June 26, 2007

I'm Saw Awesome

This post is for Paul, who was clearly surprised to see that I had a coping saw in my bookshelf. No pathologies today. My entire day consisted of this:

If I strung together all the pieces, it would be like one of those macaroni necklaces little kids make. Except with fragments of human femora.

June 22, 2007

With this ring...

Today, I finished studying all the teeth that I had to go back and re-collect data on. This marked the end of my data collection on the cemetery I am analyzing and thus half of my dissertation fieldwork. I was pretty excited about this fact, since everything was tied up nicely. It's Friday, and I finished right before it was time for the lab to close. I was writing notes about the last skeleton whose teeth I was examining and realized that I just hit 100 pages in my data collection diary. Also, the skeleton whose teeth I collected last - from Tomb 76 - was the skeleton I started with on February 21. It had a whole ring composition feel to it. And then Marco came in. Bearing three boxes. Of skeletons. That he had somehow overlooked before. Granted, I'm happy he found 3 of the 6 skeletons that are missing from this site, but still. Everything was lined up so perfectly. Regardless, I bought myself a big box of lemon gelato popsicles to celebrate. They even come with a licorice stick rather than a wooden one. I hate licorice, but it's such a good idea!

June 21, 2007

Matthew 12:10

Today marks exactly four months that I've been studying bones for my dissertation. It also marks the summer solstice, as one of my colleagues reminded me today. The weather here is not getting any better. Hot, hazy, and humid, just like the South... only without air conditioning. Since I deprived all of you of a Pathology Tuesday while I galavanted around Rome with Patrick, eating world-famous gelato and pizza, here's a fun Taphonomy Thursday.

The skeletons that I've been working with were found during excavations for an urban train line in 2000. The cemetery was found in a low-lying area that was mostly flooded. As a result, some of the skeletons are in bad shape. They're fragmentary, crumbly, cracked, and - sometimes - stuck together. I'm not entirely sure of the process, but it seems that the dirt, bone, and other bits of stuff (small rocks, shells) have formed a very hard concretion that is difficult to remove from bone without damaging it. One such example comes from this skeleton of a male whose entire right hand consisted of bones that were completely fused together by hardened dirt.

Because I did not want to risk damage to the small bones of the hand, I did not attempt to separate them. Fortunately, it was easy to tell which bones were which because the hand remained in more or less anatomical position. I've labelled each of the metacarpals that made up the middle of the hand, and you can see the small carpals of the wrist to the right and the triple phalanges of each finger on the left. From this angle, you can't see the fifth metacarpal, and only a few of the fingers are in view.

It appears that, like most of the skeletons from this cemetery, this man was buried with his hands crossed over his abdomen or pelvis. His first metacarpal and phalanges are slightly underneath the rest of the hand, probably owing to changes in the hand as it decomposed. My guess is that his left hand was placed on top of his right hand, causing the thumb to move inward.

Mostly, though, I just thought it was awesome to find this hand in one piece. It's a shame I didn't have anyone in the lab to chase around threatening them with a backrub.

June 20, 2007

Two Vignettes

All this week in the piazza dei Gerani, there is a festival (la Festa de l'Unita Sinistra Giovanile, which is somewhere between a communist organization and a fascist one, by all accounts) at night with music until about midnight. If I lean out my window, I can see the trams and the tents, and I can definitely hear the music. On Monday night, the band was an 80s Italian punk tribute band. Yes, you read that right. 80s Italian punk tribute to the band Litfiba. Tuesday night, Patrick and I decided to investigate. There was a guy with an electric keyboard singing and another guy accompanying him on drums. When we got there, he started playing Do The Twist. He started singing the proper English lyrics, but predictably started throwing in the occasional Italian word until he was just singing random Italian phrases to the melody. But even that wasn't as hilarious as the people dancing. For some reason, there were only older Italians, and they were all line dancing. One lone woman was actually doing the twist. But her individualism was quickly halted by the line-dancing crowd. It was like the Electric Slide meets Cocoon. Tonight, there is a soft rock/oompah band that inexplicably played Mambo Number 5. And for those of you who want to know what kind of food Italians sell at street fairs: sausage, wurstel, grilled hamburgers, and all manner of suppli (fried appetizers, like french fries, rice balls, and stuffed olives).

