The Body Farm
Between grad student experiments and professional anthropologists, many research projects are ongoing at the Body Farm. While Bass is currently retired and does not keep track of the day-to-day progress, he estimates that perhaps five to eight studies are ongoing at any given time. He has worked on several cases from the Noble, Georgia, crematory scandal, assisting families and lawyers in their pursuit of justice. Because he did a five-year study for the Batesville Casket Company on what happens to bodies inside caskets, he also offers expert testimony in cases involving leaky caskets. In addition, he typically juggles several forensic cases at a time that require time-since-death evaluations.
The facility is also a teaching center, as scientists offer demonstrations to law enforcement personnel. The FBI, recognizing the facility's importance, sends agents for courses on clandestine grave discovery and excavation.
Those who have worked with Bass at the Body Farm have developed technologies essential to the investigative process, including:
- The concept of degree-days—measuring the temperature and rate of decomposition over the course of a specific number of days, such that calculating the numbers can make one area comparable to another, whether it's Siberia, Knoxville, or Peru. Through a chemical analysis of soil samples from beneath a decomposing corpse, scientists can estimate how many degree days the found body has accumulated. Combining that with weather data from the geographic area over the course of the estimated decomposition, they can better determine time since death.
- Collecting bones from cadavers that have fully decomposed. Bass has accumulated more than 400 20th century skeletons — the largest collection in the United States — and he offers these to anthropologists to study for making analyses about skeletal dimensions.
- ForDisc (forensic discrimination software). Dr. Richard Jantz has developed forensic software based on measurements from various areas of the bones, along with information about the person's race, height, age, and illnesses. ForDisc estimates from a skeleton of unknown identity the gender, race, and stature, and the database is continually updated. This software also can be utilized by international tribunals for war crime and human rights investigations.
- Tests with ground penetrating radar. One project placed bodies under different thicknesses of concrete, buried at different depths. The researchers can then assess, from what they know about those bodies, the kinds of patterns the machine registers when it hits on one of them. Forensic anthropologists have been called in to help find the remains of victims in places like Bosnia, Croatia, and Panama, who have been killed during violent political regimes. In many cases, they are searching for mass graves. They need the means to determine, before they start digging, whether a specific area can yield results.
- A dog detects air-borne bio-markers that decomposition gives off, but Dr. Arpad Vass, a researcher at the facility, is developing a detector that will respond to the same scents that attract cadaver dogs. It's an artificial nose that pulls air through a tube into a spectrometer chamber. This machine will isolate the specific chemicals. Vass hopes to pinpoint single molecules and make the unit portable for police use.
- Another area of investigation that has produced important results is what happens to a body in a fire. Three thousand people are consumed in house fires, and some are murder victims. Even more nefarious, some are utilized as a means for faking a death. Bass likes to use the following case to teach police officers, fire investigators, and medical examiners what to expect when a body burns.