Forensic Archaeology during World War II: Ethics and Politics

First part of an absolutely brilliant programme last night on Danish television (DR2): “Kraniet fra Katyn” (“The Skull from Katyn”). Katyn is the site of the mass graves of thousands of Polish soldiers and civilians that were systematically executed in 1940 by the Soviet occupying forces.

The mass graves were subsequently discovered by the Nazis in 1943 and used as anti-Communist propaganda in an attempt to cause friction among the Allies. An international commission of 12 doctors – all from German occupied territories – visited the site and investigated the bodies exhumed by the Germans. Among the members of this commission was a Danish forensic pathologist, Harald Tramsen.

As a rather morbid souvenir, he brought a skull from one of the bodies he had examined with him back to Copenhagen. Harald Tramsen was also a member of the Danish resistance movement, and just as the 11 other members of the commission, his (unwilling) participation as a tool of Nazi propaganda came to haunt him after the war.

The skull was re-found in 2005 in Copenhagen, and the process of its repatriation was begun. However, the head is being claimed by two different Polish families that have lived with the Soviet attempts to cover up their responsibility for the Katyn massacre right up until 1990.

There are thus two intertwined themes in the programme: the political context of forensic archaeology – both now and then – and the ethics involved in the identification and repatriation of the skull. Both are important issues in contemporary archaeology and have wide implications for the discipline as a whole.

I look forward to the second and final part of the programme on Sunday.

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