May 30, 2007

ESL Teacher Extraordinare!

Today I taught various Italians the following:

1. What a lug-handled lamp is. Granted, this is random archaeological jargon, but you attempt to explain what a lug handle is to a couple of Italian archaeologists hanging on every word and see how well you do.

2. After learning that Italian children play "C'e lai" (tag, you're it!), I mentioned that we have a game called Marco Polo, played in a pool. I was asked, "Does the next person say, 'Cristoforo... Colombo...'?"

3. As an ever-diligent representative of my culture, I taught the following song to my roommate and his friends after dinner: Beans, beans, they're good for your heart / the more you eat, the more you fart / the more you fart, the better you feel / so why not eat beans for every meal. It went over well in English and, surprisingly, even better in the Italian translation. I also learned the Italian word for fart.

It was a good day. :)

May 29, 2007


At your twice-annual dental checkup, your hygienist always tells you to brush, floss, and use a plaque-removing mouthwash. Ever wonder what dental hygiene was like before the modern era?

In ancient Rome, they believed that tiny worms caused dental decay. Various tinctures were concocted from roots and seeds to remedy dental issues. One common recipe was to combine barley flour, vinegar, and honey, add salt, and burn it over charcoal. People would chew on these balls to whiten their teeth and give their mouths a pleasant odor. There are also reports that certain non-Roman Italians at the time used horse urine to whiten their teeth. Unfortunately, none of this is testable archaeologically.

What we can see in the teeth of the ancient Romans includes: cavities, plaque, gingivitis, developmental defects, and cultural practices (such as eating hard food, which causes chipping). Cavities are supposedly uncommon in the ancient Roman population, as is gingivitis (which results in periodontal disease that is apparent in bone). Although I have found evidence of these, what I find most often is dental calculus. Bacterial plaque is basically a very sticky substance that adheres to teeth. It contains elements of the food that you eat (such as proteins) in addition to microorganisms (both living and dead). Plaque usually sticks near the apical area of the tooth, the part that's nearest the gumline. It is often found on tooth surfaces that are near the salivary glands. Without cleaning, plaque can lead to gingivitis or an inflammation of the gum tissue, which can cause loss of bone around the tooth socket and eventually loss of the tooth. To some extent, the Romans were right about dental worms - or at least organisms that live on the teeth and cause problems. Bacterial plaque isn't a dire disease, though, and takes years to cause tooth loss. We find plaque on archaeological skeletons because after death, plaque mineralizes and is then known as dental calculus.

This is a picture of the premolars and molars from the left side of the mandible of a woman who was between 40 and 50 years old when she died. You are looking directly at the occlusal surfaces (the biting surfaces), and at the top of the photograph is the buccal surface (the part of the tooth that faces the cheek). All the yellowish-orange stuff that you see is dental calculus. It covers the biting surface, which likely made it harder for her to chew tough foods like meat. If you look closely, you might be able to see that there is a cavity in her first molar (the tooth in the middle of the picture), where a crescent-shaped area is excavated on the left. Although this woman did not appear to have lost any teeth from her rampant calculus problem, it is probable that she had pretty bad breath.

I don't know about you, but seeing pictures like this always makes me want to floss.

May 24, 2007

Taph o' no me Thor's day

One of the boxes that I had to analyzed today ended up being a smorgasboard of bones. They apparently came from some area of the cemetery that either fell into disuse or was an area for dumping bones that were found when a new grave was dug. This mish-mash of bones meant that I had to use my long-forgotten commingled-remains-separation skills to figure out just how many individual skeletons I was dealing with.

My students will all remember a little exercise we did with popsicle sticks and googly eyes to illustrate how to determine the MNI of a collection - that is, the minimum number of individuals present. For the MNI, one needs to take into account all noticeable differences (age, sex, relative size, muscle markers, even the color of the bone), and then decide which bones can reasonably match with which other ones. If you have 3 right ulnae, 2 left tibiae, and 6 thoracic vertebrae, your MNI is 3 - since you assume that the tibiae and T verts can go with one or more of the 3 individuals represented by the right ulnae.

