February 11, 2016

My new article, "All Roads Lead to Rome," and the media coverage of it

After more years than I care to admit, my last proper article based on my dissertation research is out (although there are a couple book chapters yet to come that include data from it as case studies).  This one, though, represents the meat of my dissertation.

Individual ET38 from Castellaccio Europarco
(1st-2nd c AD, Rome) was likely an immigrant.
Unsurprisingly enough, since Imperial Rome was ridiculously complex, it's taken a while to work through the data, and especially to take into account all the things that wonkify (yes, that's a real science term) the isotopes.  Whereas most bioarchaeologists who do isotope analysis can be pretty sure their local population was eating, drinking, and living locally, it's impossible to start from that assumption in Rome, what with the importing of grain, the aqueducts bringing in millions of gallons of water a day, and the moving around the Empire. So this article is not the last word on migration and skeletons -- in fact, in most ways, it's the first. And I hope that more studies are done (including my own ongoing work with DNA) to dig into the complexity rather than shy away from it.

I published this in PLOS ONE because it's open-access, and it's important to me to have these data and interpretations accessible to anthropologists and classicists alike.  That's also why much of the writing isn't heavy on the science jargon -- I frequently get comments on my peer-reviewed articles that mention their readability, and I can thank my blogging for that.  Finally, I have also opened up my entire database from this project, as it was funded by the NSF, Wenner-Gren, and UNC, and there's no sense in my sitting on the database any longer, even though there are unpublished data in there (e.g., dental pathologies).

But without further ado, below are a link to the PLOS article, a link to the original relational database, and a collection of news media coverage in at least half a dozen languages.

  • News Articles in Spanish
    • La Vanguardia - Identificados por primera vez inmigrantes en la antigua Roma
    • SINC - Hallados los primeros restos humanos de inmigrantes en la Roma Imperial
    • La Informacion and ABC Sociedad - Un estudio halla evidencia de migración humana a la Roma imperial en un cementerio de hace 2.000 años
    • Europa Press - Primeros restos de inmigrantes que vivieron en la Roma Imperial
    • News Articles in Italian
      • ANSA - Primi identikit dei migranti nella Roma imperiale
      • Galileo Net - Gli scheletri che raccontano la storia delle migrazioni a Roma
      • Scienze Fanpage - Chi erano i migranti nell'antica Roma?
      • San Francesco - I migranti della Roma imperiale arrivavano da Nord Africa e Alpi
    • News Articles in French
    • News Articles in German
      • Science ORF - Isotope "erzählen" Migration im alten Rom
    • News Articles in Hungarian
      • Hirado - Fogaik alapján azonosítottak ókori római bevándorlókat
    • News Articles in Russian
      • Lenta - В Древнем Риме нашли мигрантов
      • RIA - Ученые выяснили, какие мигранты работали на "имперских" стройках Рима
      • UA Press - Всі дороги ведуть до Риму - знайдені останки переселенців з інших регіонів
    • News Articles in Polish
      • Wyborcza - Wszystkie drogi prowadzą do Rzymu. Nowe badania nad migracją

    February 10, 2016

    Who needs an osteologist? (Installment 36)

    This time on "Who needs an osteologist?" we find that our own umbrella organization, the American Anthropological Association, needs to learn what physicalbiological anthropologists do.

    In case you can't see the image, "Physical Anthropology + Studies animal origins and the biologically determined nature of humankind."

    The AAA has -- let's say -- a history of not really understanding where we bio folks fit in. So let's take this word by word...

    Physical -- Yes, this word is still preserved in our early-20th-century origins, such as the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.  But very few people in the field still use the term "physical" because of its racial and racist origins.  Just... look up the history, AAA.  We favor biological now to show our focus is on more than just the physical.

    Animal origins -- Yes, some biological anthropologists study the origins of non-human primates.  But people who study animal origins broadly are... zoologists? Biologists? Come on, really?

    Biologically-determined nature -- I said I wasn't going to swear in this post, but FFS.  We're anthropologists.  It's nature *and* nurture.  We don't ignore culture.  That would be insane and very late-19th-century of us. This one phrase reflects decades of incorrect value-judgments placed on our work.