Today I decided to go down to the discount grocery store to get salad fixings for dinner. I noticed this older man entering the store in front of me. He was about 65, kinda fat, and hunched over, and wearing these old baggy sweatpants. Kinda of creepy. An older woman walked by, and he proceeded to stare at her boobs. Great, creepy old Italian man. I got some tomatoes and noticed he was checking me out. Creepy old Italian man. As I was perusing the fruit, he turned to me and said, "This doesn't work. I can't get it open," and thrust his produce bag at me. I simply smiled, opened the bag, and gave it back. He was quite grateful, thanking me so profusely that I had to say, "You're welcome, it was nothing."

Italians are hilariously weird sometimes.

June 19, 2007

Forms of Religious Life

We decided to visit the cemetery of Montparnasse when we were in Paris, since it was near the Catacombs. We wandered around, looking at the grave of Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous in-bed sculpture of Charles Pigeon, a tiny mausoleum to Camille Saint-Saens and his family, Samuel Beckett, and even Ricardo. But I was really excited to see the grave of Emile Durkheim, considering how damned much we have to read about him in anthropology courses. We traipsed through the section he was supposed to be in, wending our way through packed mausolea and flat tombs, and I finally got annoyed and stopped. I proclaimed, "Fucking Durkheim. I can't find his stupid grave." Patrick came over and pointed out, "Uhm, you're standing right in front of it. Look down." I started laughing hysterically, which seemed to annoy the poor woman putting flowers on a nearby grave. Well-played, Durkheim.

Marshmallowy Delicious

Patrick and I made rice krispie treats last night after dinner. We offered some to the Italians, which was quite amusing...

Me: Would you like an American dessert?
Marco and Manuele: Sure, thanks.
Manuele: Mmmmm, good!
Marco: What's in them?
Me: Uhm... butter, Rice Krispies, and marshmallows.
Manuele: Huh?
Me: Marco, how do you say marshmallow in Italian?
Marco: Marshmallow.
Manuele: It tastes like white chocolate.
Me: Have you ever had marshmallows before?
Marco: Not me. I've only seen them on TV.

This, of course, made us laugh hysterically (after we were safely out of range of the Italians). Only on TV, eh? It made me think... what are European products that Americans have never seen in the US but have seen on TV? The list is surprisingly short. All we could think of was various kinds of meat (like the section in the meat department for horse) and a bidet. Before I came to Europe, I'd never seen a bidet in real life, but I'm sure I'd seen one on TV in some silly comedy when someone accidentally turns on the tap and it sprays all over the place. Can anyone think of another product that Americans have only seen on TV?

Indicentally, when we were at Le Grand Epicerie in Paris, we noted that the "American foods" section had the following: marshmallows, marshmallow cream, marshmallow-flavored popcorn, peanut butter, and brownie mix, along with some Uncle Ben's "Mexican" products. So that's what Parisians think of American cuisine... it's basically all fluffer-nutter sandwiches.

June 12, 2007

Suite (of) Pathologies

Today's installment features not one, not two, but three fractures for your viewing pleasure. Everyone knows that fractures result from force applied to bone. Bones are partly elastic, making them able to support the upright human frame without breaking during stressful activities like running and jumping. However, some types of stress can result in fractures, namely tension, compression, bending, twisting, and shearing. These create different types of fractures, such as greenstick (when the bone isn't completely broken), simple (usually the result of bending), and comminuted (such as from a car accident). Immediately after a break, the body begins to repair itself. Some tissue and cells die, but a hematoma is formed, in which the initial stages of new bone formation will begin. Within one week after fracture, a callus of new bone is formed bridging the broken ends. In general, fractures will repair themselves within 3 months in adults and only about 6 weeks in children. And now, on to the photos...