At any rate, the easiest way to separate commingled remains into individuals is through age and sex. I separated a giant bag of bones into 5 individuals: one adult male, one adult female, and children of about 15, 10, and 5 years of age. When I checked the anthropological site report to see what their MNI was in the field, I discovered it was 6. They had included another juvenile of about 2 years of age. I read the report, and their attribution of 2 years of age was based on a fragment of the top of the femur and a fragment of the pelvis. It was easy to find the bones the excavators had mentioned, as they looked like this:

When I was excavating in Tuscany, we accidentally came across some Medieval burials. I was called over to help excavate this adult female and when I took a water break, I noticed that this guy - who was on his first archaeological dig - was neatly piling the bones of a 2-year-old child on the side of his trench. I freaked out and yelled at him to stop, and he looked at me confused and said, "But they're just animal bones." That is to be expected from beginning archaeology students who have never taken osteology. But these Italian bioarchaeologists mistook faunal remains for human in the field, erroneously giving a higher MNI than warranted. Granted, it's better to err on the side of human when you're unsure, but these are clearly not human remains. The femur (right) is understandably confusing at first glance, since it is from an immature animal, but the greater trochanter is clearly fused and the bone is not the same shape as a 2-year-old human child's. But this ischium fragment (left) is difficult to mistake for human. It looks nothing like the puffy, almost bulbous ischium in a 2-year-old human (bottom right).

The lesson here is, cultural processes contribute to taphonomic situations too: you never know when you're going to run into a big pile of animal bones. Chances are, if you're digging up an ancient cemetery from a culture that practiced animal sacrifice and feasting for the dead, you'll need to be able to quickly and accurately separate human from animal.

May 23, 2007

Tre pezzetti culturali

Today I have for you three things that happened to me today that reminded me that, although this is Western Europe, I'm definitely far from home.

1. Warning labels on Q-Tips. The Italian for Q-Tip is bastoncini cotonati, or little cotton rods. I was reading the container today because there is a surprising amount of text for something so basic. These include warnings like "Don't let kids have these," "The cotton is cleaner because it is treated with antibacterial (stuff)," and "Don't throw these in the toilet." But my favorite is the 2 by 3 graphic of "correct use" and "incorrect use." The last one on the right on the first row makes me smile every time I see it. She just looks so darned happy to be shoving a Q-Tip in her nose:

2. Lunch conversation. As noted earlier, lunch conversation at work is generally about food. Italians love to talk about food all the time, but particularly when they're eating. There are other topics as well, but here's a list of the questions people asked me at lunch today:
  • What I ate for dinner last night and whether that's what I normally eat for dinner.
  • Whether I prefer hamburgers or cheeseburgers. (When I reminded them I'm a vegetarian...)
  • What I eat in place of meat for protein.
  • If I want to adopt a dog.
  • How to translate “a posto di” and “invece” into English.
  • Whether or not Orso should use shampoo on his shaved head.
  • If I have an American coffeemaker at my house and, if so, could I bring in some American coffee to work.

3. Pollo con mole y empanadas. After work, in spite of the fact that it was 33 degrees outside, I took the tram to Piazza Vittorio, where there is an international grocery store. I wandered around for a while, happy to see all the bulk Indian spices, corn nuts, dried fruit, and - yes - even a box of Betty Crocker blueberry muffin mix and Aunt Jemima pancake mix. I decided to buy masa (about 2 pounds of it), mole sauce, some Indian spice mixes, quinoa, Thai red curry, coconut milk, and ginger paste. All told, it was 15E, which is a far cry from the grocery store in Colli Aniene that charged 4.60E for a normal-sized can of refried beans (I shit you not). So I decided to make chicken with mole sauce over rice and empanadas (with gouda, which surprisingly is not a bad substitute for queso fresco) for dinner. My roommates were fascinated. I explained to Marco that mole sauce had tomatoes, peppers, and chocolate in it, and he wanted to taste, saying he's never had Mexican food before. The look on his face was priceless - I said that mole was an acquired taste. When I started the empanadas, Ivan got interested and asked what I was doing. So I attempted to explain in Italian that it was corn flour and water, and I was putting cheese in it and frying it. At least these roommates are more curious and willing to taste things than the last ones. I'll have to make them burritoes one night.

May 22, 2007

Pathology Tuesday - Now with video!

I was pondering what to do for Pathology Tuesday at work today. My plan was to phone it in and do spina bifida. But just before lunch, whilst unpacking a new set of remains, I found it. Apparently the universe knows what today is and plopped a middle-aged man with cancer on my lab table.

