By Nina K. Carroll M.Sc.
In the summer of 1999, I had the rare privilege of doing an internship at the University of Tennessee (UT), Knoxville Department of Anthropology. I conducted my own research on hair decomposition and entered a decade’s worth of data on the forensic cases investigated by the now famous Professor Emeritus, Dr. William Bass, a leviathan in the field of forensic anthropology research, as well as Dr. Lee Meadows Jantz, Dr. Richard L Jantz, and Dr. Murray Marx, also experts in the field.
During the course of my two-month internship, I had the opportunity to visit the department’s Research Facility for the Study of Biological Factors Affecting the Rate of Human Decomposition, also known as “The Body Farm.” The Body Farm (known within the department as simply the “Facility”) and Dr. Bass were made famous by author Patricia Cornwell in her book, The Body Farm, and by documentaries on The Learning Channel and The Discovery Channel.
The facility is located adjacent to the parking lot of the UT Medical Center and is surrounded by gates reminiscent of Jurassic Park. The property, as described by Dr. Bass in his new book, Death’s Acre, has multiple fences and gates to keep out trespassers who have a fetish for the macabre. I was surprised that the smell alone did not act as a deterrent to the majority of the curiosity seekers. Once past the smell, the insects and wild animals should weed out the remaining inquisitive few. For those who are not dissuaded by the swarms of flies and mosquitoes, they are rewarded by one of the most fascinating visual and learning experiences that few are ever privy to. The sight of a dozen or so bodies in various stages of decomposition under the hot Tennessee sun is indelibly printed in my mind. It is not a fascination in a “freak show” kind of way, but that of a pronounced self-awareness. For me, all myths and conjecture of what occurs after death were stripped away and I was left with a piercing sense of my own mortality.
On my first day visiting the facility, there were several pigs near the front gates. The pigs, which had been donated and were awaiting disposal, had been euthanized for an experiment involving sharp force trauma. Pigs are often used in a great deal of forensic research because their similarity in size, body mass, and decomposition markers parallel human decomposition. They are also used when ethical considerations arise from using human research subjects for certain experiments. The research done at the facility has been almost the sole contributor for the existing body of forensic anthropology literature concerning human decomposition.
There is no other facility of its kind anywhere. (Colorado conducted research many years ago known as “Project Pig” in which pigs were used to research various methods of locating clandestine human graves, and pigs were also used in an experimental field study in Edmonton, Alberta, which attempted to recreate a Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age cemetery site. This research was intended to bridge the gap in human decomposition research in colder climates as opposed to the hot, humid southern United States.)
Some of the pigs donated to UT Knoxville’s facility were for experiments, such as one performed by Dr. Jennifer Love in which she observed toolmarks on bone created by various types of sharp force instruments (i.e., single-edge knives, double-edge knives, serrated and non-serrated and made of various materials). Each instrument leaves distinguishing toolmarks that can aid in identifying the weapon used in a crime when that weapon is initially unknown to law enforcement. This information also plays a role in the legal aspect of death investigation. Search warrants must be somewhat specific as far as what items can be seized in a search. Narrowing down the type of weapon used in a crime can help make the warrant more valid and the case a bit more airtight. Nothing enrages law enforcement or the general public more than having a good, solid case thrown out due to a technicality such as an invalid search warrant.
In contrast to the donated pigs, human bodies donated to the facility cannot be unnaturally marred in any way, and they must be allowed to naturally decompose. Donated bodies can be placed in contrived situations such as shallow graves, burial vaults, coffins, trunks of cars, in water, fully exposed, nude, partially clothed, fully clothed, partially buried, etc, so as to mimic the environment necessary for the purposes of that specific research being conducted. For example, the facility’s research in the differences in the decomposition rates of bodies fully exposed versus the decomposition rates of bodies in water and bodies fully buried produced the “decomp formula” used by investigators to determine time of death. This decomp formula is 1 week exposed in air = 2 weeks in water = 8 weeks buried* in soil. (*Buried, as used here, means a clandestine grave, not embalmed, in a coffin, or any other typical modern burial accoutrements.)
Whatever type situation the facility incorporates for its testing purposes, the bodies must be allowed to decompose naturally so the taphonomic* indicators may be measured more accurately. This includes insect activity, environmental variables (rain, heat) carnivore gnawing and grave disturbance such as dragging away of extremities by black bears and buzzards. [*Taphonomy is defined by Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary as, “The study of the processes (as burial, decay, and preservation) that affect animal and plant remains as they become fossilized.”]
