Forensics 101: The Body Farm

A research subject at The Body Farm (via Jefferson Bass)Last week’s blog featured the case of Colonel William Shy and how a miscalculation of the age of the remains led Dr. Bill Bass to conclude that the scientific community simply didn’t know enough about human decomposition. Dr. Bass knew exactly what was needed – an outdoor  laboratory where the process of decomposition was allowed proceed uninterrupted under a variety of conditions while being scientifically observed and documented – but nothing like that existed at the time. He was fully aware of the biggest stumbling block: although he knew that any donated body would be treated with the utmost respect, by today’s standards such an experiment could appear gruesome and disrespectful to the dead. But Dr. Bass’ desire was clear: 'Anytime a real-life murder victim was found, under virtually any circumstance or at any stage of decomposition, he wanted to be able to tell police – with scientific certainty – when that person was killed.'1

Luckily, the Chancellor of the University of Tennessee was an open-minded man who could see the benefits of the research proposed by Dr. Bass, so he offered an acre of forested land behind the Medical Center. Dr. Bass jumped at the opportunity, and, in May of 1981, the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, quickly nicknamed The Body Farm, opened with its very first research subject.

The Body Farm blazed trails in forensic science, starting with documenting the most basic traits of decomposition before branching out into more complicated forensic experiments. Among their discoveries are:

  • Decomposition rates – They determined that the sequence of decomposition doesn’t vary, but the timing can. A mathematical formula was derived to determine decomposition rates based on accumulated degree days allowing the accurate calculation of time since death.
  • Differential decomposition – Armed with the knowledge of how decomposition normally progresses, a particular part of a corpse decomposing too quickly tells scientists that an additional variable is at play at that location (ie. trauma), even if no trace of it still remains.
  • Decomposition variables – A multitude of studies were conducted to determine how different conditions affect decomposition – sunlight vs. shade, inside a building vs. outside, shallow vs. deep burial, submerged vs. surface burials, clothed body vs. naked etc.
  • Forensic entomology – Some of the first research at The Body Farm involved pioneering studies of grave insects – which bugs were found on a corpse, and when. This data and knowledge of an individual inspect species’ life cycle can provide a separate method of calculating time since death.
  • Burials – Many studies have been carried out to determine the characteristics of decomposition of a buried corpse. They found that, on average, decomposition progresses at approximately 1/8 the speed of a body that remained on the surface.
  • Adipocere vs. mummification – Studies were conducted to determine what different conditions would lead to the very different results of either grave wax accumulating on the body or rapid drying leading to mummification.
  • Chemical analysis of soil samples – Body Farm researchers discovered that certain biochemicals are produced in a predictable manner during the different stages of decomposition. By analyzing soil under an actively decomposing corpse, the time since death could be accurately determined.

Based on this and other research projects, the study of forensic science has progressed in leaps and bounds, providing criminal investigators with much more information concerning the fate of the victim. This, in turn, has lead to a higher conviction rate in murder cases.

Next week, we’re pleased to host Jefferson Bass, the writing partnership of Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson, as they highlight their newest ‘Body Farm’ novel, The Inquisitor’s Key. We hope you’ll stop by as they share a forensic-related excerpt from their novel as well as their new book trailer. See you then!

1Death’s Acre—Inside the Legendary Forensics Lab, The Body Farm, Where the Dead Do Tell Tales by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 2003.

Photo credit: Jefferson Bass