This kind of bone lesion is not exactly confined to two dimensions, which makes it extremely difficult to photograph. Although I did take a bunch of still photos, I also decided to take a movie so that more of the three dimensionality of the lesion could come across. You can click below to see the movie and scroll down to read more about it.

As far as I can tell, this is an example of a chondrosarcoma in the proximal aspect (top part) of the tibia, near the knee joint. A chondrosarcoma is a type of malignant bone lesion that tends to affect the ends of long bones such as the femur and tibia. In mature forms, or after an individual has had the lesion for a few years, the lesion basically becomes bone and ossifies.

But I still don't know how this individual, a middle-aged male, got this malignant cancer. Besides that, I'm only 75% sure that this lesion is indeed a chondrosarcoma, as they're very rare in archaeological populations. This individual is quite fragmentary, and the excavators did not even note in the osteological field report that this individual had anything wrong with him. Who knows, the lesion could be some weird kind of infection, but it looks like cancer to me.

May 20, 2007

New Apartment!

Yup, I finally moved out of the apartment I'd been living in since the end of February. It took a lot of effort to convince the landlord that he was being a dick in not letting me move out, but I finally prevailed (and found him a new tenant, also named Christina and also American). I hope for her sake she gets out quickly.

Anyway, I love love love love my new place. I'm renting a room from a kid named Marco and his brother Ivan. The apartment is newly renovated, and clearly every single thing in the house came from IKEA. The walls of the kitchen are also painted a bright lime green. It's like living in the Lime & Basil.

I have internet, but it's not wireless yet. Ivan will buy a router in a few days, and later I will post more about this apartment and the last apartment. Until then, enjoy these pictures of my room and the giiiiiiant bathroom (with proper American shower and nearly American water pressure!). And here is a Cribz movie of my new room (5th floor penthouse!).

May 17, 2007

Taph Thurs

When I first started looking at the Roman skeletons, I couldn't tell the difference between pathological conditions and those caused by nature. One such example is this picture of the foramen magnum of an adolescent. The foramen magnum (literally, the big hole) is located on the bottom of the skull and allows passage of the spinal column. An inferiorly and medially placed foramen magnum is unique to humans (and hominids) as part of our mosaic evolution, specifically of our bipedal nature. Normally, the foramen magnum is a hole of about 3cm by 3cm, although it is usually slightly ovoid in shape, elongated on the sagittal (anterior to posterior) axis. However, this adolescent had a heart-shaped hole because a disk of bone had been removed from the left side of the foramen magnum. I was pretty excited. This seemed a clear case of ancient cranial surgery. Never mind the fact that ancient cranial surgery near the spinal column would have been incredibly risky, or that almost no cases of surgery on the occipital bone have been found. At the edges of the new hole, you can see little ridges rather than smooth bone. I mistook these for evidence of cranial surgery using some kind of serrated knife. After much research into ancient cranial surgery and trepanation, I reexamined the hole. The "serrations" looked a lot like those made by rodents, but rodents typically gnaw on the frontal bones because of the amount of spongy bone in that location. I have to say, I was not completely convinced that this was not evidence of human-induced damage until I saw a second individual with similar marks on his foramen magnum... and then a third, and then a fourth. I wish I knew why Roman rodents were feasting on the foramen magnum rather than on the frontal. If anyone has insight, let me know!

May 16, 2007

Great gods, an eloquent midget!

I was laying out some bones at the lab today, and I started reading the newspaper that I use to make it easier to clean the table. It was a few months old and had this ad for a movie. In English, the movie was called Little Man, a 2006 Wayans brothers vehicle that involved one of them "adopting" a fugitive midget as his son. I'm sure it was hilarious. What amused me greatly, though, was the title as translated into Italian. Quel Nano Infame basically means "That wicked dwarf." The English version, Little Man, makes a pun on the size of the character and his role as a son, and is also politically correct. The Italian version, of course, comes right out and says this movie is about a freaky dwarf, man. Apparently the Romans have not come far from their early literary background. I was reminded of a Catullus poem that goes:

Risi nescioquem modo e corona / qui, cum mirifice Vatiniana / meus crimina Calvos explicasset, / admirans ait haec manusque tollens: / 'Di magni, salaputium disertum!'

