There’s an open box of skulls on the floor. A table is covered with pelvis bones. Nearby: a pile of ribs, tied up with a piece of string.
I’m standing in a basement room, underneath the bleachers of the football stadium at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Looking at floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with cardboard boxes. More than a thousand boxes, and each one contains a human skeleton.
“Pick a box. Any box,” says Dr. Dawnie Steadman, the director of the school’s forensic anthropology program. “What’s your pleasure?”
I scan the rows of boxes. I’m thinking I should pick a female. And so I settle on a box five rows up, just above my head, labeled “Female 57.”
Steadman places it on a table and starts to unpack it. Inside, the bones are tannish brown, not the bleached white I imagined.
She knows how to read these bones, and this one tells a story right away. “So this individual needed to have an autopsy after death,” Steadman explains, “and now I know why.”
She picks up a piece of the skull and points to a place just above the left eye.
I see it: a perfectly rounded hole.
“What we see here,” she says, “is a gunshot wound.”
This moment is why people come from all over the world to study these bones. Female 57 is just one of the 1,200 skeletons here, part of what’s called the Bass Donated Skeletal Collection.
Anthropologists, detectives, demographers — they all come here to learn how to read these bones: How old was this person? Was it a man or a woman? How did they die?
What they learn here can help them identify a missing person … crack an old murder case … or understand how obesity relates to osteoarthritis.
Steadman heads deeper into the stacks.
“There’s no more than one person in each box,” she says, counting off the ages as we walk by: 45, 49, 42. There’s at least one person who lived past 100.
So, How did these bones get here? While they’re still alive, people can sign up to donate their remains to the UT’s body-donation program. When they die — their bodies are sent here to the university.
Read more: NPR