- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2002

The science of decoding what a human skeleton reveals about the cause of death is so specialized that only one university in the United States pursues it.
Researchers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, scatter donated human bodies over a guarded, 2.5-acre site some sheltered, some naked in the open and then chronicle how nature turns dust to dust by various means, including weather and insects.
The researchers call it the forensic anthropology department. To police and neighbors, it's simply "the body farm," Murray Marks said yesterday in a telephone interview, recalling that he came to the institution in 1994 when crime novelist Patricia Cornwell popularized it in a book of the same name.
"In the Knoxville area and in Washington, which is about the same, a body can be skeletonized in as little as two weeks, but it often takes longer, depending on dampness, rodents and whether the body is sheltered or buried," Mr. Marks said.
"It can take a lot longer in other climates. They're digging up mammoths in Siberia that have been dead for thousands of years, and they still have their last meal in them," he said.
Even if a skeleton is scattered, as was the one found yesterday in Rock Creek Park and later identified as that of missing intern Chandra Levy, crime-scene technicians "can find the original spot where a body lay by troweling around and finding fluids that ran into the soil, even after a year."
Mr. Marks said forensic specialists at the Smithsonian Institution are experts in the field, but cannot literally strew a field with human corpses the way the University of Tennessee does.
"Other cities won't allow it," he said.
He said the key factor in decomposition is whether a body is exposed to rodents and other carnivores. Other considerations include temperature, humidity and sunlight.
"If the body is outside, insects will reduce it in a timely manner. A body dissolves from the inside, but from the outside, maggots do that job. They lay eggs and live off the body by consuming the soft tissue," Mr. Marks said.
The time of death can sometimes be determined by insect life cycles, which also are studied by entomologists at Tennessee's "body farm."
Frank J. Murray

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