Research University of Tennessee’s forensic anthropology center

Research University of Tennessee’s forensic anthropology center


Law enforcement agencies, students and researchers have access to diverse resources including decomposition facilities and skeletal collections. Body farms are considered to be a valuable resource that can be used for study and in criminology. They are formally known as forensic anthropology research laboratories that are based outdoors. The term ‘body farms’ gained popularity following the publication of Patricia Cornwell’s novel that is termed as ‘The Body Farm.’ The ‘Research University of Tennessee’s forensic anthropology center is a leading lab in the US where scientists study human decomposition using bodies donated by individuals interested in the field. The decomposition process is biologically uniform with the rate being affected by factors such as humidity and temperature. If a body is found in a river, a fire pit or a shallow grave, it is important for anthropologists to determine the cause of death or the trauma suffered.

The Research University of Tennessee’s forensic anthropology center was started in 1981 by Bill Bass who is a forensic anthropologist. It was the first of its kind that was launched following the need to launch an initiative to study human decomposition in forensic cases. The facility operated as the only ‘body farm’ in the US for twenty-five years with similar projects being started in Colorado Mesa University in 2013, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale in 2012, Sam Houston State University in 2010, Texas State University in 2008 and Western Carolina University in 2006. These are the ‘body farms’ that take human donations.


The Research University of Tennessee’s forensic anthropology center was opened in its current location in 1980. It has served as an ideal facility to study postmortem change. The remains donated by individuals from different parts of the country pave the way for that availability of a modern teaching collection. The remains are essential for the provision of training material that is used by law enforcement agencies and biology students. The facility has provided different collections that have been used in conducting research. Decomposing bodies are placed in different settings and provide insight into how decomposition occurs in diverse conditions. It has expanded over the years and has a higher number of bodies.

The outdoor laboratory has generated different collections that have made a pivotal contribution to the scientific study. To start with, the William M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection has been reported to be the leading modern skeleton collection across the globe. Researchers around the world study various aspects such as biological profile (ancestry studies, sex, and age at death), occupation markers, pathologies, and trauma. The collection is part of the research that is used in the development of the statistical program that is known as FORDISC that uses measurement data from skulls to be used by a forensic anthropologist in the determination of ancestry, height, and sex. The bodies in the collection are mainly from Tennessee, and only a few cases have been identified. Most individuals in the collection have not been determined. Diverse forms of perimortem trauma have been represented in the collection including trauma caused by a blunt object, stabbing, gunshot wounds and injuries caused by blunt objects. The latest project that has been undertaken in the facility entails mass graves investigation that has been identified to be a leading humanitarian concern universally. Research conducted using the collection has paved the way for the establishment of the other major facilities.

The second collection is known as the Forensic Anthropology Data Bank that is abbreviates as FDB. It was started in 1986 using funding that was provided by the National Institute of Justice. The FDB contains a wide range of information on various cases including weight, stature, occupation, medical history, and place of birth. The skeletal data for cases entails dental observations, congenital traits, perimortem trauma, non-metric cranial data, different aging criteria scores, suture closure data, and postcranial and cranial metrics. Currently, 3D coordinate statistics are being collected in the University of Tennessee and affiliated institutions.

The McCormick Collection entails skeletal elements from more than nine hundred individuals with established demographic information. The collection was obtained from East Tennessee Medical Examiner case studies. It is made up of human skeletal remains that are made up of cranial portions with clavicles, hyoids and gunshot trauma. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory collection is one of the latest projects that focus on remote sensing research and biometrics as well as decomposition.

Body donation is encouraged as it supports the research conducted in the institution. It can be noted that 30 to 50 bodies are donated annually and used to perform various studies. The donation policy is based on strict guidelines that ensure that families support the decision. Once bodies are donated the remains cannot be claimed by their families as skeletons are placed in the Donated Skeletal Collection. Additionally, bodies infected with illnesses such as MRSA and HIV are accepted after cremation that is perceived to be valuable for research. All the paperwork must be completed before the donation and transportation of the body to the facility.

Family visits are an essential area of consideration in the facility’s activity. It can be seen that family visits are emotional and personal. Some family members indicate that they experience a mixture of comfort and science. The family members decide what to do during the visit as there are some that discuss forensic anthropology and how the remains are utilized in training and research. While some families are nervous while visiting for the first time, they indicate that they are happy at the end of the visit. On the other hand, some family members are emotional upon seeing the remains of their loved ones.

