Within the sphere of forensic anthropology, nothing quite catches the imagination like the infamous "body farm" in Tennessee. This undeveloped plot of land is home to progressive research investigating the decomposition and postmortem fate of human remains.
In Death's Acre , founder and renowned anthropologist Bill Bass and journalist Jon Jefferson describe the inception and development of the site. Intertwined with this is the journey of its creator, from his days analysing archaeological remains in the desert to his mentoring of some of today's leading forensic experts.
This is an interesting book with a conversational style that immerses the reader in Bass' biography. Now in his 80s, his story covers the formative years of the discipline. Although it is hard to determine how much is Bass' own voice, he comes across as a confident, engaging man.
Crucially, there is a good use of case studies throughout the book to describe and explain his work. And while there is always a danger of exploiting other people's suffering when using case studies of the dead as entertainment, this is avoided here and the details proffered seem to have been chosen with the genuine aim of demystifying the facility. Continuous use of the term "body farm", however, suggests that they are not entirely keen to desensationalise what happens there. Happily, the book does not get bogged down in the specifics of the science, but gently introduces general methods of anthropology and archaeology (and surrounding issues) without the reader truly realising it.
Although Bass admits to certain embarrassing mistakes, he has unarguably had great success with this exercise. But it is disappointing that the book feels a little too self-congratulatory. Perhaps this is a function of Bass'
experience and standing. Some of the prose is rather lazy and, although the predictable gallows humour is present, there is a penchant for melodrama and pseudo-profound statements.
Perhaps the weakest part of the book, however, concerns not the body farm but the discourse on author Patricia Cornwell (who has also written the foreword). There is a somewhat incongruous chapter dedicated to her and, while her involvement is salient to the story, there is too much emphasis on her and the authors' love of her work. Her foreword is wholly overegged and the language she uses is at times cringeworthy. It does set the scene, but the effect could have been achieved more subtly.
Perhaps of greatest concern is the dismissive attitude that Bass and Jefferson hold towards their critics. This book would be the perfect platform to counter questions regarding the ethics of the body farm. Yet they merely justify it by its results or, more simplistically, by stating that it should be preserved since it is unique. This unsatisfactorily sidesteps certain ethical questions, such as the right to self-determination after death and the use of vulnerable demographics for research.
The target readership is strongly hinted at by the unsubtle front cover of skeletalising remains and the way that Cornwell's name appears above - and in larger print - than those of the two authors. However, this book is clearly relevant to those who are interested in the application of forensic science, and anthropology in particular.
For a forensic anthropologist, it is interesting to read the views and career history (a combination of hard work and good fortune, as is often the case) of such a respected figure such as Bass. Unfortunately, the unconvincing justification of the existence of the body farm on key ethical grounds leaves a hole in this otherwise absorbing and revealing book.
Tim Thompson is lecturer in forensic anthropology, University of Dundee.
Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary 'Body Farm'
Author - Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson
Publisher - Time Warner
Pages - 299
Price - £16.99 and £12.99
ISBN - 0 316 725 7 and 72528 5