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Page last updated at 10:00 GMT, Sunday, 3 July 2005 11:00 UK

Life on Tennessee's 'Body Farm'

Student with skeleton
All the bodies are from people who donated for scientific research
A two-acre spot in East Tennessee known as the "Body Farm", littered with human corpses, has become a popular spot for real-life crime scene investigators.

The Body Farm - part of the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility - was set up in 1971, by forensic anthropologist Dr Bill Bass.

Dr Bass is proud of the success of the unit.

"We have certainly helped a lot of people, solved a lot of crimes, and put some bad people in prison," he told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

Maggots

The Body Farm receives around 50 bodies a year, which are placed in the woods and other environments around the facility.

Intensive 10-week courses are run on the farm for investigators from police agencies around the US.

They learn the proper way to dig up and retrieve a buried body.

You get so involved in your project, you don't even really realise there's another body lying on the ground, just right beside you
Body Farm student
"We teach them archaeological techniques so that they can recover evidence and bone in context," says Dr Lee Meadows-Jance, the co-ordinator of the Body Farm and one of the trainers.

A typical storyline of the CSI TV show might be that, when a human body is found, the forensic scientists try to establish how - and how long ago - the victim died.

Some of the methods of doing this have been pioneered by the Body Farm.

Prime among them is identifying the time of death through the presence of maggots, the recently-hatched larvae of blowflies.

"The police don't ask you 'who is that?', they ask you how long they've been there," Dr Bass says.

"I thought, 'if I'm going to be talking to police about maggots and how long people have been there, I'm going to have to know something about it'."

Research at the farm is ongoing. One current faculty project has seen a body left in a car for two months. The intention is to study changes in hair that have been noticed on decaying bodies.

Cub scout tours

The intense concentration of bodies in the area means that the smell of death hangs heavily in the air, and leads to some rather unusual working conditions.

"You get so involved in your project that you don't even really realise there's another body laying on the ground, just right beside you," one student says.

"You just forget about it."

The research unit caught the imagination of the general public in 1995, when crime writer Patricia Cornwell published her bestselling novel The Body Farm - based on her own experiences of the facility.

Insects gather on a sheet of paper at The Body Farm
The Body Farm pioneered the use of maggots in determining time of death
"We were an obscure little research facility in the hills of Tennessee until then," Dr Bass says.

"Then the phone started ringing. In one week, we had calls from two cub scout den mothers, who wanted to bring the cub scouts down here for a tour.

"That's not what this is, this is a research facility with which we're trying to help police, morticians and society. It's not a tourist attraction."

Dr Bass adds that some day his own body may be donated - but he will leave that decision to his wife and children.

And he said he had a tremendous amount of respect for the 50 or so people who donate their bodies each year.

"I hate death, I hate mourning, I hate funerals - I really do hate that whole scene," he says.

"But I never see a forensic case as a dead body. I see it is as a challenge to see whether I have the knowledge and ability to figure out who that individual is, and what happened to them."

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