skull says: bodies and bones

1. Story map

2. Something smells in Tennessee

3. Where the bodies are

4. How to get them to talk

5. The making of a forensic anthropologist

"Needless to say, [my wife] wasn't thrilled when she arrived home to the stench of cooking flesh and found a decaying human skull and femur simmering in her eight-quart kettle."

At the Body Farm, you're as likely to encounter a three-day-old corpse as a skull like this one. But we'll spare you the former. Photo: Courtesy Arpad Vass, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

This is a copperplate engraving by
Bernardino Genga
[anatomist] and
Charles Errard
[artist], Rome, 1691. Image from the National Library of Medicine. Courtesy

Dead Man Talking
This is not a story for the faint of heart. If you don't believe us, consider a scene:

small skull"To refine my estimate of age and to gauge the woman's stature, I needed to remove the remaining tissue from the bones. Short of leaving the skull and femur outdoors and allowing insects and scavengers to pick the bones clean -- a slow process, and one that could mean losing the femur or mandible to some scavenging buzzard or coyote -- the only good way to clean the bones was to simmer them in a covered steam vat for the better part of the day, then scrub off the softened tissue with a toothbrush (not my own personal one, mind you)...Needless to say, [my wife] wasn't thrilled when she arrived home to the stench of cooking flesh and found a decaying human skull and femur simmering in her eight-quart kettle."

A skull rests in the leaves.

That's not fiction. It's just a day in the life of a forensic anthropologist, or at least it was when the science was new. The excerpt is from the new book Death's Acre by Dr. Bill Bass, founder of the now-legendary University of Tennessee Center for Forensic Anthropology, unofficially -- but universally -- dubbed the Body Farm. The year was 1962, when there were only a handful of forensic anthropologists in the country, and tools for the job were just as scarce.

Skeletons cavort in old etching Bass's lab was equipped to study skeletons and bone fragments but not the recently dead. So when investigators brought him the remains of a corpse found at a roadside, and pressed him for a quick description, Bass had no choice but to clean the bones on his kitchen stove (which he soon replaced, upon his wife's understandable insistence).

In the end, Bass gave investigators what they needed to make a positive identification: the sex, approximate age, and ethnic background of the woman who had died. But the experience, and many that followed, left him with the burning sense that more crimes could be solved, and more lives saved, if researchers better understood how bodies decompose.

It is not a pretty science. But the field of forensic anthropology, which draws on tools and methods from classical anthropology and archaeology to assist criminal investigations, now flourishes in laboratories across the world. Bass is widely considered a pioneer in the field. Since the Body Farm's inception in 1977 it has attracted hundreds of researchers, all working to understand one of life's greatest mysteries: death. It is the only facility of its kind in the world.

Many people might be inclined to shy away from the topic entirely. But we Why Filers are morbidly curious, and judging from the numbers of related e-mails we get, we're guessing you are, too. So hold your noses. We're diving in.

You might know a thing or two about how scientists work with detectives to solve crimes if you watch one of the spate of forensic-themed shows, like CBS's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Heck, here at The Why Files, we've tackled the topic twice before.

But unless you hit the science journal shelf as often as you turn on the tube, there are some things you might not know. We learned a few things at the recent meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing in Knoxville, Tenn., where Richard Jantz, the current director of the UT facility, spoke to a mildly queasy audience of science journalists.

Gowned researchers excavate skeleton.
Excavation sites like this one can reveal volumes about a crime, when handled with care. Photo: Courtesy Arpad Vass, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The Body Farm, he explained, has a simple mission: to allow scientists to observe and record what happens as bodies decay. At any time, as many as 50 corpses in various states of decomposition lie within the two-acre site in the woods at the edge of the university medical center. Some are stuffed in the trunks of cars. Others laze in the open sun, and more still are partially buried in the shade of spindly trees. Yuck factor aside, the place is a source of tantalizing science.

From watching the dead to finding the dead.

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