This is a photograph of two upper arm bones, the left and right humeri. The humerus on the right is non-pathological, whereas the one on the left has been broken at the neck. It's hard to tell what kind of fracture it is without an x-ray, but it was probably a simple or greenstick fracture. Ball-and-socket joints are the most mobile joints in the body but are also the most prone to fracture. It is very easy to fall and break a hip, particularly when one is old and has osteoporosis, and a fracture occurs to the neck of the femur. This humerus was from a middle-aged male without significant signs of osteoporosis, however, so it was likely a traumatic fracture caused by a fall or other force on the shoulder joint. The fracture was likely one sustained earlier in life, as the humeral neck has remodelled fairly well, and there was no indication on the scapula or the lower arm bones that this fracture caused malfunctioning of the shoulder joint.

The second photo is of a lower arm bone, the ulna. The left ulna in this photograph is shorter than the right and has a thickened section of bone near the distal end with a little bony projection. At some point in this male's life, he broke the lower part of his left arm. It appears that the left ulna was subjected to a bending force that resulted in either a simple or a greenstick fracture. A common type of fracture that affects the lower arm near the wrist is called a "parry" fracture, so named because a person holding up his arm to ward off a blow from an adversary often sustains a fracture in the lower ulna. This fracture obviously healed, but there is a slight residual trauma. The little spicule of bone coming off the side of the ulna is a condition known as myositis ossificans, which occurs when a part of a tendon ossifies and adheres to bone. This condition is seen quite often in archaeological populations that did not have modern technology to set and fix bones. One of the extensor muscles of the lower arm was injured in this traumatic event and ossified at this point. Myositis ossificans is not painful, but it's possible the muscle was compromised and didn't have full range of motion afterwards.

And finally, this photo is the left side of the face of a middle-aged woman, actually the same one whose green finger was a topic of a previous post. I've indicated with an arrow a faint line or crease in the bone. This crease represents a healed fracture of the left nasal bone. The majority of your nose is, of course, cartilage, but there are two small, thin bones that make up the bridge of your nose. This woman sustained a greenstick fracture to her nose on the left side, which is consistent with a right-handed person punching her in the face. Apart from the initial trauma of getting her nose broken, the fracture seems to have healed, and she would not have had any residual pain or complications.

No one ever said Roman life was easy.

June 10, 2007


Yesterday, President Bush was in Rome to buzz by the Vatican and pop in to have coffee with Berlusconi. La Repubblica was reporting that several metro stops would have limited hours on Saturday and numerous streets would be closed on account of all this, which really pissed off the Italians. It was much more extensive than I expected, though. I was going to meet Erika, Paul, and Anna at the Capitoline around 3pm. I got to Termini fine, but the via Cavour was closed so I had to walk. There were plenty of police up at the museums, but when we walked down to the Vittorio Emmanuele monument, we were amazed to see the carabinieri in three rows lining the steps - in full riot gear, complete with helmets and those transparent body shields. Everyone was stopping to take pictures. I would have, but I didn't feel like lugging my camera around and had left it at home.

We sauntered over to the Pantheon to get gelato and coffee, although it was circuitous because of some closed streets. A security helicopter was whirring overhead the entire afternoon. We walked up the Janiculum to see a panoramic view of Rome - surprisingly free of police - and then walked back down. As we got to Largo Argentina, we saw the giant protest. In Italy, protests don't just stand still. So even though it started at the Piazza del Popolo at 3pm, it eventually wended its way down into the center of the city to the Vittorio Emmanuele monument. It was actually kind of amusing as protests go. These were people united in their hatred of Bush but not united on any other cause. So there were some pro-communists, as well as some gay rights groups, a contingent of Cubans, among others. There was a pickup truck at the front, and a guy was yelling into a loudspeaker. Apparently the police weren't securing the protest-parade route, as we walked right through the protest to get to the other side of the piazza. I guess the police were there to protect buildings and people. I did read that some protesters threw things at the carabinieri, who used tear gas on them, but fortunately we weren't around at that point.

