Category Archives: Snapshots

Random things about us

FARF – The Forensic Anthropology Research Facility

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   When I explain my field of study to friends and family members, the conversation almost always involves mention and questions about the renowned “body farms,” where research concerning the process of decomposition takes place. Until today, the only knowledge I was able to offer about these body farms stemmed from word of mouth and reading about some of the research being conducted there. Today, as a break from skeletal analyses in the lab, my fellow UIndy students and I were able to visit FARF, the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University. And it was even cooler than I thought it would be.

Some of our team members may have been a little excited about the cows on the way to the facility...
Some of our team members may have been a little excited about the cows on the way to the facility…

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Our visit to FARF began with a light-hearted warning about fire ant mounds. Having visited Texas earlier in January, I thought I was familiar enough with the presence of fire ants to be able to avoid them easily (having been stung by one during said previous visit), but boy was I wrong. When the UIndy team was working in the field in Falfurrias, we would come across small ant holes, with fire ants pouring out of them, but they were fairly few and far between. At FARF, the fire ants created large mounds and almost every other step was carefully placed to avoid being swarmed. Needless to say, our eyes were glued to the ground being sure to avoid stepping on any of the mounds. Of course,

Yes, that is a spider.
Yes, that is a spider.

we were  then warned about the large spider webs spanning the trees, so while our eyes were searching the ground for fire ant mounds, we were also conscious of what might be hanging between the trees.

Despite the insect and arachnid activity at the facility, FARF was very impressive. While walking through and observing the numerous research and educational projects being conducted there, I couldn’t help but think of new research questions that could be investigated there. The decomposition process is so highly variable and there are so many factors that may affect it that the possibilities for research are endless.

FARF is also where Texas State University allows their donated bodies to naturally decompose, while protecting them from carnivore scavenging. I greatly appreciated the amount of respect and sensitivity given to the wishes of those donating their bodies to the facility, and the amount of donations that FARF typically receives in a single year was impressive and inspiring, providing more opportunities for research in the field of forensic anthropology.

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The end of the tour took a slightly more serious tone for me. Our final stop was the fenced enclosure in which the remains of the migrants who have perished crossing the border are allowed to decompose until they can be processed and analyzed. This final stop was made even more significant by the fact that the remains currently being held there were those that our UIndy team had recovered during the field season earlier in January. It was very humbling to see the next step in the process that will hopefully lead to the identification of these individuals whose families are still wondering what happened to them. Not only is FARF a very impressive research facility with many important projects being conducted there, but it is also part of the process that has brought the UIndy team to Texas year after year – to help identify those who have perished as a result of the crisis at the border.

Erica

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Traveling to Texas

Our group before we departed from Indy!
Our group before we departed from Indy!
Such a clear day to fly to Texas!
Such a clear day to fly to Texas!

We arrived at the Indianapolis International Airport this morning at 6am for our 8:05am flight to the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.  It was a much anticipated flight as I had been so eager and excited to travel to Texas for the first time.  The first leg of our journey was as smooth as is humanly possible, as we had no issues checking all seven of our bags, and no issues boarding all seven of us.  And as Leann so precisely put it, our landing was “literally as smooth as butter.”  When we arrived at the DFW airport, we indulged in a delicious breakfast at Pappasito’s Cantina!  Everybody really enjoyed the jalapeño cheddar sausage!  After a short layover, at the DFW airport, we departed for the San Antonio International Airport, where we picked up our (brand spankin’ new) rental van.  It only had 15 miles on it!

Our group at The Alamo.
Our group at The Alamo.

 

From the rental car company, we traveled to The Alamo to do some site seeing, and then we visited the River Walk.  It was my first time visiting both sites.  It was so interesting to learn about The Alamo and to see it! It is truly a beautiful piece of history, aside from the sadness the event ensued on Texas in the form of many deaths.  I really enjoyed seeing cacti and palm trees at The Alamo site!  I have never seen either in real life and I was completely enthralled by their beauty!

 

 

 

 

At the River Walk.
At the River Walk.

 

We had to stop and take a picture in front of the cacti.
We had to stop and take a picture in front of the cacti.

After walking the River Walk, which was gorgeous, we travelled to our hotel to get settled

Our group at Buc-ee's!
Our group at Buc-ee’s!

in for the night.  On our way to the hotel, we stopped at Buc-ee’s, the biggest gas station I have ever seen in my entire life!  The place was massive!  It had everything you could ever want in a gas station, from every type of candy imaginable to decorations for your home.  We each got two kolaches, which were absolutely delicious!  And after seeing the amazing world of Buc-ee’s, we had to get a picture with Buc-ee himself!

After we were through exploring Buc-ee’s, we checked into our hotel and got settled in before visiting HEB.  What a cool store that is!  I have only heard about HEB but I have never been.  It was a really cool store that lived up to all of my expectations.  It truly is a store that sells everything!  I could not get over the cheese selection they had!  After HEB, we went to Sonic to get a quick bite to eat for dinner before settling in for the night to plan for our day tomorrow.

Today was such a fun day of exploring and site seeing!  It was a day of many firsts for me, and I am very much looking forward to tomorrow and the rest of our time here in Texas.

Haley

 

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Guest Blog by Katharine Chapman Pope

katMy name is Katharine and I received my master’s degree in forensic anthropology from Texas State in 2007. I’ve done a variety of jobs in the forensic science field, including crime scene investigator, WWII Casualty Analyst for the Department of Defense’s POW/MIA office, and currently, medicolegal death investigator. As a death investigator, I act as the eyes and ears for the forensic pathologist. I investigate all deaths in the state and determine if it falls under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner’s office. I see homicides, suicides, accidents, drug overdoses, and many other scenes and situations. Skeletonized cases or cases where identification is questioned, I use my training in anthropology to help confirm the decedent’s age, sex, ancestry, stature, and anything pathological or traumatic important to the case.

I volunteered for the exhumations at Sacred Heart for two different reasons. Primarily, the mission itself is very important to me. The idea of dying in anonymity seems utterly desperate, like tangible Limbo. Your family never knows what happened to you. They can’t go visit your grave when they miss you. And they never see justice or closure. I believe that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, living or dead, no matter what. Is that crazy?! My second reason for volunteering is less altruistic. I have my own unidentified population at my home office (30 cases since 1965) and I wanted to see how TX State and UIndy handled intake, processing, and curation of their case load. I also need to keep up my archaeology and mapping skills.

Working with death on a daily basis hardened me – in order to get through the tasks required of the job, I numb myself to the emotions surrounding each case. When I arrived in South Texas, as a death investigator, I was still hard and numb. But I emerged from this experience as an anthropologist again, who considers the cultural and emotional story alongside of the human remains, the trauma, and the potential identification. The total picture of this mission is crushing, humbling, immense, and exhausting. I am so thankful to have participated in the process of helping resolve one tiny, but crucial portion of the problem. The families of these people deserve it.

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