The Body Farm
Dr. Bill Bass opened the course with a lecture on forensic anthropology, and then Dr. Lee Meadows Jantz, the Center's Coordinator, gave us a whirlwind primer on human bone anatomy. A glance at the week's schedule revealed that we'd sit at the feet of some of the most renowned names in the profession. Drs. Richard Jantz from UTK and Stephen Ousley from the Smithsonian Institution were the co-authors of the computer program FORDISC 3.0. Dr. Murray Marks, long associated with the Facility, was an expert in postmortem decomposition and computerized facial reconstruction. Even Joe, a.k.a. Brad, would teach a course in nonmetric ancestry identification.
More important, we wouldn't just sit in the classroom. For each lecture, from stature to stats, we had a corresponding hands-on (and hands-in) lab, as we were instructed to handle whole bones, skulls, and fragments, in the belief that one can only learn to identify human remains by acquiring a feel for the weight, size, and textures. In the first lab, I grew quite enamored of the donut-shaped, colorful pillows used to stabilize the skulls. Reportedly, these had been made by Bass's mother, and I thought the FAC should consider mass producing them to raise funds. Yes, Goths and other morbid skull collectors would purchase them, but so would medical schools. The might be as commercially viable as the LA Coroner Gift Shop's toe-tag key chains and body perimeter beach towels.
Back to the bones. It was once the case that skulls looked generally alike to me, but no more. Getting up close and personal showed me that some are light, others heavy; some dark, others all white; some symmetrical, others misshapen. The strangest was the skull of an infant, which was shockingly fragile and featherweight. Facial features might be broad or narrow, solid or fragile, long or short — fortunately, for identification purposes. The variations were endless.
We divided into teams, each of which was given a complete skeleton, all in pieces, to try to lay it out correctly (not as easy as it seems), describe its qualities and determine what had happened to the former person. Ours had a bullet hole through the skull, but that was the easy part. We were to examine the pelvis, teeth, skull, and long bones to decide age, race, stature, and other traits. Another group had an amputee with arthritis, while a third had to contemplate high-impact injuries. Once we had our agenda for the week, we watched for the "skeleton keys" planted throughout the lectures that would help us make our case assessment.
On successive days, we learned how to distinguish male and female features, traits characteristic of different ancestries, and qualities that made one skull or bone young, another much older. We heard that a cadaver lying down did not measure the same as that person standing. We also learned from Dr. Randall Pearce, an energetic forensic dentist, how to use the nuances of teeth as identifiers. In addition to that, we watched slides about various taphonomic conditions - things in the environment that can affect a bone's appearance and condition. Perhaps a rat has chewed on it or the weight of dirt fractured it. Perhaps it's been immersed in water or partially exposed to the sun.
Once we had that information down, the "saw guy," Dr. Steven Symes from Mercyhurst College, renowned for his expertise in sharp force trauma marks and in the indicators of child abuse, showed us how to tell the difference between peri-mortem trauma to a bone and postmortem damage, with the former generally having more forensic significance.
But of all the labs we had, burning down a house was the most extraordinary.