Dr. William Bass is a legend in the field of forensic anthropology. He was ahead of his time when he established The University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility (better known as the very first body farm) in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1971. The Body Farm is a piece of woodland acreage that is dedicated to studying the science of human bodily decomposition. During his long tenure at the Body Farm, Dr. Bass advanced his field in innumerable ways, and helped solve countless infamous cases. Quite notably, he is one of the few people to ever examine the presumed remains of the Lindbergh Baby.
At any given time, there are one hundred or more bodies decaying in a variety of circumstances on the property. Knowledge is gained from closely monitoring the bodies as they go through the decomposition process. The donated corpses are placed in settings that range from car trunks to shallow graves to submersion in water. They are also subjected to various weather conditions, because temperature is critical when it comes to studying decay processes and rates in organic material. Incredibly, entomology (the scientific study of insects) has become an important discipline in forensics, and is oftentimes vital when it comes to establishing time of death. This is because dead bodies attract bugs. Determining where the bugs are in their life cycle can be critical to pinpointing just how long a person has been deceased.
Generally speaking, there are four stages of human decomposition. The first stage is called autolysis and starts immediately after death. Cells and tissues are digested by their own enzymes and rigor mortis (muscle stiffening) occurs during this period. The second stage is called bloat. Gases that have built up in the body cause it to swell and emit putrid odors. Stage three is called active decay. The body’s soft tissues liquify, and the bulk of the body will disappear. Eventually the body reaches stage four, which is called skeletonization. At this point, the bones, hair and other hard structures are all that remains.
If you are interested in reading more about Dr. Bass and the Body Farm, please visit his website at Bonezones.com.