    And a bonus -- You know that forensic anthropology is part of biological anthropology, right AAA?  Or, if you want to call it an applied field, that's fine too.  But then lumping bioarchaeology in with... well, it's not covered under your definitions of archaeo, bio anth, or forensics, so I guess we don't exist.

    So, AAA, let me fix that for you:

    "Biological Anthropology + Studies the origin, form, and differences in human and non-human bodies to answer questions about evolution and past societies."

    You're welcome.

    Update (2:19pm CST) - I got an email from Jeff Martin, the Communications and Public Affairs Director for the AAA.  The text follows:
    Hi Kristina, 
    Our most sincere apologies, and duly noted. We will use the following definition to correct other versions, including those on our website under World Anthropology Day, and promote from the present forward. 
    “Biological anthropologists study contemporary and past peoples; they look at how culture shapes our biology and vice versa, and also how different biological systems impact our health and well-being.” 
    Thanks so much for letting us know. 
    It sounds like others who expressed disappointment in the AAA got a similar email.  Of course, with the AAA's doing a complete 180 on the animal subjects, the primatologists (who are biological anthropologists) are out in the cold, along with geneticists and others.

    So, close but no cigar, AAA.

    February 3, 2016

    Palaeodemography of the Googly Eye Cemetery

    As longtime readers know, I create a lot of hands-on activities in all of my classes, partly because I think that this type of teaching engages a lot of learners in a way that lecturing doesn't, and partly because it entertains me to try to think of new and different things to do in class.  Although I have used this particular in-class activity twice in the past, I have apparently never blogged about it.  So here is the Palaeodemography of the Googly Eye Cemetery, which my Bioarchaeology students did in class today.

    Bags o' craft stuff for MNI activity.
    You can download the whole PDF of the activity here or check it out below, but it doesn't have info on how I set it up.  The "ingredients" I used for this project include:
    • Pompoms - Three colors of varying sizes, representing cranial vaults.  I used white for male, red for female, and green for subadult.  I also included four or five sizes of each color pompom, which throws in a bit of a twist because I only have three subadult and three adult age categories.
    • Googly Eyes - Six different sizes, representing eye orbits.
    • Buttons - Three sizes of blue (male), three sizes of pink (female), three sizes of green (subadult).  I also threw in a couple "anomalous" buttons (yellow flowers).
    • Pipe cleaners - Three different colors (blue for male, pink for female, green for subadult), two different sizes (arms and legs). I also threw in a couple "anomalous" long bones (yellow).
    I'm sure you could get more involved with the MNI here.  Add vertebrae with beads, or find a bigger range of sizes, or don't include as many sizes of skull, etc.  And you can get creative with the bags too.  You can't really tell, but one of the bags (the "intramural" context) has a ton of babies, and there's one bag with mostly adult males, etc.  (The different contexts and contents help students make interpretations based on pseudo-skeletal data.)

    I gave the students the sex/age keys as above, and told them that there were six eye sizes, but I didn't initially tell them that there were 4-5 skull sizes and just 3 age categories.  (Tee hee.)

    So their task was to create an MNI, including age-at-death categories and sex where appropriate, and then to use the MNI and data on age to construct a crude survivorship curve and a demographic bar chart.  This activity built on a lecture on Monday about how bioarchaeologists amalgamate the data from individuals into populations.  I do wish I'd spent more time specifically on MNI, demographics, and survivorship curves, though, because this part got dicey with the students in class.  Part of that was an error in the handout (which I've since fixed).

    One set of students arranged their
    craft items into "people" to do the MNI.

