Officers Trained on Processing Burial Sites

Law enforcement officers learn how to process shallow graves at STAFS.
Law enforcement officers learn how to process shallow graves at STAFS.

Law enforcement officers from throughout Texas got first-hand experience investigating clandestine burials at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility at Sam Houston State University.

Small bones are retrieved from the burial site.
Small bones are retrieved from the burial site.
“The Search and Recovery of Clandestine Burials” was a four-day course which provided the background and training needed for police officers to properly process scenes involving human remains buried in shallow graves. The course included representatives from police departments in College Station, Missouri City, and Willis; sheriff offices in Polk and Williamson counties; and a Texas Tech University campus police officer.

“To ensure complete recovery of human skeletal remains and any associated physical evidence from clandestine burials, archaeological methods must be employed,” said Dr. Joan Bytheway, Director of STAFS. “Participants learned and employed these methods and were successful at locating and recovering their skeletons.”

The officers were provided classroom instruction and practical exercises about the human skeleton including sex, age, and stature. They also learned key characteristics in identifying shallow burials and also learned how to differentiate between human and animal bone as well as contemporary skeletal material versus prehistoric or historic remains.

Officers learned to distinguish bones in the human skeleton.Officers learned to distinguish bones in the human skeleton.To prepare officers for work at a potential clandestine burial scene, the course discussed the effects of taphonomy. Taphonomy is defined as the processes that occur within and to the body after death until the body is recovered, and how those processes can differ from state to state and geographic area to geographic area.

They also worked with the tools of the trade, including ground penetrating radar and metal detectors, which are used to identify possible grave sites or potential evidence in the case. They learned how to properly diagram the scene, using datum points and baselines, and sift through materials at the site for possible evidence or small bones. A lesson in soil geology helped officers understand changes in the site that might indicate the presence of human remains.

A body is discovered using ground penetrating radar.
A body is discovered using ground penetrating radar.
The highlight of the program included the actual recovery of human remains from shallow graves at the STAFS facility. Officers spent a day and a half at the site, utilizing all the skills they learned to develop their case. The event culminated with analysis of the remains and associated evidence and then each group presented their case.

The officers that participated in the program were given Texas Commission on Law Enforcement credits for the training.

Officers gently remove dirt around the body.
Officers gently remove dirt around the body.



STAFS is one of only six willed body donation facilities in the country dedicated to the study of forensic anthropology. In addition to providing research in the field, the program offers training to law enforcement officers and high school teachers on various aspects of crime scene investigation.

This summer, STAFS will offer short course for educators, alumni and students on:

  • Advanced Crime Scene Investigation, June 16-20
  • Entomology/Digital Forensics, June 16-20
  • Criminal Investigations/Courtroom, July 28-31

Skeletal remains provide important clues about the identity of the victim.
Skeletal remains provide important clues about the identity of the victim.
For more information on upcoming trainings, contact the STAFS facility at (936) 294-4310 or visit the STAFS website at www.cjcenter.org/stafs.

Member of The Texas State University System