The Body Farm
Close to the Bone
I received a flier announcing a brief forensic anthropology course at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK). I knew it would include some type of exposure to what I shall refer to as "the Facility," since the staff there bristles at the "Body Farm" moniker. (It's not actually a farm, anyway, since no one raises crops or cows.) While August in Tennessee didn't appeal to me, curiosity won over humidity and I signed up.
On June 30, 2006, I arrived at the Knoxville airport and looked for Assistant Coordinator Joe Hefner, the South's answer to Brad Pitt, who wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with the FAC logo (Forensic Anthropology Center), and, of course, a skull. On the ride to campus, he hinted at what lay ahead and said there were around 158 corpses at the Facility, around fifty of which are buried. (For those reading this without background from prior segments about Bill Bass and the Facility, be warned: I will assume you're familiar with the work done there.)
On the first morning, I gathered with twenty-three other students in the osteology lab, situated beneath the bleachers of the UTK football stadium. We were from all over, including Alaska and Brazil. From undergrads at UTK to medical examiners, private investigators, dentists, and archaeologists, our group proved to be quite diverse. We registered amid floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with boxes that contained bones from the 1000+ specimens in their collection. On a wall was a map of the two-acre, irregularly-shaped Facility. Scattered numbers depicted locations for the cadavers that were laid out in various places. Going there, we learned, would cap the week, and while I assumed it would be the highlight, in fact each day offered a wealth of information and new experiences.
We were pushed right into the water, sink or swim, with a bone quiz. Twenty-five stations were set up with bone fragments, and with each piece we had to decide if it was human and then determine its approximate age, taphonomic condition, or racial origin. From skulls to metatarsals to things I didn't even recognize (one resembled something from a Georgia O'Keeffe painting, except without eye sockets), we had sixty seconds per station to make an assessment. While it was quite a challenge, this set of puzzles made me pay attention the rest of the week, hoping to spot items in the slides I had been unable to identify; I'll never forget the sternum with the "unfinished development" that I erroneously labeled a bullet hole. And we'd only just begun.