In the east Tennessee woods lie dozens of corpses in various states of burial and decay. Welcome to The Body Farm.
As strange as it sounds, it’s far from sinister. The Body Farm is the creation of Dr. Bill Bass, who founded the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Forensic Anthropology Center in 1971. Bass, an anthropologist and forensic pathologist, is a pioneer of modern forensic anthropology, a discipline designed to help authorities process crime scenes with a rigorously scientific bent.
The Body Farm is Bass’s open air lab, spread about on a hectare of cordoned-off woods. Donated bodies are set up under various conditions all throughout the year to help students and researchers study exactly how bodies decompose in almost any situation. For investigators discovering a body days, weeks, or months after death, being able to narrow down the exact time of death is critical, and there’s no replacement for real-world data in a controlled environment.
In 2009, Motherboard visited Bass. He chatted us up about the history of forensic anthropology and shared the wonderful story of when he first asked the UTK dean to give him land to let bodies rot on. Better yet, Bass gave us some insight on some of the more memorable cases he’s worked on throughout his long career while giving us a tour. I suppose I should warn you: the footage is pretty gnarly because, you know, there are rotting bodies all over the place. Hey, it’s that time of year, so you might as well enjoy it. And, of course, you can always remind yourself that it’s only science.