methods of communication between geoscientists and law enforcement officers, (b) formal training and education in forensic geoscience and in particular sample collection, giving evidence in court, and the design and delivery of a search strategy and methodology for buried or concealed graves and other objects, (c) the development of new laboratory and search techniques and their acceptance by law enforcement and courts, (d) training on giving evidence in court, (e) the geoscientists understanding of strict police search and crime scene investigative protocols and the judicial system, (f) regulation and accreditation of forensic geoscientist practitioners (given the increase in academia and practising ‘forensic geologists’ this particular issue is extremely important if professional standards are to be maintained), (g) maintaining international geoforensic links, (h) promoting publications in refereed scientific journals, (i) multi-disciplinary collaboration with other specialists, (j) the development of operationally based geoforensic practitioners to become more aligned with the police and (k) funding for training and research.

The papers presented in this conference demonstrate how ‘Geoforensics’ is a discipline that can bring significant benefits to policing, law enforcement and criminal investigation throughout the world.


Laurance John Donnelly                                                    
17 December 2008


Dr Laurance John Donnelly BSc (Hons), PhD, CSci, CGeol, EurGeol, FGS, FGSA

Chair, Geological Society, Forensic Geoscience Group

Engineering, geohazards, mining, & exploration geologist

Forensic geologist & police search advisor

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