Where the dead rest in pieces

February 20, 2004

Stung by a mistake in estimating how long a corpse had been buried, Bill Bass set out to get data on how bodies decompose - by leaving them in a field and watching them decay. Geoff Watts reports.

We all make mistakes. Occasionally, we profit by them. When Bill Bass, an American anthropologist, made a gross error of judgement in the late 1970s, it germinated the seed of an idea that had lain dormant in his head for 13 years. The outcome was a research project as spectacularly gruesome as it is unique: the Body Farm.

As a forensic anthropologist, Bass is frequently called on to examine human remains in various states of decomposition, and then estimate how many weeks or years have passed since the time of death.

In December 1977, police in Franklin, Tennessee, a town 30 miles south of Nashville, were investigating a recently disturbed civil-war grave. They assumed that the damage was the work of grave robbers. But on digging down a short way they found a headless body lying not inside the coffin but on top of it. The occupant of the grave should have been a Colonel William Shy.

But the corpse, although decomposing, did not appear to have been in the ground for the 113 years indicated by the date on the headstone. One possibility was that modern-day killers had used the grave to dispose of a victim. The police asked Bass to investigate. He hauled out the body, looked it over and pronounced it to have been there for six months to a year.

It wasn't too long before further investigation suggested what had really happened. The occupant of the grave was indeed Shy. His remains had been dragged from the coffin by grave robbers then roughly reburied, though not inside the coffin. But how to account for the condition of the body? "Colonel Shy had been embalmed and buried in a cast-iron coffin that didn't leak," Bass says. "He was in pretty good shape." His deterioration had set in only after removal from his metallic sanctuary.

Bass was chastened by this embarrassing reminder of the near-complete lack of scientific data about the decomposition of bodies. "I'd screwed up," he says. "I thought, damn, I'd better do something about this." It was then that the idea he'd conceived more than a decade earlier resurrected itself.

What had sown the original seed were the deaths not of humans but of cows. "In 1964, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation had called me," Bass recalls. "They were having trouble with cattle rustlers. You see these old Western movies where rustlers steal whole herds of cattle and walk them across the country. They don't do that any more. They kill the cows in the field, dress the meat right there and drive it off in refrigerated trucks." In this case, the rancher had found the carcasses of his cows and wanted to know when they had been killed.

Bass had to tell the investigators that there was nothing in the literature on decay rates. To help, he suggested finding a rancher who would allow him to kill some cows, leave them in the field, and then see what happened. "Nothing ever came of it," he says, "but the idea stayed there in my head." The corpse of Shy brought it back to life.

Bass' idea was simple enough: leave bodies lying where the decay process could be observed, recorded and studied. The logic of such an experimental procedure is so evident that others must have thought of it; but only Bass has carried that logic to its conclusion.

As a forensic anthropologist with the University of Tennessee he was well placed to do this kind of research. "I get along with people fairly well," he says, "and the university has been a great supporter of mine. I just went to the dean and I said, 'Dean, I need some land to put dead bodies on.' The university has an agricultural college, so the dean picked up the internal telephone directory and looked through it for the number of the man who handles the land. They gave me an acre plot. It was where they used to burn the trash."

Although officially described as the university's anthropology research facility, Bass' workplace soon became known locally as the "Body Farm". When the novelist Patricia Cornwell used those words as the title of one of her crime stories featuring the fictional medical examiner Dr Kay Scarpetta, the name became familiar to a wider public. It may become even more famous now that Bass has co-written Death's Acre , a book that describes the lab's creation and its work.

More than 500 people have willed their bodies to Bass since he began work. Corpses are left to decompose under as many conditions as any undiscovered victim of an accident or of violence might have to endure. They are left on the ground, buried, placed in a shed, floated in a tank of water and subjected to as many varieties of climate as the seasons of Tennessee have to offer. Bass has seen and smelt most things - but even he admits that the atmosphere of the Body Farm can get pretty unpleasant, especially in the summer.

Many students doing dissertations work there. One of the current crop aims to do her masters thesis on the daily weight loss of a corpse. She needs a different body for each of the seasons, so she's put in a request for four. "As bodies come in, which they do at the rate of 60 or 70 a year," Bass explains, "they're allocated to different projects."

Methods of investigation have changed over the years. Buried bodies no longer need to be dug up to see what's happening. Fibreoptic viewing tubes make it possible to peer beneath ground level at the decomposing corpse without disturbing it.

In the real world, a body may have been lying around in all sorts of conditions. But by knowing something of the environment and checking the weather in the region, it's possible to make an informed guess at how long it's been there. Bass admits that his is still not an exact science - "but we're much better than we were 20 years ago," he says. And he doesn't think he'd ever make an error as big as that over Shy.

Bass, now in his mid-70s, had his first encounter with death almost 50 years ago while he was a student at the University of Kentucky. Among the classes he'd chosen - on a whim - was one in anthropology. Perhaps sensing a latent interest in the student, his teacher invited him to attend an exhumation. "We drove out to a rural cemetery in eastern Kentucky," he recalls. "That was the only case I ever threw up on. I'd never seen a dead body, particularly one that had decayed. But I knew then that's what I wanted to do. It was a kind of 'ah-ha' situation."

He went on to do a masters in anthropology at Kentucky, and then got a summer job at the Smithsonian Institution, examining bones from Indian burial sites that had been disturbed by the Army Corps of Engineers building dams on the Missouri River. This led to fieldwork in South Dakota each summer for the next 14 years. By the end of this time, Bass had completed a PhD and moved via the universities of Philadelphia, Kansas and Nebraska to become, in 1971, head of anthropology at Tennessee.

Bass is jovial man, full of macabre anecdotes, who clearly loves his work. He also believes that people should know more about death and become more familiar with it. Even the smell of it. He wants to do a follow-up to Death's Acre . "I'm sure I won't get this, but I would like for the publisher to put a scratch-and-sniff card in it." He laughs as he says this... but given half a chance, I'm fairly sure he'd do it.

Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary "Body Farm" , by Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson, is published by Time Warner, £16.99.

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