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Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries, and the Revolution in Forensic Science

Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries, and the Revolution in Forensic Science

4.7 34
by Bill Bass, Jon Jefferson

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There is no scientist in the world like Dr. Bill Bass. A pioneer in forensic anthropology, Bass created the world's first laboratory dedicated to the study of human decomposition—three acres of land on a hillside in Tennessee where human bodies are left to the elements. His research at "the Body Farm" has revolutionized forensic science, helping police crack


There is no scientist in the world like Dr. Bill Bass. A pioneer in forensic anthropology, Bass created the world's first laboratory dedicated to the study of human decomposition—three acres of land on a hillside in Tennessee where human bodies are left to the elements. His research at "the Body Farm" has revolutionized forensic science, helping police crack cold cases and pinpoint time of death. But during a forensics career that spans half a century, Bass and his work have ranged far beyond the gates of the Body Farm. In this riveting book, the bone sleuth explores the rise of modern forensic science, using fascinating cases from his career to take readers into the real world of C.S.I.

Some of Bill Bass's cases rely on the simplest of tools and techniques, such as reassembling—from battered torsos and a stack of severed limbs—eleven people hurled skyward by an explosion at an illegal fireworks factory. Other cases hinge on sophisticated techniques Bass could not have imagined when he began his career: harnessing scanning electron microscopy to detect trace elements in knife wounds; and extracting DNA from a long-buried corpse, only to find that the female murder victim may have been mistakenly identified a quarter-century before.

In Beyond the Body Farm, readers will follow Bass as he explores the depths of an East Tennessee lake with a twenty-first-century sonar system, in a quest for an airplane that disappeared with two people on board thirty-five years ago; see Bass exhume fifties pop star "the Big Bopper" to determine what injuries he suffered in the plane crash that killed three rock and roll legends on "the day the music died"; and join Bass as he works to decipher an ancient Persian death scene nearly three thousand years old. Witty and engaging, Bass dissects the methods used by homicide investigators every day, leading readers on an extraordinary journey into the high-tech science that it takes to crack a case.

Editorial Reviews

For 37 years, forensic anthropologist Bill Bass has been presiding over the University of Tennessee's Body Farm. This ghoulish yet beneficial cadaver experiment continues to sow significant findings about victims and their killers. Though well known among his professional peers, Dr. Bass first came to wide public attention with his 2003 memoir, Death's Acres. In this stand-alone sequel, he and coauthor Jon Jefferson rejoin forces to address recent cases and cutting-edge crime-fighting technologies.
Kirkus Reviews
One of the big names in the small but heavily trafficked field of forensic anthropology provides more cases for gruesome consideration. Assisted by co-writer Jefferson, Bass made a splash in 2003 with Death's Acre, an account of his decades of work in a grotesque but increasingly marketable field. Then the pair assumed the name Jefferson Bass to pen a pair of bestselling crime novels based on the doctor's exploits and named for the infamous "Body Farm" he runs at the University of Tennessee to study the sequence and timing of human decomposition. So they likely saw no reason why another nonfiction collection about long-putrefied corpses and race-the-clock hunts for killers should do any less well-and given the legions of TV- and mystery-obsessed junior forensic detectives out there, they're probably right. That doesn't mean this book is anything more than a cut-and-paste string of individual cases written up in prosaic prose. Bass's persona-well-meaning scholar who doesn't mind being dramatically whisked away from the university by law-enforcement types looking to solve a crime-is finely honed by this point and serves him well. The cases themselves are a mixed bag of deadly circumstances, from missing persons to an explosion at an illegal fireworks factory that strewed body parts everywhere. Bass even dug up the body of the Big Bopper to see if there was any truth to rumors that foul play caused the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. There's much to enjoy here, if you're the kind of reader who likes to know why it helps to x-ray bodies that have been burned down to the bone to hide evidence of foul play. Answer: Lead from a bullet sometimes melts in the heat,leaving streaks on bones. More morbid goodies for the C.S.I. set.
Knoxville News-Sentinel
“Beyond the Body Farm offers a real-life understanding of forensic anthropology and the science behind it...”
“scientifically authoritative, as well as accessible to mainstream crime buffs...Some cases are heartbreaking; at least one is downright weird.”

