September 8, 2014

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival XLIV

I'm rather tardy in posting the August RBC, but classes started up again and I'm behind in pretty much everything at the moment.  Not sure if I just didn't keep on top of the news last month or if there really were only two stories about classical bioarchaeology.

  • 19 August - Roman gold coin discovered in Sweden (Archaeology Magazine). Archaeo magazine goes the opposite headline route, downplaying the Roman-era (400-550 AD) gold coin found in a house where several people had been killed.  It's possible the individuals made up a family and they were killed by thieves, archaeologists concluded.

And since that's all I've got from last month, here are some more cool bioarchaeology stories from further afield, both geographically and chronologically, that I enjoyed last month.  [As always, I post more than Roman bioarch over at Powered by Osteons on Facebook, so do come "like" the page to stay up-to-date.]

  • 11 August.  The case of the missing incisors (Archaeology Magazine).  An Early Bronze Age skeleton from Lake Baikal in Siberia was found to be lacking two central lower incisors, and there is a stone projectile point embedded in the bone.  Very cool archaeo-forensic case!

  • September 2014.  From the September edition of Smithsonian Magazine comes a long-read called "The Kennewick Man finally freed to share his secrets."  It's a great primer on the case up to now, covering the basics of one of the most famous skeletons in the U.S. (and great fodder for teaching about ethics in osteology).

September 5, 2014

"Can I just drop my death trophies off at your office, Dr. Killgrove?"

I popped into lab late yesterday afternoon, since my new TA Andrea was helping some students study for their first quiz in Human Osteology. Noticed an odd box on one of the lab tables--clearly handmade, not very well, of lightweight, stained wood with five holes poked in the top. I asked Andrea if it was hers, but it wasn't. It wasn't there Wednesday when we had class, and Andrea knew the TA for the Thursday afternoon intro to biological anthropology lab hadn't brought it in either.

We opened the box cautiously given our uncertainty about its provenience. To be honest, we were preparing ourselves for a toad or a mouse--live or dead, who knows. Fortunately, Andrea is either more curious or less afraid of creepy crawly things than I, and she opened it.

Inside, in addition to a couple of leaves and other detritus of nature, were three things: a small container of human teeth; a small container of what could be bone, shell, or other; and what appears to be an old pepper grinder with a chunk of perhaps charcoal in it, wrapped in a copper wire.  I recognized the smaller containers immediately, as I have one of these containers at home for powder foundation.  They're sold in makeup sections of drugstores.

Andrea and I looked at each other.  I took a deep breath and went to find our forensic anthropologist to see if she knew the story of the box.

She did not. 

I took the box on a little promenade through the department in the waning hours of the afternoon right before our annual graduate student meet-and-greet, and one of our adjunct instructors, a thickly be-moustached archaeologist, said, "Oh yeah. Last night one of the lab instructors--the black-haired one--came and showed it to me. We concluded there were human teeth."

After uttering a "What the everloving fuck?", I went back to the lab to see what I could find out about the box and its contents.

The teeth appear to be modern, probably extractions from someone (more likely from someones, but I haven't had time to thoroughly look at them) with poor dental health. There's even a little bit of bone attached to a couple. I haven't yet pried the container with the fragments open; after slicing my finger with a dental pick (irony?) during my attempt yesterday afternoon, I gave up and went to the grad student meet-and-greet, as per my duty.

After putting the kids to bed last night, an email pinged into my phone from the TA who had received the box and left it in the lab classroom.  It didn't particularly help with the context.  She told me that a guy--not one of her students--simply came into the department just before her 6pm bio anth lab and was looking for someone to give the box to. He claimed to have found it in the parking lot outside the anthropology building.  
We're in a pretty special location here in Building 13, just in front of the head of the campus nature trail.  In the two years I've been here, the nature trail has produced everything from a dead body to rotting shark flesh (two separate incidents!) to curious circles of stones.  And in all those cases, our diligent admin assistants have fielded calls from campus police.

So this morning, before class started, I called campus police to fill them in.  The dispatcher told me to call back with more information about my random bits of human after teaching my three-hour lab on random bits of human.

