Founded in 1971 by William M. Bass, UT's Forensic Anthropology Center was the first of its kind.
More colloquially referred to as the "body farm," the center was designed as a research facility for studying human decomposition.
"The whole mission of the Forensic Anthropology Center is three fold," said Dr. Dawnie Steadman, Director of the Forensic Anthropology Center. "We conduct research and facilitate research, we provide the training of students and law enforcement, and we provide services for law enforcement and medical examiners."
On any given day in the Facility, there are student volunteers, both graduate and undergraduate, working with anthropology professors and Facility staff. Not only does this Facility serve as a basis for forensic research, it is also an invaluable education experience for students aspiring to hold careers in forensic anthropology.
"We have students involved in a little bit of everything," said Steadman. "They are part of placing bodies when they first come in, they also excavate the bodies, put down grids and treat each set of remains like a crime scene."
Body donations to the facility are primarily done through a registration process that is completed by a donor while he or she is still living. According to Steadman, there are currently over 3300 pre-donors for the Forensic Anthropology Center. When these donors register, they fill out a biological questionnaire about their own biological make-up and what kinds of research they consent for their body to be used for. An actual copy of the biological questionnaire can be found on the Forensic Anthropology Center's website, including a policy and procedure overview.
Once a donor is declared deceased, FAC staff and volunteers will either pick up the body or have it delivered to campus. When the body is on site, they will go through an intake procedure at the William M Bass Forensic Anthropology building. These evaluations measure biological characteristics of the donor before the body is placed at the Facility for observation of decomposition. Once bodies are placed on the ground in the Facility, they are left there, covered only by a black tarp, to be subject to the natural decomposition process.
"When you're first walking in there's a path lined with bodies, but when you start really going up, the bodies are kind of just scattered in there," due to natural animal scavenging activities said Kortney Williams, a senior anthropology student who works both in the William M Bass Forensics Building and on the Facility grounds. "So, you look and you see the results of animal scavenging, and sometimes the bones will be everywhere or the tarp won't be on, or the skull will be way far away because it rolled down a hill or something." These are the natural decomposition processes that forensic anthropologists have to understand when they are involved in the search for human remains in real forensic cases.
After a decomposition study is finished, the bones of a donor are then brought back to the William M Bass Forensic Anthropology building to be processed. Processing is the essential cleaning of all materials left on the bone after decomposition. Students will take a toothbrush and water to scrub off anything remaining on the bones such as tissue, dirt, bugs, skin or toenails. According to Williams, when you receive remains with too much excess material to be scrubbed off, you must allow for this material to be dissolved.
"You have to put it in a crockpot, and basically you're cooking it," said Williams.
All material salvaged from the bone is kept in a biohazard container separate from trash. After processing, the donor's bones will become part of a collection of more than 1200 skeletal remains for the purpose of scientific research, the Bass Donated Skeletal Collection.
Although this main purpose of this forensic facility is to better understand the variety of decomposition processes and allow for research projects, UT anthropologists and students also work at the Facility with law enforcement agencies to help with human remains recovery, bettering the identification of bone findings or missing persons, and aiding in the determination of post mortem intervals.
Jake Smith, a second year graduate student in anthropology and staff at the FAC, believes that the main mission of the Forensic Anthropology Center is to perfect research to help in the search for missing persons.
"It's to do enough research, in decomposition, post mortem interval, and time since death, to be able to give all these missing individuals who don't have a name, to be able to give them a name," said Smith. "What we do here has got to help us find their identity and give them back to their family."
However, Smith admits that the difficulty of handling human remains becomes evident when you begin to humanize the corpse and the bones you are studying.
"I guess people can be squeamish about it, and it does get difficult when the loss is difficult," said Smith. "When I'm talking to the parents of someone's child that's passed away and they want to donate, a thirty year old child or a nine month old child, it just brings it all back. Life is too short, help who you can, when you can, and while you can . . . it's going to help a lot of people, and it's already helped a ton of people"
Although other forensic facilities like UT's have recently popped up across the nation, Steadman feels that the long standing reputation and innovation present on UT's Facility will always be the best advocate for research and donations conducted here.
"It's the interest that we have from the public and the scientific community that cause so many people to want to donate bodies here and do research here, because of the long term relationship that we have with the community."
For more information about the Forensic Anthropology Center, click here.