Way back around 1971 I took an anthropology class at the University of Tennessee taught by Dr. William M. Bass, who had just arrived at the university that same year. Dr. Bass oversaw the development of the discipline at UT Knoxville, which culminated with the creation of the Forensic Anthropology Center within the Department of Anthropology, and many resources for students, researchers, and law enforcement agencies.
Dr. Bass began to see the need for a "body farm" back in 1977, after making a self-admitted 112 year mistake in judging the age of the decomposing body of Col. Shy, a Confederate soldier who had died in 1864, from a wound on the battle field just 12 miles from his home near Franklin, TN.
"I got the age, sex, race, height and weight right but I was off on the time of death by 113 years."
The body was discovered sitting up outside a cast-iron coffin, after vandals cracked the coffin in order to steal his sword. Confederate Colonels were always buried with their swords, or at least that was the general custom, however Col. Shy's family removed his uniform and military accoutrements, and buried him instead in his black suit.
Since Dr. Bass found pink connective tissue on the skeleton's femur, he could only assume, with the knowledge of the day, that the body was much fresher than 113 years old! However, the arsenic embalming and the closed atmosphere of the iron casket preserved the soft tissue much longer than was then known.
The grave marker specifically stated the death was in 1864, so Bass knew he needed to go back to the drawing board, and create a "body farm" in order to study decomposition. Without the facility that Dr. Bass pioneered, law enforcement investigations would be gravely (no pun intended) hampered.
Since those days, Dr. Bass and John Jefferson have collaborated on several books under the pen name "Jefferson Bass". Naturally, Dr. Bass contributes his expertise to solving the plots John Jefferson creates in their fictional books.
Tonight, in the Harriman High School Auditorium, I again sat, listened, and was taught by Dr. Bass again. He is just as humorous and sharp as he was all those years ago. Judy and I were thoroughly entertained!
We sat mesmerized by his stories of drug deals gone bad, and, of course, the tale of Col. Shy. One slide depicted his use of superimposition to match skulls with photos of the living, another how to tell if a body has been burnt or simply decayed, or if a skull was cracked by heat or from bullet energy. All so very fascinating!
Should this brilliant innovator ever come to a venue near you...you must go...sit, listen, be taught, and completely entertained.