I called back while eating my lunch.  The dispatcher put me on hold for a bit, and instead of hold music, I got an interview with Joan Rivers.  Yup, a dead person's voice in my ear while staring at a box of bits of a possibly dead person.

Two campus police officers showed up a short time later.  Neither introduced himself, but both were intensely curious about my call.  As I explained the story, one stood quietly and the other slowly started grinning. One asked if they were possibly false teeth (nope), and the other was thankful he'd already eaten lunch.  They suggested I keep the box and its contents--"You know, to show the students what happens if they don't do well in your class!"--and left chuckling.

I put the whole story and pictures on Facebook this morning, and one of my colleagues from the second floor just commented that she noticed the box near the stairs a while ago, possibly two months ago.  So a weird box with half a dozen human teeth in it has sat outside, just feet from my office, since the summer.  I guess I can blame @_Florida Man.

On the one hand, I guess I'm glad I get some free teeth--after all, I was just about to have the department buy some more for teaching purposes.  On the other hand--this is intensely creepy.  Just really really weird.  I don't want random remains showing up at my office.  Ever.  Without any provenience, without any explanation, well, I just have to call the police.  So please don't drop your death trophies off at my door.  (But if you recognize this box or its contents, get in touch, I guess.)

August 25, 2014

Who needs an osteologist? (Installment 16)

It's the first day of classes here at UWF, which means a fresh crop of undergraduates in my Human Osteology class.  And with perfect timing, here's the case of the 38-year-old ectopic pregnancy that has been making the rounds on the various social media I frequent.  It's a pretty interesting case, and the MRI seems to show a fetal skeleton (inasmuch as I have no professional training in reading an MRI).  The Daily Mail carried a photo, though, of the doctors' attempt at rearticulating the skeleton.  And these doctors most definitely need an osteologist:

It's an insanely blurry shot, but can you pick out the things that are either wholly wrong or really rather wonky?  Spoiler alert:

  • The most glaringly obvious ones (to me, anyway, but I spent a bunch of time this summer looking at neonate bones) are the sphenoid (or, rather, the presphenoid, which includes the distinctive lesser wings and sella turcica) and occipital (pars lateralis and pars basilaris) in the pelvis.  
  • I'm pretty sure those femora are upside down and mis-sided. 
  • They seem to have swapped the right tibia and left humerus, inexplicably.  
  • The clavicles appear to be mis-sided. 
  • And I'm not sure what those things are at the wrist, but they're almost certainly not carpals (since carpals are much smaller than that at the fetal stage).
Did I miss anything?

Speaking of fetal stage... there's no scale to this, but it looks pretty damn close to a neonate to me.  It makes me wonder if this is actually a picture of the supposedly ectopic pregnancy.  Ectopic simply means outside of the uterus, though, so it's possible the fetus grew nearly to term without killing the mother (and there have been other cases like this, although not quite as long-standing).

At any rate, some doctors at NKP Salve Institute of Medical Sciences in India definitely need an osteologist.

Previous installments of Who needs an osteologist?

August 23, 2014

Fall Courses - Bioarchaeology and Osteology

Starting Monday, I get to teach my dream-lineup of semester courses: Human Osteology (with lab) and Bioarchaeology.  In the spring, I went through the process of getting Bioarch on the books as a new course, and this will be the first time I've taught it since 2006.  And, believe me, the practice of bioarchaeology has changed a lot since then.

Since starting at UWF, when I noticed a program on my university-issued computer I'd never used before (Microsoft Publisher), I've been spiffing up my syllabi for every course.  Here are the first two pages for my Fall 2014 courses in Human Osteology and Bioarchaeology.  (And the full PDFs are on for Osteo and for Bioarch.)


Fancified Syllabi FAQs:
  • How'd you do this? I used templates in Microsoft Publisher.
  • How long did it take?  Probably 10 hours per syllabus to typeset.
  • Can I steal this idea?  By all means, steal away!
  • Are the students more likely to read and keep the syllabus? Not the intro students, no. Upper division students do seem to appreciate it, but perhaps they would already have kept it? Someone do a study of this, with control groups and such!
Happy fall semester, everyone!

August 22, 2014

Who needs an osteologist? (Installment 15)

The Huffington Post recently posted this picture and asked, "Is that a thigh bone on Mars?"