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Beyond the Body Farm

Chapter One

The golden bowl, the burning palace: applying modern science to ancient bones

As fans of the television series CSI know, death scenes can capture a wealth of detail about what happens in the instant when human life is snuffed out...even, I can say with certainty, when that instant occurred nearly three thousand years ago.

More than four decades ago and six thousand miles away, I had one of my most memorable experiences in applying the tools of archaeology and anthropology to the questions of forensic science. The death scene lay in the ancient hilltop citadel of Hasanlu, in northwestern Iran, where a fierce army attacked the massive fortress, breached its mighty walls, and brought down its palace and temple in a rain of blood and fire. Hundreds had died in the battle and the blaze, but I was focusing on three of the dead, who were unearthed in a particularly dramatic discovery in the ruins.

Midway through the project, though, I began to fear that a fourth death might soon be involved: my own. As I lay doubled over, delirious for days on end, my circumstances may have been less heroic than those of the ancient warriors whose bones had drawn me here, but the setting...the way of life, the nearness of death, even the practice of medicine...had changed little in the twenty-eight centuries since the fortress fell.

In the summer of 1964, at age thirty-five, I was an eager assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Although the ink on my Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania had been dry for only three years, by that time I'd excavated more skeletons than almost any other anthropologist in America. Starting in 1957, the summer after I entered graduate school at Penn, I'd worked for the Smithsonian Institution, which was excavating numerous Native American village sites throughout the Missouri River Basin. The Army Corps of Engineers was building a string of dams along the Missouri; the river's waters were rising; and the Smithsonian was racing to unearth and preserve as many relics and bones as possible before the sites were inundated forever. My first summer in the Missouri Basin, my crew and I painstakingly located and excavated several dozen Arikara Indian graves; by 1963, after I'd devised a way to use road-grading equipment to peel back the earth atop the graves without damaging the bones within, we were excavating several hundred each summer. I got so fast and efficient at excavating burial grounds that I eventually earned the label "Indian grave robber number one" from a Native American activist who disapproved of digging up Indian graves. (This chapter in my career is told in more detail in my memoir, Death's Acre, published in 2003.)

So although I was still relatively young in 1964, I'd racked up some unique and extensive experience, and it didn't come as a total surprise when I got a call from Bob Dyson, an up-and-coming archaeologist back at Penn, seeking help excavating ancient graves at Hasanlu. Millions of people are familiar with the work of Egyptologist Howard Carter, the British archaeologist who discovered the tomb of King Tut. Far fewer are acquainted with Bob Dyson's work, and that's a shame, because Bob was the Howard Carter of Hasanlu. Six years before inviting me to Iran, when he was a mere thirty-one years old, Bob made the discovery of a lifetime at Hasanlu. Beneath a mound of rubble and charred embers in the wreckage of an immense two-story palace or temple, he found the skeletal remains of three men trapped...crushed...when the burning roof collapsed and the massive walls toppled. As the debris was carefully brushed from the buried bones, it became clear that the three men had died while at a dead run, literally, their arms and legs frozen in perpetual near-motion. It was a remarkable snapshot of death, preserved for nearly three millennia.

Even more remarkable...and a key reason Bob invited me to Hasanlu...was the object cradled in the arms of the front runner. The object was a bowl (or a vase, or a beaker): a metal vessel measuring about eight inches high, seven inches across the top, and six inches across the base. The falling walls had flattened the bowl, of course, along with the guy carrying it. Even so, the bowl's elaborate ornamentation remained virtually intact and astonishingly detailed. An upper scene, enacted by a band of embossed figures encircling the bowl, showed three young men bringing offerings to the gods...two gods riding in chariots, and a third god wearing a horned headdress. The bowl's lower ring contained a series of smaller scenes and numerous figures, including a nude goddess, a male hunter or warrior, an eagle carrying a woman, another woman riding a lion, and a trio of people...a seated man, a woman, and a child, whom the woman is presenting to the man. The bowl was such an extraordinary find that Life magazine devoted an eleven-page spread to it...the equivalent, back then, of a one-hour television special hosted by Katie Couric or Diane Sawyer.