That's for those of you Latin geeks out there (you know who you are!). For all sane people, Catullus says, "I laughed at someone in court lately who, when my Calvus gave a splendid account of all Vatinius' crimes, with hands raised in surprise announced, 'Great Gods, an eloquent midget!'"

May 15, 2007

Pathology Two-sday

So I was digging through a bag of cranial fragments, annoyed that the individual's skull was broken and unmeasureable. I picked up the frontal bone, which makes up your forehead and the top part of the bony eye socket, and immediately realized that it felt funny. It was surprisingly thick, but only in the area of the frontal bosses (the roundish portions of your forehead above your eyes). It's very difficult to take a picture of an oddly thick bone, but here is my best shot:

This photo was taken from the posterior of the frontal bone looking anteriorly, and it shows the endocranial or inside surface of the forehead. The arrows show the portions of the bone that are thicker than normal - they present a flattened endocranial surface rather than a normal concave surface.

I wasn't hopeful about finding any information on this condition, but I knew that it was some sort of hyperostosis, a generic term for extra bone apposition. After I followed some leads, I came across an explanation. Internal frontal hyperostosis gets little press in the pathological literature because it is actually a common finding in older females. This condition affects women 100 times more than men and usually affects post-menopausal women. It is thought to be related to changes in pituitary hormones. But if you think you're in the clear, being a woman who's not menopausal, think again. Pregnancy can also bring about changes in the cranial bones, particularly the frontal, causing increased bone apposition and increased density of the cranial vault. Again, this is related to the pituitary secreting hormones. Hyperostosis conditions, while technically pathological, are generally asymptomatic and do not cause pain or death. There are recent medical journal articles, however, that show a correlation between internal frontal hyperostosis and headaches.

That's it for Pathology Tuesday. If you like this feature, let me know in the comments. Or else I might just not post more pictures of weird bone formations again.

May 13, 2007

Pussycat Dolls

After dinner with the Italians on Friday night, Sara and I were getting a ride home. We drove past a club that was playing the Pussycat Dolls' song "Don't cha." Sara was happily singing along, "Dontcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me..." She turned to me and asked, "What's docha?" I was confused, then realized she was talking about the song. I said, "You mean the song lyrics? Dontcha wish your girlfriend...?" She said, "Yeah, what is that word?" I replied, "It's a short form of don't you." Sara often has trouble with English questions, since we like to rearrange the word order and stick in gratuitous forms of the verb "to do." I further explained, "'Don't you' is the question form of 'You do not.'" She said, "OK, yes. But what does the word 'cha' mean?" I explained that it meant "you." She looked at me like I was insane to get "cha" out of "you." But I noted that Romans can get what sounds like "ayyuur" out of the word "il," so she really has no place questioning our dialects. Patrick pointed out that "betcha" is even stranger, as it substitutes for 5 words: I will bet you that... And for the umpteenth time, I have been happy to speak English as my first language.

May 10, 2007

Taphonomy Thursday

I enjoyed posting information and a photo about my research so much that I decided I should do it more than once a week. Let's face it, I never thought it was possible, but I actually miss teaching. I've taught or TA'ed for the past seven years, and I actually like sharing my excitement about bones with others. So for those of you who appreciate didactic, osteology-related posts, you're going to get twice as many now. For those of you who don't... uhm, sorry. Email me and I'll regale you with stories of mentally challenged people who goose-step on Roman trams. So without further ado...

Taphonomy is the study of what happens to bones after a person is buried. It is a catch-all term for everything from rodent gnawing to the effects of soil pH to the rotation of the cranium. In archaeological situations, taphonomic changes can often mimic pathological conditions. In addition to an understanding of pathologies of the human skeleton, an osteologist has to be familiar with the kinds of changes that the skeletons she's working with underwent in that particular area. Since I am working with a population buried in a very different kind of soil with very different rodents and insects and with very different cultural traditions than Native Americans from the U.S., it took me a couple weeks to get used to the taphonomic changes that I was seeing in the Roman skeletons.

