The Body Farm. It sounds like a horror movie, especially this close to Halloween, but I assure you it’s not fiction. Somewhere in the east Tennessee woods lie scads of actual human bodies. It’s the nation’s oldest and largest open-air collection of rotting corpses.
In 2009 Motherboard visited Dr. Bill Bass, an anthropologist and forensic pathologist at the University of Tennesse, Knoxville. Bass founded UTK’s Forensic Anthropology Center in 1971 to, in part, help train students in body identification and outdoor forensic investigative techniques.
As part of the curricula, Bass started The Body Farm, an open-air lab on a hectare-sized plot of woods. A lab where donated bodies are dropped to experience various weather and environmental conditions so researchers can study how quickly those bodies decompose. It’s important research for criminal investigators whose time-of-death calculations are critical. As gross and macabre as it sounds, there really aren’t any other study options that provide reliable, real-world data.
Bass talked with us about his history developing some of the earliest methods of forensic anthropology and asking the dean of UTK for land to let dead bodies rot on (for science, of course). It’s an illuminating chat about the world of forensic science mixed in with numerous anecdotes about old murder cases from Bass himself as he tours us around the bone-scattered Body Farm. We will offer a warning: the footage and archival photos can get grisly. But don’t be scared, it’s only science! -Derek Mead