The Operation of Body Farms –
Learning Points for Setting up a Human Taphonomy
Facility in the UK
Rose Mary Johnston Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellow 2017
In Franklin Williamson County, Tennessee, just south of Nashville, there is a Confederate cemetery from
the American Civil War. In December 1977 the grave of Colonel William Shy was found to have been
tampered with, and that there was a body on top of Col. Shy’s coffin, which it was thought had been left
there within the previous year. The second body was estimated to have been dead between two and six
months. Dr William M Bass, Forensic Anthropologist and the head of the Department of Anthropology at
the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was called in to assist in identifying the remains. In January 1978
Dr Bass was able to confirm that the body was that of a white male with brown hair, approximately 5’11”
tall, weighing 175 pounds, and was between 26 and 29 years old. It appeared the male had been dead
between six and twelve months, and had died of a wound to the head.
Upon closer examination of the body, however, Dr Bass worked out that the body was in fact that of Col
Shy rather than a second male. He was quoted as saying “I got the age, sex, race, height and weight right
but I was off on time of death by 113 years” (Nashville Banner, 6/1/78). This error was the impetus in
setting up the Forensic Anthropology Centre (FAC) at the University of Tennessee Knoxville (UTK); the
original body farm, opened in 1981. A body farm, or Human Taphonomy Facility (HTF), is a research
facility which allows anthropologists to study human decomposition in a variety of settings. Before the
FAC was opened, research was conducted using pig carcasses, as they were understood to be the closest
analogous carcass to a human one.
Since then another six HTF research facilities have been set up in the continental United States, including
in Texas, Colorado, and Southern Illinois, covering the diverse habitats and environments found in the US.
What they have found is that the environment and the meteorology of the area can and does have a
direct impact on the rate and manner of decomposition of human remains.
Currently the only body farm using human remains found outside the US is the Australian Facility for
Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), in Australia. It
was only opened in 2016, and although they have not published the results of any studies yet, they have
directly observed differences in decomposition compared to studies in the US.
My belief is that one is needed in Europe, and sooner rather than later. In 2017 Amsterdam's Academic
Medical Center (AMC) obtained a permit to open Europe’s first taphonomic cemetery. This will be similar
to the FACs in America and Australia, but it is only planning on experimenting on buried human remains,
which will obviously limit the research that can be conducted; for example, they will be unable to do any
research looking at flies that may colonise the remains as the body needs to be in the open air for this to
The Amsterdam facility is a good starting point, but we need more than one facility in Europe. The climate
and soil chemistry in different areas of the UK can be vastly different from each other; for example
remains will decompose differently in peaty bog land compared to sandy soil near the coast, and the
weather on any given day in the highlands of Scotland can be very different to that in London; so of
course they are going to be different to the conditions in Holland. Generalising from their studies will not
necessarily get us the best results.
Why is the study of human decomposition so important? From a forensic point of view,
sometimes Police need to be able to estimate how long a body has been at a certain site. Even if