MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Now a grisly story about the tales that bones can tell. Forensic anthropologists look at human remains in order to identify the dead and discover clues about how they died. Only a handful of universities in the world offer space to study the decomposition of bodies, and the newest of those facilities is in central Texas.
NPR's John Burnett visited a class of graduate students as they spent the morning unearthing a skeleton.
JOHN BURNETT: I am standing inside of the Forensic Research Center. This is on ranch land west of San Marcos, Texas, about an hour's drive south of Austin. It's covered with scrub oak, juniper, knee-high grass, limestone, pretty typical Texas hill country. What's atypical about it is that it's populated with cows and corpses.
Professor MICHELLE HAMILTON (Texas State University): My name is Michelle Hamilton. I'm an assistant professor at Texas State University and also the director of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State. We are at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility right now, which is about a five-acre fenced-in plot of land that functions as an outdoor decomposition research facility.
(Soundbite of digging)
Unidentified Woman #1: This is just for when we're done, right?
Unidentified Woman #2: Right.
BURNETT: So we're standing at the edge of a, looks like about a 4-by-12-foot trench and in the bottom of it are some human remains and they're sort of rust-colored, about the color of the soil. So, how longer have these remains been in this pit?
Prof. HAMILTON: These remains have been here since February. This individual was brought out completely fleshed. We wanted to look at what the Texas sun and aridity and also the periods of rain would do to a skeleton here in Texas. As of right now they're faster. The bodies mummify faster, they skeletonize faster, they decompose faster.
Ms. LAURA AYERS: I'm Laura Ayers. I'm from Houston, Texas. I'm a second-year graduate student in forensic anthropology. And I want to be a professor and consult with local law enforcement.
(Soundbite of scraping)
Ms. AYERS: Right now I'm trying to get the pelvic girdle out, the hip bones. I don't want to pull anything because it might break it.
BURNETT: Four grad students are in the pit with the partially buried skeleton. They're clearing away compacted earth with trowels and brushes. As they dig deeper into the red soil, the putrid odor of decomposition wafts up. A slim, tattooed 30-year-old from New Orleans is holding the skull "alas, poor Yorick" style and picking dirt from the eye orbits.
(Soundbite of scraping)
Ms. TERESA GOTAY NUGENT: My name is Teresa Gotay Nugent. I was born in Connecticut, graduate student, forensic anthropology. I plan to go down to South America and see if I can work on human rights cases.
BURNETT: Why do you want to do this with your life?
Ms. NUGENT: Even though we're working with the dead, we actually help the living, the families of people that are missing and feared dead. It's not all just macabre. You can actually make a difference doing this.
BURNETT: Two students gingerly lift out the bones and place them on a sheet of plastic in the crude form of a complete skeleton. The other pair continues to dig with shovels. One of them has been searching fruitlessly for the kneecaps for a half-hour.
Unidentified Woman #3: We like to find everything. It really frustrates us when we know that we're missing a major element. You want to be very thorough and try to find everything.
BURNETT: The bones are placed inside a red plastic bag to be taken to the lab. Dr. Michelle Hamilton watches approvingly.
So, how'd they do?
Prof. HAMILTON: Okay, it looks like at the end of the recovery for this particular body, we have the majority of all bones recovered with the exception of two kneecaps and some of the phalanges, parts of the hands and feet. So they did really good.
BURNETT: They'll have to return later, screen the spaded dirt and look for the missing bones. It's a meticulous process. Nothing gets left behind.
Unidentified Woman #4: Would you like us to keep the fingernails?
Prof. HAMILTON: You can put them in a bag. We'll go ahead and dispose of them when we get to the lab.
BURNETT: The recovery of the skeleton takes place with dignity. He was, after all, a man. In his 30s, he died suddenly, and his family gave his body to the decomposition research facility with the understanding that he would further the knowledge of human osteology. In its first year, the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University has received seven donated bodies. That compares to more than 650 individuals in the collection at the much older facility at the University of Tennessee. Here they need more donors. Asking for them is a delicate matter, but it must be done to understand the story of the bones.
John Burnett, NPR News.