Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Body Farm

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Squirrel Bones
Squirrel Bones

Researchers at the Facility have studied what happens to human remains in a fire (noted above).  Dr. Joanne Devlin, an anthropologist with an interest in archaeology, took us out to a donated house, where a volunteer fire crew torched it to its foundation.  Devlin had planted animal remains from the zoology lab in various areas, and when the place had cooled two days later, we rummaged (carefully) through the ashes to look for them.  Charred bone resembles ash, so we had to develop a sharp eye. I grabbed a trowel and joined a team in one corner to sift through the whitish-gray rubble, and soon we spotted a tiny white vertebra, smaller than half the size of my pinkie fingernail, then a set of ribs that resembled thick rounded bristles. Joe (who owns a dog named Daubert) suggested we allow the various bones to remain as we found them, which turned out to be a good idea (when you name a dog Daubert, you had better have good  ideas), because the anatomical position helped us locate the mandible (jawbone) and the other vertebrae.  I think we all came to appreciate forensic specialists who excavate fire scenes.

Digging through the rubble
Digging through the rubble

On the final day, I got what I'd come for: entrée to the Facility.

Rebecca, who works regularly on the grounds, told us we were lucky because several bodies had recently come in.  In other words, on this aggressively humid August day, we were in for an intense olfactory experience.  We didn't have long to wait, as the odors wafted over us while Lee Jantz explained how they utilized a small building and car on the property.  All around, we could see the "projects" in wood frames, under tarps, or out in the open.  Two entomologists from England, Andrew Hart and Amoret Brandt, were studying maggot activity and were only too happy to show us their work.  I've seen pictures of maggots, but there's nothing quite like being close to a squirming ball of white worms.  I don't think I'll forget the phrase, "post feeding larval dispersal." 

Our groups rotated from one station to the next, noting a trailer, a shallow grave, a wooden stand, and a plastic trash bin, all of which were or had been part of active research.  We saw cadavers in various stages of decomposition, from fresh to skeletal, many of which were under tarps for privacy.  Most of the remains, I learned, stayed at the Facility for approximately a year, offering unique raw material for biologists, entomologists, bone trauma experts, bacteriologists, and even the FBI to devise treatments for assisting on some angle of time-since-death estimates.  Far from being gruesome, it was fascinating to listen to professionals at various stations discuss past, present, and future research. 

Bill Bass and Katherine Ramsland

The aura of respectful purpose pervaded the Facility, and it carried through into our "final exam," undertaken back at the lab as the skies darkened and lightning threatened to blow the power: We presented our cases, showing with knowledge gained over the course of the week that we could now pass the bone quiz.  I think we all recognized what a privilege it was to receive a certificate for getting through the first class from the Body...I mean, the Forensic Anthropology Center.  Joe even brought Daubert in to help us celebrate. 

The whole class
The whole class

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