    February 2, 2016

    This Month at Forbes - Skull Coin, Citizen Archaeology, Gladiator DNA, Scurvy, Bundy Militia, La Jolla Fishermen, and Bronze Age Disability

    Here are the things I wrote about in January on my Forbes blog:

    February 1, 2016

    Grand Challenges for (Bio)Archaeology

    Doug Rocks-Macqueen recently put out a call for practitioners in the field of bio/archaeology to blog about the "grand challenges" their (sub)discipline faces, in response to a similar question posed to archaeologists in the pages of American Antiquity. After a month of telling myself I was far too busy blogging at Forbes and starting the spring semester to respond, I figured I'd take the advice I frequently give students - just put something, anything down on paper.  Far from being supremely well-thought-out, here are some disparate thoughts on one grand challenge in (bio)archaeology that I think my colleagues and I should work towards.

    There are a few people working at "queering" bioarchaeology, but making this theoretical orientation more practical and more widespread is a challenge I'd like to see bioarchaeologists meet. For me, this idea comes into play when thinking about sex and gender in the past.  I often teach that the skeletal remains we are studying in lab can give us a good idea of the individual's biological sex, but that cultural gender needs to be reached using artifacts, burial style, historical records, and other contextual information.  While this is still true, it's not the whole story.  Biological sex is not a binary, even chromosomally, and sex estimates from skeletons are rarely clearly either/or. So when a bioarchaeologist is faced with a skeleton that exhibits skeletal attributes and DNA that don't match up, what do we do?

    In the recent case of DNA analysis of some Roman-age remains from Britain, researchers tested the DNA of a skeleton thought to be female. Chromosomal DNA came back as XY -- male.  The skeleton is incomplete, with only a partial skull and partial pelvis -- the two main indicators of sexual dimorphism and therefore biological sex -- and the age-at-death is inconsistent between the new report and the original publication. So while their blog post noted that "the aDNA analysis reveals a secret even she may not have known: although physically female, her chromosomes are male," the media went with all manner of interpretations, from androgen insensitivity syndrome to microchimerism to "skeleton found with both male and female DNA."  Curiously, no one thought to question the sex assessment based on the skeleton (which is not a 100% accurate method), or to wonder whether this might have been a eunuch or other third/non-gender individual, or to ask what a sex/gender difference would have meant in the classical Roman world in the first place.

    Bioarchaeology has always been subject to these "surprise" results, but the pace and frequency of DNA analysis in ancient remains is picking up dramatically.  Which set of information takes primacy in our understanding of sex and gender?  DNA?  Skeletal analysis?  Historical records?  Archaeological artifacts?  We've come a ways as a field since the whole "Gay Caveman" debacle of 2011, but five years on, the media still doesn't get it, and we still aren't helping them get it.  The general public is increasingly understanding what it means to be transgender, how that differs from sexual orientation, and how those differ from biological sex, but we bioarchaeologists have not yet managed to show the general public that these topics are equally relevant for the past, but also that we can't necessarily foist our contemporary understandings of sex/gender/sexuality/etc. onto the past.

    As I work on a DNA study of my own, on Imperial Roman remains, this question is at the front of my mind.  What will I do if (and, surely, when) DNA results come back with sexes different from my osteological assessment?  Which data set should I privilege as being "right"?  And what will that mean for my interpretations of the Romans I'm studying?

    So I'll echo Rosemary Joyce, who wrote about a similar challenge in her response to this question at her blog Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives. "Our greatest challenge," she writes, "is in shifting public debates." But I'll go a bit further and insist that, when we're talking about physical bodies in the past, we bioarchaeologists bear a lot of the burden of this. Talking about sex/gender/sexuality in the past is clearly a topic of interest to the general public and to the media, and we're just not doing it well right now -- not in our published work, and certainly not in our public outreach.

    I will be trying to write better about this topic in my Forbes pieces where relevant, but I will likely stumble (just as I stumbled in writing about ancient families a few months back). We all stumble as we learn, but I hope that my mistakes are instructive and that social media, blogging, and other outlets will be used as constructive ways to exchange ideas and to teach one another about the complexities of the embodied lives of past people.

    January 2, 2016

    Who needs an osteologist? (Installment 35)

    On our way back to Pensacola from vacation, we stopped at the Greensboro Science Center to let the kids take a break from the car. They have a plastinated bodies exhibit, and this was in a display window outside it.

