FBI Trains at Body Farm, Part 2
Bodies of Evidence
FBI Trains at Body Farm, Part 2
Flags planted by students identify the boundaries of a potential burial site. Photo Gallery
It’s a balmy Wednesday morning in the parking lot outside the “Body Farm,” a two-plus-acre wooded landscape where the science of human decomposition is on vivid display.
It’s Day Three of the FBI’s annual Recovery of Human Remains course. And the students, 40 FBI Evidence Response Team members, are finally going to get their hands dirty after two days of intense coursework.
As they duct tape themselves into Tyvek body suits and rubber gloves, the morning air is ripe with the sweet aroma of bug spray and sunscreen, punctuated occasionally by a pungent whiff of what’s to come over the next two days. Most here have already worked cases recovering human remains. This course—led by some of the nation’s leading forensic anthropologists—provides a more scientific foundation for approaching a scene, recording it, and excavating it to elicit the most evidence.
“The fundamental truth about excavation is it can only be done once,” says Dr. Stanley Rhine, a forensic anthropologist and professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico who was among the course’s instructors and team leaders.
The class is divided into six teams that will venture into the woods to locate “clandestine burials,” careful to avoid disturbing the dozens of exposed corpses that make up the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility, or Body Farm. The teams will look for visual clues that betray recent burials, such as subtle changes in soil color or vegetation. Then they will gently poke long probes into the clay to see how easily the soil gives way.
Students in the FBI course use hand tools during excavation to protect bones
The students follow rigid archeological protocols, flagging potential burial sites and then roping them off into staked grids for an orderly excavation. By early afternoon, the teams have identified sites and settled into the painstaking—even tedious—job of scraping away layers of soil and screening it for bones or other artifacts.
“We’ve been working since about 8 o’clock this morning and we’re only down into the ground about four inches,” says Medora Arnaud, a photographer in our Houston office. “You have to go very slow. You’re mainly scraping the layers away to make sure you don’t miss anything.”
Arnaud is on Dr. Rhine’s team, which by day’s end appears to be progressing well. A body has been discovered and mostly uncovered—rib cage, arms, one leg exposed. But webs of roots and a piece of lumber wedged in the grave are slowing things down.
The next morning, teams pick up with a few more hours of digging, sketching, and screening before removing the skeletons, which are later cleaned and measured to add to the university’s growing body of work.
But there are a few surprises. Dr. Rhine’s team discovers a second body in the same grave, just a few inches away from the first. Another team finds a suitcase-sized oval mass of bones and tissue in their excavation, explaining why it was so difficult to pinpoint the bones with probes.
Each of the digs presents unique twists and challenges—true of most Evidence Response Team work and a key teaching point. The work is taxing, even stomach-turning at times. But Dr. Murray K. Marks, one of the course’s forensic anthropologists, puts it in perspective.
“It’s just like a crime scene,” he says. “It isn’t about you. It’s about the victims or…training the agents that need to go into that scene. You put that first, and you kind of become inconsequential to the mission at hand.”
- FBI Trains at Body Farm, part I | Gallery
- FBI Laboratory
- Evidence Response Team Unit