October 21, 2016

Creepy & Funny Skeletons - An illustrated poem by my 7-year-old

Frequently at bedtime, my 7-year-old, Cecilia, asks me to read her something I've written for Forbes. At first, I think she was just trying to extend bedtime by a few minutes, but now she asks a thoughtful question or two about the topic. I was reading her the "Medieval giantess" story yesterday, and we had this exchange:

C: "Mama, look at that number. Your story has a lot of views!"
Me: "I know. It's great because it means people are enjoying it."
C: "And Forbes has to pay you more money, right?"
Me: "That's true as well."
C: "Can I write something for Forbes? I want to earn money to buy more Legos!"

While on the one hand, I want my kids to learn legitimate skills and not become famous/rich because of being on the internet, on the other hand, I want to encourage her to write and to show her that writing is a skill that people can make money doing.  So, I made her a deal: if she wrote something for Powered by Osteons, I would give her the money from the ad revenue on the page.  She decided to write and illustrate a poem.  Without further ado...

Creepy and Funny Skeletons
by Cecilia R.

Skeletons give me quite a scare!

So enter the Halloween if you dare!

We skulls are very bare.

But we don't have any hair!

We skeletons aren't very rare.

Of course, they don't eat a pear!

Skeletons don't live near an oak.

They also don't drink coke!

The skeletons don't wear pants.

They definitely don't dance!

October 15, 2016

Greeks, Terracotta Soldiers, and Research by Documentary

Terracotta army, via wikimedia commons
Since folks so loved the media-exaggerated report of Chinese in Roman London (which is not, as I've mentioned, what the data actually say), it's no surprise that an upcoming documentary has been getting press, since it appears to tie the ancient Greeks to the first Qin emperor in China.

The claim, in an upcoming BBC/Nat Geo documentary airing tomorrow(?) is that the sudden artistic realism of the terracotta army can be explained by early contact between Greeks and Chinese. It doesn't seem to matter which outlet you read; they all say basically the same thing. The Guardian might have a slight edge in terms of facts, so here's a link.

Since there's nothing on which I can base a critique, here are my disparate thoughts about it:

1) This appears to be research-by-documentary. At least, that's the way the media are covering it. There's no link to a peer-reviewed study (but allusions to some; see below), just musings by a small number of purported experts in the field (who I assume appear in the documentary). For a primer on why research-by-documentary is incredibly problematic, here's a recent peer-reviewed article, which uses as an example the "finding" of syphilis in pre-Columbian Europe -- that "finding", which has never been tested, proven, or peer-reviewed, has made its way into research literature.

[ETA: There is research on which this is based, according to multiple sources on Twitter. I'm glad to hear it. The fact that the media is covering a documentary, though, still makes it sound like research-by-documentary, which is unfortunate if the evidence is solid.]

2) The articles refer to "European" DNA as one of the lines of evidence that there may have been Greeks in China. This DNA comes from the studies of the Xinjiang (Tarim) mummies from central China (Uighur Autonomous Region), which was a melting-pot 4,000 years ago. I have read the DNA studies on these remains, and they're quite interesting, as I've written about before. While most of the haplogroups correspond with South Siberia, there were two western Eurasia ones. Thousands of years before the supposed Greek-Chinese contact, then, the DNA shows admixture in the maternal line.  But this is not terribly surprising - I mean, the more DNA analyses we do, the more we learn about admixture throughout Europe and Asia, going back to Neandertals, Denisovans, and the like. It's not surprising to find western European DNA in the Tarim Basin. What the DNA doesn't say is that Greeks were in Xi'an China in the 2nd century BC... because it can't. Isotopes from skeletons could, but I'm unaware of any evidence to this effect.

[ETA: There are also a few other articles on DNA from the Tarim basin, all of which seem to have the same basic conclusions.]

3) But honestly, my main problem with the documentary -- or, rather, with media reports of it -- is that it sounds unbelievably racist. A hook that's repeated in many of these articles is that there was contact between East and West "before Marco Polo." This is only revolutionary to the folks who think that Europeans discovered and invented everything and that we're the best because... ethnocentrism, I guess. Seriously, who actually thinks a dude whose namesake is a lame kids' pool game was the first European to contact China?

Initially, the most compelling evidence for me was the finding in ancient China of some bronze objects made with the lost-wax casting technique that the Greeks are relatively famous for.  But a quick search in the literature shows that this technique long predates them, going back as early as 5,700 BC. I'm not sure why we wouldn't expect the technique to migrate from Israel through the Tarim basin into central China within five millennia.

But finally and most importantly, why are we assuming that the Chinese didn't independently invent the idea of realism in art? That maybe emperor Qin wanted realistic warriors for his tomb, so they were made? I mean, it's not like the Greeks sauntered into central China and said, 'Look here, folks, these statues don't look exactly like you. Let us teach you what you actually look like.' And who says that realism is the pinnacle of the artistic tradition anyway? Oh, right, Western art history scholars over the centuries because of course "we" have the "best" art. (Don't believe me?  Check out the Independent, which says of Greek art "their work has rarely been bettered.")

[ETA: I've read a buuuuunch of media coverage of the documentary, and really all of it [the media coverage] sounds like Western exceptionalism. That's why I'm skeptical of a proposal of "Greeks teaching the Chinese to make sculptures" -- because years of graduate education in classics and anthro made me question romanization, Western exceptionalism, artistic realism, and a multitude of other concepts that we're pretty much taught from childhood here in the U.S. at least.]

At any rate, maybe the documentary addresses all of these issues.  Or maybe the media is not fairly reporting what's in the documentary.  But the "news" items I've read are all deeply problematic, stringing together a flawed understanding of biology with a flawed understanding of art history to arrive at a conclusion that makes for clickable headlines but that is far from the last word on the matter.

