During the fall of 2014, I participated in an internship at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State.
FACTS is a multidimensional forensic anthropological research, outreach, and teaching facility within the Department of Anthropology at Texas State University. FACTS comprises three components including an outdoor decomposition facility and two labs. The original lab is the Grady Early Forensic Anthropology Research Laboratory (GEFARL), and the second lab is the Osteological Research and Processing Laboratory (ORPL). The Texas State Donated Skeletal Collection is curated at The Grady Early Forensic Anthropology Research Laboratory. GEFARL is fully equipped with equipment for 3D imaging, casting, photography, histological sampling, and osteometry. The Osteological Research and Processing Laboratory is used for forensic anthropological casework, Operation Identification casework, and processing the donated skeletons that will be curated in the Texas State Donated Skeletal Collection. The Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) serves as a human decomposition research facility that is used to gain knowledge about human decomposition and help develop methods for determining the postmortem interval or time since death.
FACTS not only conducts research on human decomposition, but is also working on developing a diverse modern skeletal collection, and processing donated and Operation Identification (OP ID) remains. While interning, I had the opportunity to learn and perform a variety of task, including the placement of donations, photo inventories, daily TBS scores of the remains, and the processing of remains.
Much of what scientist and law enforcement now know about human decomposition would not exist without the systematic observations made possible by dedicated decomposition facilities like FARF. Decomposition follows several predictable, sequential stages. Researchers have attempted to define each stage of decomposition and its approximate length, but the duration of each stage depends on an assortment of conditions. Parks (2011) notes that early processes such as autolysis, putrefactions, and insect activity, are dependent on environmental conditions, particularly temperature and humidity. The first stage of decomposition begins shortly after death when the cells begin to break down. According to Galloway et al. (1989) early decomposition is marked by skin slippage and discoloration on the body, which can include a greenish tint on the abdomen. The next stage of decomposition is bloating, which occurs when the bacteria present in the body begin to digest the solid components of the body and release gas, which cause the body to swell. It is during this stage that a process called marbling is noticeable on the remains. Marbling is when the blood vessels breakdown and become noticeable on the skin. Bloating triggers the arrival of insects, usually flies that lay eggs on the remains, in exposed orifices. A few days later they hatch into maggots. The stage after bloating is purge; this is when the body begins to shrink, and the skin burst to relieve the pressure of the gas in the abdominal cavity. During purge the liquefied muscles, tissues, and organs of the remains begin to seep out the dorsal side of the remains. The content of the purge is so rich in bacteria that it causes the surrounding vegetation to turn black and die. Perhaps the longest stage is the next stage of a body’s decomposition – advanced decay. Advanced decay is when the remains start to mummify; the bones start to become exposed underneath the tissue, and eventually skeletonize. Skeletonization is when the majority of the bone is exposed. This stage of decomposition encompasses most of the remains at FARF.
I went out twice a week, usually in the mornings with graduate students to help with daily photo inventory. A series of photographs, including a picture of the stake, face, upper limbs, lower limbs, and overall body shot are taken. These photos are taken each day for the first two weeks, then after week two the remains are photographed every other day until they are taken off the grounds and moved to ORPL. While the graduate students worked on the daily photo inventories, I worked on the Total Body Scoring (TBS) of the remains that we were designated to work on that week. Depending on the week, we would either work on odd or even numbered remains. The templates I documented the TBS scores were the Galloway and Megyesi templates.
Anthropologists need both templates because both use different methodologies to calculate the total body score of a set of remains. The Megyesi template suggests that decomposition is more accurately modeled as dependent on accumulated temperature instead of just being dependent on time. Also, the Megyesi template compares the observed decay stage directly to ADD (accumulated degree-days), which can be measured quantitatively. Accumulated degree-days represent the head energy units to propel a biological process such as bacterial or fly larvae growth (Megyesi et al., 2005). The Galloway template simply classifies the remains into the five categories and provides guidelines for estimation of time since death on the decay process in the arid Southwest.
While going out to FARF, there were multiple instances of vulture scavenging present on the shaded portion of the outdoor facilities. There was a set of remains I named the “lady in the blue tarp”, which was constantly scavenged over a period of two to three weeks by vultures. The graduate students and I attempted to derive a hypothesis as to why the vultures were attracted to this blue tarp when another tarp of a different color was only a few yards away, and did not attract the vultures. We proposed the hypothesis that the vultures were attracted to the vibrant color of the tarp. A large portion of the “lady in the blue tarp” remains were found missing or displaced due to vulture scavenging. Also, later in the semester the vultures began scavenging remains that were covered with metal cages and chicken wire. Somehow the vultures had found a way to maneuver their heads under the chicken wire on the metal cages and scavenged the distal most regions of the remains.
While interning at FACTS, I have had the opportunity to gain great hands-on experience and gain a vast amount of knowledge that I would not have gained if I had interned elsewhere. I have had the opportunity to work hands-on with various stages of human decomposition and the processing of human remains. Since interning at FACTS, I have become knowledgeable in identifying and siding each bone within the human skeleton. I am working on becoming proficient in identifying and siding the hands and foot bones, but, hopefully with further volunteering at ORPL I will become better at it. Also, I have worked and gained experience on Total Body Scoring of different portions of the human body while working on the daily photo inventories that I assisted the graduate students twice a week. I have learned and seen how decomposition naturally occurs in the Central Texas geographic region.
- Galloway, A., W. H. Birkby, A. M. Jones, T. E. Henry, and B. O. Parks. 1989. “Decay Rates of Human Remains in an Arid Environment.” Journal Of Forensic Sciences 34, no. 3: 607- 616. National Criminal Justice Reference Service Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed December 15, 2014).
- Megyesi, Mary S. M.Sc., Stephen P. Ph.D. Nawrocki, and Neal H. Ph.D. Haskell. 2005. “Using Accumulated Degree-Days to Estimate the Postmortem Interval From Decomposed Human Remains.” Journal Of Forensic Sciences 50, no. 3: 618-626. National Criminal Justice Reference Service Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed December 15, 2014).
- Parks, Connie L. 2011. “A study of the human decomposition sequence in central Texas.” Journal Of Forensic Sciences 56, no. 1: 19-22. MEDLINE Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 15, 2014).
- Shirley, Natalie R, Rebecca J Wilson, and Lee Meadows Jantz. 2011. “Cadaver use at the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility.” Clinical Anatomy (New York, N.Y.) 24, no. 3: 372-380. MEDLINE Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 15, 2014).