Intern Conducts Collection Research At “Body Farm”

Few people may be aware that Grand Junction is home to one of six “body farms” in the United States. Known as the Forensic Investigation Research Stations (FIRS), it is operated as part of Colorado Mesa University under the direction Dr. Melissa Connor. FIRS consists of an outdoor space on an acre of land surrounded by privacy fencing and an indoor facility that includes a classroom, wet lab/morgue, walk-in cooler, in-take area, office, and secure storage areas.

Its location outside of Whitewater Colorado has one of the highest altitudes, the most arid environment, and is the furthest west of the six. The majority of the remains desiccate – or mummify – quickly due to the dry conditions. Dr. Connor’s current research focus is on the mummification process and determining post-mortem interval, or the stage of decomposition.

The focus at FIRS is on education and students include Colorado Mesa students, as well as practitioners, law enforcement, coroners, coroner deputies, and forensic scientists. The Museum of the West has partnered with FIRS to provide students the opportunity to work with prehistoric and historic skeletal remains. Hannah Moschetti, a student at Colorado Mesa University, has been helping Erin Schmitz – Curator of Collections and Archives – catalog, inventory, and photograph several of the skeletons in the Museum of the West’s Archaeology collection.

Turner LookThe majority of the skeletons that Hannah is working on are Fremont and date from 2,000 to 700 years ago. They were excavated by Hannah Marie Wormington and Al Look at the Turner-Look site in 1939, 1940, 1941, 1947, and 1948. There are several notes about some of the skeletal material being vastly different from the others and Hannah will verify that the perceived differences are in fact present. We will then try to determine if it is a simple variation, or if there is a pathological reason for the difference. In the publication, A Reappraisal of the Fremont Culture, they describe how they determined the likely age of the skeletons.  For burial #1, they determined “the advanced degree of sutural obliteration would indicate an age of perhaps 50 or somewhat more, but, owing to the unreliability of this method (Singer, 1953), the general assignment “middle aged is preferred.”  Technology, however, has changed to the point where a better estimate is likely possible. Hannah and Dr. Connor will also scan the skeletal materials with ForDisc software. The software is able to estimate the sex, ancestry, and stature from a skeleton of unknown identity. It creates a biological profile based on measurements from various areas of bones, along with information about the person’s age, height, race, and illnesses.

The publication A Reappraisal of the Fremont Culture is available at the Museums of Western Colorado and on the Denver Museum of Nature and Science website.

This is just one of the many unique and exciting projects that we are working on at the Museums of Western Colorado! If you are interested in learning more about our collection, please feel free to contact Erin at 970.242.0971, ext. 210.