10/19/16 update -- According to a headline at Shanghai Daily, "Chinese archaeologist refutes BBC report on Terracotta Warriors":
"I think the terracotta warriors may be inspired by Western culture, but were uniquely made by the Chinese. BBC overstated my remarks about Western inspiration and ignored main points I made during the interview," Li told Xinhua. ... "I am an archaeologist, and I value evidence. I've found no Greek names on the backs of Terracotta Warriors, which supports my idea that there was no Greek artisan training the local sculptors," Li said.
These quotes are exactly what I'd expect from an archaeologist. As I've said in the Chinese-in-London piece, I don't doubt the premise that there were significant east-west connections during the time of the Greeks and Romans. But, as Carl Sagan was fond of saying, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. That evidence - specifically for individual people found far from home - has not yet piled up, although I suspect it will soon through DNA and isotopes, bolstered by archaeological context (such as the central Asian person found in southeastern Imperial Italy).

September 27, 2016

Who needs an osteologist? (Installment 42)

In this installment, we continue our theme from last week of kids' books with incorrect anatomy.  This image comes from Dr. Heather Bonney, the human remains collections manager at the National History Museum in London, who notes it's from a cut-out-and-build skeleton book:

For anyone keeping score, those are the metatarsals, not the carpals. I don't know about you, but I'm glad my wrist isn't attached to my ankle!

Previous Installments of Who needs an osteologist?

August 29, 2016

Who needs an osteologist? (Installment 41)

Today's contribution comes from Megan Sharpe, a forensic anthropology graduate student in Boston.  She found this error in a kids' book called Skeleton from the DK Eyewitness series... and it's a very prominent one:

Can you spot what's wrong? :-)

Previous Installments of Who needs an osteologist?

August 18, 2016

Using Twitter to Advance Your Research Career -- My new online short course!

Modified from Kooroshication's Flickr image "Twitter Head" (CC-BY)
Are you an academic, researcher, alt-ac, scientist, NGO worker, digital humanities geek, or really anyone who wants to more effectively use Twitter in a professional capacity? Check out this three-week online course, starring me!  I mean... co-taught by yours truly! :-)

It costs just $25, and you'll learn a whole range of things, from how to use hashtags to how to integrate your social media profiles to more effectively harness the internet to further your research goals. (More info on topics at the link.)

The course runs from Sept 18-Oct 8.  It's largely self-paced, with regular weekly check-ins with the instructors and your classmates, so that you can help one another succeed in making the most out of Twitter.  Each week gets more in depth, but you can pop in and out to get what you need.  

Please share this widely -- although this is being run through #SciFund (which I joined way back when for help with my successful crowdfunding campaign), we're not just targeting scientists.  We'd love to have you social science and digital humanities folks, as skills in social media are crazy important for academic and alt-ac jobs these days.  Grad students are more than welcome, and even undergrads could benefit.

If you're interested in signing up -- have I mentioned it's just $25??? -- do click here. Don't be like the bird on the right...

July 18, 2016

Who needs an osteologist? (Installment 40)

Today's contribution was sent in by long-time reader Kori Filipek-Ogden, a bioarchaeologist at Durham University and Director of the Transylvania Bioarchaeology Project. She sent me this picture from Corvin Castle, which is apparently one of the seven wonders of Romania.  But even though it's one of the largest castles in Europe, it still needs an osteologist:

Whoopsies on those humeri.  At least, my elbows don't bend that way.  Odd too, since they took pains to cross the radius and ulna, as they would be if the hands were folded on the belly.  I'm also not convinced the right scapula is a right scapula, but it's hard to tell from the photo, especially since the scapulae are broken.  Kori, for her part, was "impressed" with the glue job on the skull.

Previous Installments of Who needs an osteologist?

July 8, 2016

What I wrote @Forbes and @mental_floss in June

I just finished writing a book chapter and was feeling pretty flipping good about myself until I realized I've been falling down terribly on my PbO blogging.  The Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival is... well, non-existent, it seems.  I just can't ever remember to pull together the links from my PbO Facebook page (click on over and "like" it to get all the news as it happens) to create a regular post anymore.  The reason, of course, is both the pop-sci book I'm writing on Roman bioarchaeology and my regular blogging gigs... in that vein, here's what I wrote for them in the month of June:


Will I ever resurrect the Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival, you might be asking?  Chances are slim, unless I magically get an intern or research assistant who can do it for me.  So again, enjoy the Forbes and mental_floss posts, and click over to Powered by Osteons on Facebook for the latest skeleton news from around the world!

July 1, 2016

Who needs an osteologist? (Installment 39, Celebrity Edition!)

Maybe you've seen this, since it's now all over even the American news this morning? Some skeletal and intestinal remains along the shores of Loch Ness...

Yes, that Loch Ness.

It is, of course, a prank.  And a funny one.  But not a very anatomically correct one.  

Now, I'm not a zooarchaeologist, or a paleontologist, or a cryptozoologist, so take this opinion for what it is... but that looks like a pig skull (going based on the teeth here), three vertebral columns stuck together as if one long neck, probably some cow legs, a bunch of rib cages stuck together (again, probably cow judging by the size and by people's ability to get it easily).  And then a whole bunch of intestines and other offal.

If you have a better idea of what those animal bones are, do feel free to comment.

What would the Loch Ness Monster's actual skeleton look like, though, you ask?  I imagine, since it's supposed to be some sort of holdover from past epochs, it'd look more like a dinosaur -- maybe a diplodocus or, even better, the semi-aquatic nothosaurus that's been found all over Europe and Asia.

 So while I appreciate the elaborate nature of this prank, the frankenstein quality of the Nessie "skeleton" could have been better staged.

Previous Installments of Who needs an osteologist?

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