Today, however, I found a clear case of taphonomic change to bone that resulted from cultural practices. The palmar aspect of the left hand of a 50-year-old woman I was analyzing looked like this. You will notice that the third proximal hand phalanx is green, a quite unusual color for normal human bone. After I cleaned this bone, I looked through the excavation notes and found that my guess was correct - an anello di bronzo was found among her metacarpals. The bronze ring that this woman was wearing when she was buried corroded and caused the green stain. The discoloration is most significant on the third proximal phalanx, indicating she was wearing the ring on her middle finger, but it also affected the surrounding metacarpals and phalanges of the left hand and the ischial tuberosity (most commonly known as the "butt bone").

Interestingly, some of the bones of the right hand were also affected, indicating her hands were crossed when she was buried. Hands crossed over the pelvis is a typical repose for individuals from this time period. On her right hand, the first and second metacarpals, however, were not discolored. There are two possible explanations for this: one, that her hands decomposed and these metacarpals were moved (by either rodents or dirt shifting) before the ring corroded; or two, her right hand was crossed over top of her left hand in such a manner as to spare the first two fingers from contacting the bronze ring. Photographs of the body in situ during excavation could help solve this question.

There are many more reasons this particular woman is interesting to me, including a healed fracture of her nose and cranial traits that I have not found in the rest of the population, but I will not engage in narrative biography at this point, lest I be labelled a *gasp* postprocessualist before I've even finished my dissertation.

May 8, 2007

Pathology Tuesday!

I have decided to start a weekly feature about my research, since I suspect some of my faithful readers have little clue about what that entails. And since pathology is the way to hook undergraduates into thinking bones are awesome, I am introducing Pathology Tuesday, complete with a photo and explanation of something awesomely gross I discovered in the past week.

Spondylolysis - In the past week, I have found two instances of this condition, which is a fancy term for a stress fracture of a vertebra. Spondylolysis refers to the partial or complete separation of the arch of the vertebra (the part with all the projections) from the body of the vertebra (the thick, squareish part). Older individuals are more prone to this condition because their bones are generally weaker due to osteoporosis. A traumatic event can cause spondylolysis (such as a fall), but more commonly it is caused by repeated, low-grade stress in the lower back. An example from the cemetery population I am currently working with can be seen here:

This is the fifth or lowest lumbar vertebra from a male in his late 30s or early 40s. For the photo, I have separated the body from the inferior (lower) part of the arch so that you can see the remodelling that is occurring between the two pieces. The fact that the bone is smooth at the break line indicates this man lived for at least several years after the fracture. The bone fragments healed, so this man was probably able to return to his normal routine, albeit likely with some pain. In the present day, the people most commonly affected by spondylolysis are athletes, specifically gymnasts, weight lifters, and football players.

May 7, 2007

Permesso di Soggiorno, Parte Due

Today was my convocation to the questura (Italian police station) for my permit to stay in Italy. You may recall that I had only 8 days upon entering the country to pick up an application packet from the evil people at the Italian post office, complete it, submit photocopies of all my documentation, including every page of my passport, and pay about 70 euro for the privilege of standing in line for 2 hours at the post office while the supervisor glared at me and the nice Italian archaeologist who was helping me.

Since Italy changed their procedure for obtaining a permesso di soggiorno in November, there is little information online about the nuova procedure. What I did know was that I was supposed to receive a registered letter telling me when to come to the questura. I had put down the address of my advisor's sister, since I was homeless at the time of my application. She never received the letter, but fortunately there is a way to check the status of your application online. Va bene, I found out that I was supposed to show up at the questura this morning at 8:30.

Since the buses can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to get you 10km, I left early. I got to the questura around 8:20am and stopped at the gate to talk to the police. I said that I was there to receive my permit to stay. He asked for my letter, but I explained that I didn't have one. He was incredulous as to how I knew that I was supposed to be there today, so I explained that I saw it on the website. His partner called up to the immigration office while he attempted to make smalltalk with me in Italian, and then she told me that they weren't ready. I needed to come back around 9 or 9:15am. Great. I'm in the middle of a piazza, admittedly near the university, but somewhere unfamiliar. So I found a park and sat on a bench and read until a creepy guy came up and sat on the bench next to mine.