Volumes have been written on the many processes, factors, and environmental variables that affect remains in the process of decomposition. In temperate conditions, full skeletonization of remains generally takes eighteen months; however, extreme climates can increase or decrease this time significantly. According to Spitz and Fisher (1993), the shortest period from time of death to full skeletonization occurred in the state of Mississippi when a 13-year-old female homicide victim became completely skeletonized within 10 days in the late summer months when Mississippi is exceptionally hot and humid.
To illustrate how UT’s research has aided law enforcement, in mid-November, 1998, I worked on a case that involved a homicide victim who had been shot and hanged in the woods in south Mississippi. He was a black male, approximately 18-21 years old, 5’10-6′ tall and of slim build. His body was discovered by hunters. The climate for the region at that time was approximately 60 degrees F with light rainfall. He was fully skeletonized with almost no soft tissue remaining. The bones were not completely dry and were only slightly bleached in appearance. Using Dr. Bass’s research, and applying the heat and humidity of the summer months to the decomp formula, Dr. Michael West and I estimated his death to have occurred between eight and nine months prior to discovery.
Searching the Missing Persons database produced one likely victim who had last been seen alive in late January of 1998, making our estimation of time of death fairly accurate. Unfortunately, due to destruction of DNA evidence, we were never able to make a positive identification, only a tentative one. The skull was eventually sent to forensic anthropologist, Doug Ryan, of the San Antonio, Texas, Medical Examiner’s Office, for a facial reconstruction to aid in identification. (Donated remains are also used by UT to teach facial reconstruction to forensic anthropology students. Many times this is a last resort effort to identify a victim but has proven moderately successful over the years.)
Other research conducted at the UT facility has aided in determining the specific odors/chemicals emitted by human decomposition that attracts blow flies and cadaver dogs from extensive distances. (Love, 1999). Research done at the facility has revealed that the bones of humans have been getting longer and longer as we evolve. The research done at UT Knoxville by Dr. Richard Jantz has produced what is known as the ForDisc. The ForDisc is a computer program used by forensic anthropologists to enter measurements of skeletal remains such as skull diameter, femur length, mandible width, etc. Using discriminant analysis, these measurements are used to determine age, ethnicity, sex, etc, of the remains.
The list of contributions of the facility could go on forever. New research ideas are being tested at the facility every day in order to keep law enforcement one step ahead of the criminals. For example, graduate students have conducted research at UT that has proven pioneering in the field of forensics. One student used alternate light sources to help expose or clarify details of tattoos after varying periods of decomposition. Because tattoos can become almost indistinguishable to the naked eye after the skin has become darkened and flaccid due to decomposition, the ability to elucidate tattoos can aid law enforcement greatly in positively identifying a victim.
Despite the groundbreaking work conducted at UT, there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the donation of bodies and the research protocol followed by the caretakers of the facility. All bodies are treated with dignity and respect by those that use them for research. Indeed, they are considered worth their weight in gold by the students and instructors who realize their incalculable value for forensic research. According to their website, “The Department of Anthropology receives between thirty to fifty body donations a year. All donations are placed at the Anthropological Research Facility, with the remains eventually accessioned into the William M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection.”
The bodies are donated by people from all walks of life, such as scientists, doctors, indigent and/or homeless people, hospice patients, etc. Some families donate their loved one because they cannot afford the funeral. Many donations come from people interested in forensics who simply want to make a contribution to the field of study. These people get a certain sense of satisfaction in knowing that current and future students will gain an invaluable learning experience from the study of the remains of the Bass Collection.
The facility does not, however, accept donations from individuals who have contracted the AIDS virus, hepatitis (A, B, or C), tuberculosis (TB), or antibiotic resistant bacterial infections such as MRSA. Donation does not prevent the donor from being an organ and/or tissue donor and there is no cost for donation. There is no cost for transportation of a body within 200 miles of Knoxville and inside state lines. There is a transportation charge for anyone outside the 200-mile radius of Knoxville and outside the state of Tennessee (regardless of the distance being less than 200 miles).
Additional information regarding research, body donation, resources for students and law enforcement, and how to apply for the program, can be found online at www.utk.edu. Many of the forms needed to request information or body donation can also be found online. The anthropology department appreciates any available medical information and requests a photograph of the donor (to be kept in the department’s private records). This information is used solely for research and teaching purposes, such as facial reconstruction techniques, superimposition, and other identification purposes.