The facility is interested in preserving history as there are more than 1600 skeletons that are carefully packed in boxes. The skeletons are what is left once the body farm is done with the body. The skeletons are labeled, cleaned and inventoried and packed in cardboard boxes which are later kept in the W. M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection. The skeletons were initially stored in tiny offices located under the Neyland Stadium. Some of the individuals that donated their bodies were enthusiastic that their remains would be placed close to the football field. However, the skeletons were to Strong Hall which is a modern laboratory located at 16th Street and Cumberland Avenue. Inside the location, the bones were arranged in electronic shelves based on their dates for easy access. Researchers in different fields including biomedicine, genetics, dentistry, anthropology, forensics, and biology study the bones for a greater understanding of their areas of interest. Studies conducted range from the breakdown of lipids in bones to the fit of orthopedic devices. Research has also evaluated the impacts of various illnesses on bones. Forensic anthropologists use skeletons in the educating law enforcement officers on the damage that bullets have on different parts of the body.

Most of the skeletons in the collection belong to white men. As previously mentioned, most of them are from Tennessee. The average age of donors is fifty years, and the collection includes the skeletons of men in different age groups. The facility stopped accepting unclaimed bodies that were offered by medical examiners in 2010. Some individuals donate their bodies upon death with a significant number of individuals being on the pre-donors list. Some families also offer their relative’s body.

The process of cleaning a body is labor intensive as they are worked on by anthropology students for a day. The cleaning is done using a toothbrush to clean bits of tissue and dirt from the bones. The bones that retain mummified tissues are warned in large kettles and slow cookers. The tissue is then removed using scissors and tweezers. It can be noted that orthopedic devices such as artificial hips and knees are left in the attached bones. The skeleton is stored separately from the skull while the feet and hands are stored in soft cloth bags.

The 1600 skeletons in the Bass Donated Skeletal Collection reveal essential information used for research. It can be noted that a high number of bone collections in the US are from the 19th century. It can be stated that human bones have evolved in the past century which means that modern skeletons are valuable for advanced scientific and forensic research. Families and individuals are curious about what happens to the body after the body farm is done studying it. The answer is that investigation is ongoing and these bodies can be used to answer questions in biology and forensic study.

In the present times, the students and faculty are involved in extensive research on the collection and facilities. The wealth of study available in the institution paves the way for students to use the collections available in the institution. It also hosts visiting scholars the make use of the skeletal collections. International scholars visit from Korea, Japan, Australia, and Europe. It follows that the identification of skeletal remains has remained a contentious topic in the facility following the introduction of new methods in the identification of victims. With adaptation to change and innovations, computers can now be used to recognize elements of bone matter that have been buried for years. The research found offers substantial proof that shows the difference in the ethnic background from the prehistoric times to date. Together with the data bank, technological advancements have resulted in the development of the tool that is known as FORDISC. The tool is used to study bone samples, and the findings are used to challenge or dispute existing theories. Future studies focus on the compounds that are given off by bodies. It follows that reported parties can look for missing individuals using K-9 units; however, it has not been established what activates this specifically. Studies have indicated that bodies produce more than four hundred compounds. The success attained in this sector can be used to recreate smells as well as train dogs making them highly efficient in dealing with homicide cases.




Cross, P., Simmons, T., Cunliffe, R., & Chatfield, L. (2010). Establishing a taphonomic research facility in the United Kingdom. Forensic Science Policy and Management1(4), 187-191.

Damann, F. E., Tanittaisong, A., & Carter, D. O. (2012). Potential carcass enrichment of the        University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility: a baseline survey of edaphic           features. Forensic science international222(1-3), 4-10.

Schoenly, K. G., Haskell, N. H., Hall, R. D., & Gbur, J. R. (2007). Comparative performance and             complementarity of four sampling methods and arthropod preference tests from human     and porcine remains at the Forensic Anthropology Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. Journal of Medical Entomology44(5), 881-894.

Shirley, N. R., Wilson, R. J., & Jantz, L. M. (2011). Cadaver use at the University of Tennessee’s             anthropological research facility. Clinical Anatomy24(3), 372-380.

Vidoli, G. M., Steadman, D. W., Devlin, J. B., & Jantz, L. M. (2017). History and development   of the first anthropology research facility, Knoxville, Tennessee. Taphonomy of Human          Remains: Forensic Analysis of the Dead and the Depositional Environment: Forensic     Analysis of the Dead and the Depositional Environment, 461-475.