I walked around until 9am, then showed up at the questura again. The lady cop waved me towards a door, so I went in. I decided that the top floor was probably a better bet than the bottom floor, since the signs made no sense to me. Eventually, the nice male cop from earlier gave me directions to the immigration department. I found the room and knocked. They told me to sit outside and wait. After about 5 minutes, the woman asked my name, then left. Another 5 minutes, and she came back and told me to follow her. So far so good. She had my file in front of her and wanted to see originals of all the documents I had submitted as photocopies. Fortunately, I had the foresight to bring everything I could think of... unfortunately, I didn't have an original copy of my health insurance letter. Also, I had apparently photocopied the passport in the U.S., which meant it didn't have my entry stamp from the EU (Frankfurt) on it. Oops. But the woman made a copy of that page and apparently didn't care that I didn't have the original of the insurance letter (after I attempted to explain that I only had a photocopy because they sent it to me by email).

As she went to make a photocopy, I was called over to another desk by the guy who wanted the photos I'd brought. He cut these into little squares with scissors, made me sign my name below one of them, then stuck it in a fancy fingerprinting machine. I had to put each of my fingers on the little blue square while it scanned my fingerprints. It was pretty spiffy. After that, he told me I would have to wait outside for the woman to call me again.

By this point, it was about 9:40. I waited outside, but more people had shown up. They called a few more people, and I read a book. Around 10:15, they called me back in. The woman wanted to know a bunch of basic information: eye color, hair color, height... She wrote down my eye color as celeste (sky blue), hair color as castani (brown), and asked me my height. Since I can never remember how tall I am in metric, I said 170cm. It's a reasonable guess, right? She then wanted to know something else, but I couldn't understand her. Maybe it was my weight, and I have no clue what I am in kilos. After this, it was time to get fingerprinted... the old fashioned way! She took me to this little room, put on rubber gloves, and smeared some gross black paste on a little board and roller. First, she rolled each of my fingers, and I was fingerprinted. Then, she rolled the entirety of both of my hands, and I had to do handprints. Finally, she rolled the middle parts of my fingers, and I had to do a middle-of-the-fingers print. She showed me the bathroom, where I attempted to get as much of the black crap off as I possibly could.

When I came out of the bathroom, she told me to come back in July to get my permit to stay. I was confused and asked, "July? What day?" She said, "Oh, whenever. Some time in July. After the first." Perhaps I will get another convocation through the website. By the time I left the questura to get the tram to work, it was about 10:45. So, all in all, not a terrible wait, considering this is Italian bureaucracy.

And the point of this hugely long blog entry is that perhaps it will get spidered and people can find information about the new procedure to get the permit to stay from this entry. Or can contact me for more information. So if you're reading this, don't worry if you don't get a letter of convocation. Just tell them many times that you never received it. Bring all originals of the documents you sent them with you so that they can see them. Bring 4 passport-sized pictures, which you can get for 4 euro at the little photo booth in Termini. Bring a book.

Perhaps I will get my permit to stay before I leave Italy. At this point, I'm worried that if I have to leave the country, they won't let me back in. I do have a valid visa with multiple entries, but it's the permesso di soggiorno that is the actual legal Italian document. Ho hum.

May 5, 2007

Cinco de Mayo

So y'all might remember that for the past few years, Patrick and I have had a Cinco de Mayo party (or that before that, my roommate Martha and I held one). Being in Rome and searching for a new apartment has stressed me out, and the majority of the Mexican restaurants in town require reservations for dinner. I am not joking. Today, I went to the international grocery store near Termini, but they kicked me out after 5 minutes because they were closing. Bummed, I went to the grocery store and shelled out big bucks for some ingredients.

2,67 E - Flour tortillas, 8 count (made in the Netherlands)
1,84 E - White corn tortillas, 150g (made in Milan)
2,86 E - Uncle Ben's nasty-ass salsa (made in the Netherlands)
1,78 E - Picante sauce (made in the USA)
4,56 E - Parmigiano (made in Italy)
1,65 E - Basmati rice (made in Italy)
1,10 E - Corona (made in Mexico, imported from Brussels)

The grand total comes to just over 15E, or over $20 for a meal that would have cost no more than $5 at Cosmic Cantina, beer included. And even though my burrito was covered in parmesan (for lack of cheddar in this country) and even though Uncle Ben's salsa is thick, greasy, and sugary, it was all worth it.

My question, however, is... why are the Dutch manufacturing Mexican food for European distribution? I'm trying to draw a connection from funny wooden shoes to funny large-brimmed hats and failing.

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