The excavation of a 23 year-old aircraft crash site in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the transformational processes preceding its excavation in 1995–1996 are detailed. The history of the site involved an initial catastrophic event, with subsequent reclamation and disturbances. Ultimately, a recovery effort by a joint U.S. team from the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI), Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA) and a Socialist Republic of Vietnam contingent yielded numerous human remains, personal effects, and life-support items from the crash site.
This case study should be of interest to the increasing number of forensic anthropologists who carry out work in international contexts. The application of forensic anthropology in human rights abuse cases, for example in Rwanda, Argentina, and Bosnia, provide examples of such cross-cultural endeavors.
Cultural factors act in the development of a site and should not be overlooked as significant taphonomic agents. The approach that an indigenous person takes to a crash site or mass grave may be quite different from our own approach, involving Western science. Holland, Anderson, and Mann (1) describe the postmortem alteration of exhumed and/or curated bone caused by indigenous Southeast Asian peoples; the examples provided by these authors demonstrate how culture affects the treatment of what we would call “evidence.” The international nature of an incident can add complicating “filters” to the reconstruction of events, since reclamation responses by indigenous people vary according to their interpretations of the scene. An investigating forensic anthropologist needs to understand the emic viewpoint (the insider's view), as cultural anthropologists do, when attempting to recover and reconstruct such an incident.
In response to the cultural (and natural) taphonomic agents at work on such a site, the use of dual forensic recovery methods—simultaneously treating the investigation scene like an aircraft crash and a clandestine burial site—is advised. Employing a flexible set of methods will allow for maximal recovery of evidence.