Answer: No.  Just... what?  No.  Which part of that looks like a femur?

Previous installments of Who needs an osteologist?

August 4, 2014

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival XLIII

As predicted, bunches of stuff came out in July, which tends to be the most popular month for announcing Roman-era (and other-era) bioarchaeology finds.

Pre-Roman Europe

  • 14 July. Vintage bling: Ancient Celts may have had shiny dental implants (LiveScience). A dental implant dating to the 3rd century BC was found in France. It seems the researchers who found the female skeleton can't actually tell if the implant was inserted before or after death.  They assume, though, that it was for aesthetic purposes, since the missing tooth was a central incisor.
  • 29 July. Findings indicate ritual destruction of Iron Age warriors (PastHorizons).  A whole bunch of presumed warriors were found in a bog in East Jutland, Denmark, notable especially because of the seemingly ritual nature of parts of the disposal -- in one case, four pelvic bones were found on a stick or a spit. They likely date to the 4th-1st centuries BC.

Roman Empire

  • 1 July. Bournemouth University dig finds significant Roman remains (BBC News). Five individuals -- two male and three female skeletons -- were found associated with a mid-4th century Roman villa in Dorset.  Researchers think these are three generations of the same family, but there is no report as to why. The graves appear to have been high-status.
A Romano-British skeleton from Dorset (via BBC)
  • 1 July. Skeletons found in Roman tomb (Hurriyet Daily News). A Roman-era tomb with six skeletons was found in Mugla, Turkey. Again, the skeletons are assumed to represent a family without any explanation as to why.
Roman-era skeletons from Turkey (via Hurriyet Daily News)
  • 4 July. Twenty-five skeletons found on farm (Northamptonshire Telegraph). What is assumed to be a cemetery of lower-class Romano-British people was found near Irchester in south central England.  No pictures, but video at link (fair warning: might autoplay).
  • 17 July. Ostia, scoperto mausoleo dell III secolo con inscrizioni terribili e maledizioni (Il Messaggero). There's various coverage of this in English as well, but the best pictures are at this link.  Archaeologists at Ostia Antica have been busy excavating a dozen graves found outside the wall of the city.  It appears the burials are varied in forms.  It's interesting that these graves are not at Isola Sacra, the main cemetery for Ostia Antica and Portus Romae, but they're in keeping with normal Roman burial practices of being located along a road outside the city walls.  Should be interesting to see what the bones tell.
One of the skeletons from the new
cemetery at Ostia Antica (via Il Messaggero)

Right arm bones of a Sarmatian noblewoman (via Ak Zhaik)

Post-Roman Finds

  • 31 July. Dark Age necropolis unearthed in France (Archaeology Magazine). A massive cemetery of over 300 burials dating to the post-Roman era (5th-7th centuries AD) was found recently in Normandy. The analysis of all these skeletons should prove very interesting.

Woman with earrings, from the early Medieval
necropolis found in Normandy (via Archaeology Magazine)

Other Interesting Stuff

  • 6 July. 2,500-year-old erotic graffiti found in unlikely setting on Aegean island (The Guardian). Scholars debate what constitutes the "earliest" graffiti (writing on walls at Pompeii, pictograms from the Native Americans, rock art at Chauvet Cave...), but this is pretty neat.  Two different graffiti from Astypalaia in Greece: one a depiction of two penises (of course) and one a sentence proclaiming homosexual sex.  Both date to about the 5th-6th centuries BC, making them very early erotic graffiti.
  • 10 July. Divine reverie: Revelation, dream interpretation, and teeth in antiquity (The Appendix).  One of my good friends, Sarah Bond, co-authored this neat piece on teeth in dreams.  There is so much potential for a graduate course paper or even thesis relating this to bioarchaeological finds of Romans missing teeth.  (With bonus picture of an Imperial Roman jaw with poor dental hygiene.)
  • 18 July and 22 July. I wrote two posts on Roman walking resulting from questions from Roman archaeologist Eric Poehler, who does research on streets, cobblestones, and walking in Pompeii. First, how long was the Roman stride?  And then, How big were Roman feet?  The latter was picked up on 1 August by Smithsonian Magazine as "How big were Romans' feet?" There's plenty of opportunity for an interested grad student to work with available data to figure this out in more depth.