    Responses when I posted this on Facebook included: "I wonder if I too have a Phantom coccyx?" "Maybe it was stolen in the great coccyx heist of 2015?" "Never Mind the Coccyx would be a good name for an osteological punk band."

    It's a new year, but people still need osteologists.
    Previous Installments of Who needs an osteologist?

    December 31, 2015

    Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival LXXVIII

    Some pretty interesting stuff this month in Roman bioarchaeology:

    • 4 December - Intact, Packed Etruscan Tomb Found (Discovery News). A 4th century BC tomb was found in Perugia, and it has two sarcophagi (one from a man named Lars) and a bunch of other stuff.  Finding an unlooted Etruscan tomb is always nice. There are skeletal remains, so these will add significant info to a fairly small sample of Etruscan skeletons that exists currently.
    Lid of newly discovered Etruscan sarcophagus. (Credit: Discovery News)
    The Empire
    Roman-era skeleton found in Lincoln. Is it just me, or do those femora
    look weird?  Is this actually one burial on top of another one? Those
    femora are face-down, no? (Credit: Licolnshire Echo)
    • 21 December - Archaeologists Study Scythian Nomad Graves (Past Horizons). The Scythians were nomadic peoples on the periphery of the Roman Empire, sometimes interacting with them, and sometimes not. Archaeologists found and excavated three mound tombs this year in the Russian north Altai.
    • 28 December - 500 Tombs Dating Back 2,000 Years Found in Umm al Quwain (The National). A ton of stone cist-type graves were found in the UAE dating to 100 AD, along with, the report notes, currencies from Alexander the Great, pottery and coins from Italy, and other objects from Persia and India.  Seems this site was quite the well-connected metropolis.  It'll be exciting to learn more about it and how it was related to the rest of the Old World at the time of the Roman Empire.
    One of the skeletons from the Umm
    al Quwain tombs. (Credit: The National)
    Other Roman-Era Skeleton News
    • 23 January - The Real Face of Jesus (Popular Mechanics).  I seem to have missed this one earlier this year, but it was of course recirculating for Christmas. There are many things that one can complain about with this reconstruction, but it's always nice to see Jesus not looking like a long-haired European dude.
    Relics of Saint Nicholas that remain in Myra, Turkey. (Credit: Forbes)

    Thanks, everyone, for reading the Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival this year!  I'll be back in a month with more news that I've collected.

    As always, you can get news as it breaks by following me on Facebook at my Powered by Osteons page, where there are over 5,000 people reading, sharing, and commenting on osteological news from around the world.

    December 30, 2015

    This Month at Forbes - Crucifixion, Bones of Santa, Foot Prosthesis, Ice Mummy, Stonehenge, and an Ancient 3D Ham

    In December, these are the things I wrote about on my Forbes blog:

    • 11 December - Gift This, Not That: Bone Clones vs. Skulls Unlimited.  Sometimes, Forbes has contributors write a series of posts on a theme, and this month was "gift this, not that." The series was aimed more at the tech sector, which has a lot of contributors, but I wrote one on why you should buy replica bones and leave the real ones to universities and museums.
    • 14 December - Archaeologists Discover Elite 6th Century AD Cavalryman with Unique Foot Prosthesis. This is a very cool article on a skeleton with a foot prosthesis. From the muscle markers and injuries, the researchers think he may have been in the cavalry. I was a bit surprised -- but glad -- by how many hits this one got. It does help that the researchers gave me permission to run several high-quality photos.
    • 22 December - 10 Secrets Ancient Human Bones Spilled in 2015. Everyone loves year-end listicle wrap-ups, right?  Of course, the 10 secrets in this post are all links to other posts that I wrote for Forbes this year.  Well, since May.  So it's really a list of a bunch of stories I enjoyed writing about in the last 8 months.
    If you're still reading this, and especially if you click through to my Forbes stories (in spite of the crazy amounts of ads, which I can't change, sorry), I just want to say thanks!  I really appreciate return readers, and hope that you continue to follow Powered by Osteons and my Forbes writing in the new year.

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