TV dramas that follow detectives as they investigate a crime have long been a staple of American television. But in recent years, these shows have taken a decidedly graphic turn, focusing on the forensic teams that examine the victim's body and look for evidence that can help investigators bring the killers to justice. While autopsies, blood spatter analysis and DNA research apparently make for entertaining television, Mike Osborne discovered that real forensic science is far less glamorous.
It's a beautiful spring day in East Tennessee. The trees are just putting on leaves and every shrub and wildflower is in full bloom. But as you enter one of the most unusual research facilities in the world, even the sweetest smelling blossoms can't mask the stench of rotting flesh.
This is the Anthropological Research Facility at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, a facility more commonly referred to as The Body Farm.
Graduate students are carefully brushing away leaves and twigs from a patch of ground at the edge of a gravel path. They're looking for the last few small bones of a human skeleton. Clipboard in hand, Kate Driscoll checks off each bone as it's discovered, while Brannon Hulsey places them in a plastic collection bag.
"At this point we're doing pretty well," Driscoll reports. "We're missing about… yeah, about five to ten finger and wrist bones, which is not too bad. Usually you're missing a lot more distal toe phalanges - to the very ends of your toes. They're really small and they get lost very easily."
To find those last few bones, Driscoll and Hulsey use mason's trowels to scrape up a thin layer of topsoil and sift it through a metal screen.
They seem oblivious to the many bodies lying under the trees around them. There are currently more than 160 cadavers interred on the Body Farm, which encompasses just a half-hectare of land. Some are little more than bones, but others are in various stages of decay. It's a gruesome sight but Driscoll says the worst part of her work is the odor. "It's actually not as much as you would expect. But in the height of summer, when you have newly decomposing bodies, it gets pretty stinky," she admits with a laugh. "We're having a good day today."
While working with rotting corpses may not be for everyone, it's a price students like Hulsey and Driscoll are willing to pay for a chance to be involved in cutting edge research.
When it opened in 1981, the Anthropological Research Center was the first facility of its kind in the world, and it is still one of only three such research centers, all in the United States.
Researcher Rebecca Wilson oversees body farm operations, which she says provide extremely important information for law enforcement. "How do we decompose? What do we look like at different stages of decomposition? If I have a body that's been dead for three days, what does that look like and can I tell you it's been dead for three days?"
Graduates of the program have gone on to work with law enforcement agencies around the world, and criminologists come to Tennessee to sharpen their skills. "We work with the National Forensic Academy, as well as the FBI, in training their officers on how to recover remains in an outdoor context; be it on the surface or in a burial environment."
Wilson says the Center also collaborates with law enforcement agencies to research specific crimes. "What we'll do is simulate that scenario – usually a differential decomposition, where something doesn't decompose the way it's expected to," she explains. "Is this natural, or is this because what the perpetrator did? But we will simulate a scenario like that and see if it is related to natural processes, or related to the incident." Just such a project is underway this spring in collaboration with an Australian researcher.
Of course, these studies wouldn't be possible without a steady supply of bodies. Remarkably, all the remains interred at the body farm are donated. "We started our body donation program in 1981," Wilson says. "That year we received 4 donations. Last year we received 116 donations." She says that could be related to those TV crime dramas. "We've seen a significant increase since 2000, which is the same time that your popular television shows have taken off. We have seen an almost exponential increase."
Wilson says it's a diverse group of individuals who donate their bodies to the Center; everyone from a Circuit Court judge to schoolteachers. Once the decomposition of their remains is studied at the body farm, graduate students like Driscoll and Hulsey collect the bones and place them in a permanent research collection housed at the University of Tennessee.
Rebecca Wilson says bones always have a story to tell. With the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Department preparing to move into a new, larger facility, it's a story scientists like Wilson will be better able to tell.