July 31, 2014

Open Osteological Data - Two Imperial Roman Cemetery Populations

I defended my dissertation, Migration and Mobility in Imperial Rome, four years ago.  Because of my interest in open access and because my NSF grant required a data access statement, I've been thinking for four years about how best to open up all the data I collected.

At first, I was worried about opening up the data because I wanted to get a job.

I got a job in 2012 at the University of West Florida.  

Roman Osteology Database Screenshot
Then I worried about opening up the data because I needed to publish and get tenure, but growing interest in open data among scholars made me conflicted.  So I compromised: I posted all published isotope data as bare-bones Excel files.  But divorcing these data from their larger context didn't sit well with me.

I'm entering my third year at UWF, and I see no reason to hold back the database any longer.  While I'm still a ways from making my tenure case, I've been steadily publishing the plethora of data I generated during my dissertation fieldwork, so I feel confident in my ability to research, analyze, and write on bioarchaeology.  

More importantly, though, I think I'm just done with this project.  

That's not to say there isn't more to write or that there aren't more data to analyze or that I'm not still interested in this time and place.  There's a ton of dental and skeletal pathology data, for example, that I haven't tackled.  But I want to move on to other projects, and at this point I worry that I'm becoming too myopic.  Honestly, Imperial Rome tends to do that -- it sucks you in, making you think it is, was, and ever will be the most important city in the world full of the most important people in history.  Roman imperialism is calling out for more diverse perspectives, though.  The rise in osteological analysis of Romano-British cemeteries, for example, is created a multifaceted Empire.  And new multidisciplinary studies in the Transatlantic slave trade are raising the question of potential comparative work with slavery in the Roman world.  I still love answering questions about population interaction in the past, but I might try focusing that interest on times and places like Medieval Berlin, Greco-Roman Italy, or Pre-Emancipation Southeast U.S.  Still, I am working on skeletons from various time periods at Gabii, so I haven't abandoned Roman bioarchaeology.  And I might yet publish dental pathology data (or enlist a grad student to do it for a thesis)...

At any rate, you can find my Access database on GitHub at this link.  Please use it if you're interested in comparative data sets, if you want to check my work, if you disagree with my interpretations, or if you just like reading databases.  I only ask that you credit me appropriately.  (If you want to collaborate further for a publication, though, I'm happy to do that as well.)

What follows is the repository read-me for more info. Some pictures are posted; more to come as I find the time to wade through and post them. Note that the database is partly embargoed; I feel bad about this, but for various reasons (that I'm happy to explain over a beer, but not here) I will make all the data available within the next year when publications are submitted and/or come out.  Also note that no archaeological context information is available for these two cemetery populations; I didn't dig up these skeletons, so I have only included data that I personally generated.  Someday, I hope to find an alternative to this Access database that I wrote in 2007 (maybe ARK? maybe an app I design?), but I'm not a fan of Osteoware or other non-open methods of recording skeletal data.  A blank version of my database is also available on GitHub.

I hope this database is useful.  While I realize I'm not being fully open with all my data just yet, I hope that this can set a precedent for other bioarchaeologists.  There's nothing more I'd like to see than large-scale, world-wide comparisons of health, diet, disease, and migration in antiquity.

Roman Osteology [Read-Me] -

This repository contains my database of published and unpublished data resulting from my research on skeletal remains from two cemeteries in Rome, Italy (Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco). There are also photographs relevant to various publications, each labeled by skeleton number (which is the ID key in the Access database).

In the database, you will find basic demographic information (age and sex), an inventory of each skeleton, skeletal pathology data, records of teeth examined and their pathological conditions, and results of all biochemical analyses undertaken to date (C, N, O, Sr, Pb isotopes; Pb and Sr concentration). Note that adult measurements, subadult measurements, subadult dental data, and nonmetric cranial trait data will be available in the next year, once the relevant publications come out (I'm afraid I have to embargo these raw data for the moment). Data from my work at Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco can be found here; data from Gabii will be posted when possible. No information on the archaeological context of the skeletons (e.g., provenience, grave goods, etc.) is included in this database, as that information is the purview of the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome. Download the database by clicking on the "Download" button (over there on the lower right toolbar) and open with Microsoft Access.