Despite its relatively small size, the bowl was quite heavy. That's because it was made of solid gold. Today...carefully guarded in a museum in Tehran...the bowl is one of Iran's richest archaeological treasures. Three millennia ago it was equally prized, occupying a sacred place in the citadel's palace or temple...as valuable as a freshly carved or painted masterpiece by Michelangelo would have been to a Renaissance pope or a Medici prince. Three men, at least, had died for the bowl's sake...caught for all time in a dramatic act of desperation.

By the time Bob Dyson called me in early 1964, millions of Life readers had marveled at the bowl's intricate beauty. But the question that still hung in the air, across all the centuries since the citadel's gates were breached, the roof caught fire, and the walls collapsed, was this: Who were these three men, and . . .

Beyond the Body Farm. Copyright © by Bill Bass. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Dr. Bill Bass is a world-renowned forensic anthropologist, the founder of the University of Tennessee's "Body Farm," and the author of more than two hundred scientific publications.

Jon Jefferson's work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, and Popular Science. Together, writing as "Jefferson Bass," they have coauthored the novels Carved in Bone, Flesh and Bone, and The Devil's Bones.

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Beyond the Body Farm 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
Minyassa More than 1 year ago
I love forensic case histories and explanations, and found quite a few thoroughly outlined in this book. It was a bonus to find that Dr. Bass has a great sense of humor, and while some might find his wit slightly morbid I never found it overblown, inappropriate or disrespectful. The material is interesting and unexaggerated; one does not get the sense that things are blown out of proportion as can be the case with some true-crime forensic shockers. This book whetted my appetite for more like it.
VikingBerserker More than 1 year ago
If you are interested in forensics, this is a must! The book is nothing short of excellent. It's very entertaining, well written with wit thrown in. I could not put this book down until I finished. I look forward to more works by the author (HINT HINT).
LoveSanta More than 1 year ago
This book is not like the books with the main character of Dr. Brockton. This book is about the writer of Dr. Brockton's character and the work he himself has done as a forensic pathologist. Dr. Bill Bass will do forensic cases and as a reader you will enter into his world and follow him as he does the actual work. The reader has to like forensics to both understand what he is doing and be ready for the gory things that go along with this line of work. The book is fascinating and a great read. Dr. Bass has a way of making these gory things interesting and you find yourself getting caught up in the cases he presents in the book. I highly recommend this book for anyone who watches shows like CSI to get an idea of what it is really like.
JgleJne More than 1 year ago
I liked reading this book since i am into forensic sciences...it was very informational and fun to read for me
harstan More than 1 year ago
With two body farm novels (see FLESH AND BONE and CARVED IN BONE) and an account of his forensic anthropological work (see DEATH¿S ACRE), Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson provide a sort of autobiographical account of the former¿s work in Kansas and more so in Tennessee where he created the first ¿living¿ forensic research lab. Dr. Bass gives credit to his instructor five decades ago Dr. Krogman, known as the ¿Bone Detective¿ who got him interested in the unnamed at that time field of forensic anthropology. He also credits Patricia Cornwell with her novel THE BODY FARM for making him famous and his type of work acceptable amidst the public without Ms. Cornwell there is no CSI on TV. However, the fascinating segments of the book are the cases over the last fifty years that run the gamut from the Big Bopper to the wrongly identified corpse to a fireworks factory explosion to ancient Persia to solving modern day cases for local police departments. It is these cases and how he and his team solved them by shaking and tossing of the bones that makes for a fine CSI read with Harry Houdini appearing as a star performer in a future exhumation. --- Harriet Klausner
Guest More than 1 year ago
Beyond the Body Farm by gifted writer Bill Bass is a forensic play-ground of murder and mayhem. A book you don't want to miss! These writers sure know their stuff! Highly Recommended!
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Fascinating if you're into this sort of thing...which I am! Avoid if you are squeamish.
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