Forensic Anthropology Center Celebrates 30th Anniversary

For three decades—since long before the popularity of the CSI television series—the UT Forensic Anthropology Center (FAC) has been on the forefront of forensic anthropology, turning out research and training law enforcement to solve crimes and identify the remains of unknown individuals.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the center, which oversees the Anthropology Research Facility, commonly known as the Body Farm. It is the nation’s most prominent facility where researchers systemically study human decomposition.

At any one time, 150 to 200 donor bodies are at the research facility.

“The heart and soul of what we do here is based on the generosity of people who donate their bodies to science—and specifically, they donate their bodies to us and we’re very grateful for that,” said Dawnie Steadman, a professor of anthropology and director of the FAC. “They want their bodies to be useful for science, and in particular, they want to help solve crimes.”

Each donated body helps scientists and students in a variety of ways.

“We want to learn a lot from every single donor that comes here, which is why they’re used in multiple research projects,” Steadman said. “They’re used in multiple trainings and in the skeletal collection. There is no end to the gift of body donation here.”

Professor Emeritus Bill Bass established the Forensic Anthropology Center in 1987 as well as the center’s body donation program, which celebrated its 35th anniversary last year (having been established ahead of the center). The center’s two-acre outdoor research facility allows scientists to use technology to study how decomposing bodies interact with the environment. Other research includes the use of portable electronic systems for finding clandestine graves—a tool that could be helpful in war zones.

One of the FAC’s newest studies has revealed that human bodies decompose at a different rate than pig or rabbit carcasses. The finding could impact forensic court cases worldwide, since many use rabbits and pigs as proxies for humans.

The FAC is home to the Bass Donated Skeletal Collection, which now consists of more than 1,700 human skeletons—the largest such collection on contemporary Americans in the United States. Researchers use this resource to study modern human skeletal variation, pathology, and trauma.

Every year, the center offers hands-on training courses to law enforcement. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Kentucky Criminalistic Academy, and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service have come to the center to learn about forensic anthropology, the archaeology of exhuming bodies from graves, and the latest technology for discovering and recovering human remains. They practice searching for clandestine graves and excavating human remains, as well as collecting botanical and insect evidence that help determine time since death.

To learn more about the center, the body donation program, and how to become a donor, visit the Forensic Anthropology Center website.

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David Bowman January 17, 2017 - 1:55 pm

Disappointed that the prominent and founding UT forensic scientist was not referenced in the artiicle!

Cassandra Sproles January 17, 2017 - 2:03 pm

Hi David. If you’re referring to Professor Emeritus Bill Bass, he is mentioned in the article as the founder of the Forensic Anthropology Center.

Cassandra Sproles
Executive Editor

Angela Causey Beaton January 17, 2017 - 2:27 pm

One of my favorite memories of UT was having Dr. Bass give me a personal tour of the FAC while I was a student at UTK. I was taking his course online and had to meet with him (around 1989/90). It was right after the BBC had done a story on him. He was one of the kindest, most humble people I have ever met and we got a good chuckle when he said all of those football fans didn’t know what was under them (the collection). I also remember driving past the body farm on many occasions. Still smile whenever he or the BF is mentioned in stories.

Shane Bancroft January 18, 2017 - 7:50 pm

I am forever grateful for the education, the staff and the experience I was afforded as a student at NFA. Thank you all.

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