The photographs folder currently includes shots of all individuals with scoreable porotic hyperostosis. Photographs are also available for many of the individuals with enamel hypoplasia, but photographs were not taken of every individual or every tooth with this enamel insult. More photographs will be posted soon, largely related to various pathological conditions (osteoarthritis and fractures among them).

I'm suggesting a CC BY-NC-SA license for these -- that is, feel free to use the data as you see fit for your academic publications; I just ask that you credit me appropriately. To find my own analyses and interpretations, or to get additional context, please see the relevant publications. If you don't have access to them, I will gladly send you a copy of anything published or under review:

[Pathology Data]
  • Killgrove, K. Submitted (July 2014). Imperialism and physiological stress in Rome (1st-3rd centuries AD). Manuscript submitted for edited volume, Bioarchaeology of Contact, Colonialism, and Imperialism, H. Klaus and M. Murphy, eds. University Press of Florida.
[Sr and O Data]
[C and N Data]
[Pb Data]
[Nonmetric Trait Data]
  • Killgrove, K. Submitted (December 2012). Using biological distance techniques to investigate the heterogeneous population of Imperial Rome. Manuscript submitted for edited volume, The Archaeology of Circulation, Exchange, and Human Migration, D. Peterson and J. Dudgeon, eds.

July 22, 2014

How long was the average Roman foot, and what was their shoe size?

Archaeologist Eric Poehler just keeps coming with the questions about Roman walking and feet.  Today, he wanted to know the size of the Roman foot.  In my last post, I'd kind of given up on the idea of figuring out foot size, since I didn't think I had any foot measurements.  Then I remembered this morning that of course I have calcaneus maximum length.  The trick was to find a formula using calcaneus maximum length to approximate foot size.

Sandaled foot from the Augustan period (Met Museum)
This was more difficult than you'd think.  There are a metric TON of articles that relate shoe/foot size to stature, but you have to have the shoe/foot (these are useful in forensic contexts, of course).  So I could use long bones to calculate stature and then use stature to calculate approximate foot size, but that would introduce one more level of error than I need.  It seems like no bioarchaeologists care about estimating foot size from foot bones, which surprised me because I'd assumed at least comparative primate morphologists would be interested in this.  (Now, of course, there is growing interest in Roman walking because of databases like Stanford's ORBIS.)

I did find what I was looking for, though, in literature related to lower leg changes in polio: Anderson, M., M. Blais, and W.T. Green. 1956. Growth of the normal foot during childhood and adolescence. Length of the foot and interrelations of foot, stature, and lower extremity as seen in serial records of children between 1-18 years of age. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 14(2):287-308.  This article is helpfully available for free via PDF here.  If you scroll through to page 306, there's a handy chart that gives you the percentage of the foot made up by the "calcified os calcis" (what we now simply call the calcaneus).  Taking 18-year-olds (as the authors have concluded that the foot is no longer growing at this point), we find that the calcaneus makes up 30.2% (+\- .1) of the male foot and 28.9% (+\- .1) of the female foot.  Spiffy!

Now, we take the maximum calcaneus lengths from the population I studied at the Imperial-era Casal Bertone cemetery, 2km east of Rome. The male average was 80mm (8 cm), and the female average was 75mm (7.5 cm).  Using the power of multiplication, the average Roman male foot was 26.5cm, and the average Roman female foot was 25.9cm.  If you want to go a step further (ha!), this means the average Roman male from Casal Bertone wore a US 8.5 / EU 42 shoe, and the average female a US 10 / EU 41 shoe.  Boom -- calculating calcanei!

The female numbers seem too long, honestly, but I can believe the male numbers.  If you recall my previous post, the average male stature from this site was about 167cm, and female stature was 157cm.  So (using Imperial measurements now, sorry, but I'm American!) a 5'6" man could easily wear an 8.5 US shoe.  But a 5'2" woman would not wear a 10 US shoe.  I'm 5'9" and I wear a 10.

If there really aren't equations other than this to approximate foot size from calcaneal length, I suddenly have an MA project in mind for an interested student... And the correlations between bone length and shoes (as from Vindolanda) have lots of potential as well!

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