It sounds like Bush didn't do much to ingratiate himself with the Italian people yesterday. He called the Pope "sir" rather than "your holiness." Granted, I'm not one for titles and formality, but if I were the most powerful democratic leader in the world and were talking to the most powerful religious leader in the world, I think I'd ask someone what to address him as. So that pissed off a bunch of Italians. Bush also had coffee with Berlusconi, whom most Italians hate and definitely don't want to see restored to power. But mostly, the Italians loathed the unprecedented display of security surrounding a man they despise. I very much enjoyed the protesters' signs that proclaimed things like "Bush Suck" and "Bush Merda." Short, sweet, and to the point (even if Bush Suck isn't correct English). There were even fliers with Bush getting killed in a variety of ways, particularly by having bombs dropped on him.

In all, I read that there were tens of thousands of protesters yesterday and thousands of polizie and carabinieri keeping order. That's a pretty impressive amount of Bush-hating.

June 7, 2007

Dwarves Abound

One of the archaeologists brought his dog into work today. It was an adorable little Yorkshire terrier that was happily carrying around what looked like a Mad Ball. (Do you remember Mad Balls? They were rubber balls with stupid faces on them. Lynn sent me the wikipedia link for them.) At any rate, poor Circe was having a stand-off with the completely oblivious dog, arching her back and hissing. I can say very little in Italian, but I can ask what someone's name is. "Come si chiama la cane?" The archaeologist replied, "Nana." I laughed. Nana (or nano for a boy) you may remember from a previous post means dwarf. It's so very Italian to just name your dog Dwarf. Can you imagine taking poor Nana to a dog park in America?

"C'mere, Dwarf, I have a treat for you!"
"No, you stupid Dwarf. Don't shit there!"
"I think the Dwarf's gonna sleep outside tonight."
"Since you were naughty, Dwarf, you're going to have to wear a muzzle."

If they didn't see the dog, most people would probably assume it was some kind of BDSM thing.

June 5, 2007

Ripped from the headlines... Pathology Tuesday!

As I was listening to my podcasts from BBC World News and Anderson Cooper yesterday, I came across the skeleton of a male around 16-18 years old when he died. His wisdom teeth had erupted but weren't in full occlusion, and his long bones were not fully fused yet, indicating he still had some growing to do. As I laid out the bones, I noticed a small hole in the proximal end of the right radius, near the elbow joint. I figured this was probably taphonomic. When I got to the legs, there was a little ditch - not quite a hole - in the left tibia near the knee, but this one also looked taphonomic in nature. The last things I lay out before analyzing a skeleton are the small hand and foot bones. Imagine my surprise when, from of the bag of hands, I pulled this out:

Even though this bone is severely destroyed, it is the left fifth metacarpal (click here for what the bone should look like), which makes up the outside of your hand just under your pinkie finger. Often, the cause of roundish lesions in bone with destruction of the marrow cavity is osteomyelitis, a more or less generic term for the introduction of pyogenic (pus-producing) bacteria into a bone. Osteomyelitis is most often caused by either Staphylococcus or Streptococcus bacteria. However, osteomyelitis tends to confine itself to one bone (such as the radius) or an area of bone (such as the elbow joint). With this young adult male, I had involvement of the right elbow, the left knee, and the left metacarpal. After ruling out brucellosis (because of lack of spinal involvement) and echinococcosis (because of the multiple lesions), I think this individual suffered from tuberculosis.

As you probably all know from watching the news this week, Mycobacterium tuberculosis can be directly transmitted between humans through contact, usually through infected sputum coughed or sneezed up from the lungs, where the organism lives. Most people who are infected with tuberculosis are asymptomatic, and about one in ten infections leads to an active disease. If untreated, about half of people with the active disease die from tuberculosis. If an infected person is untreated or his body fails to fight the disease, it can spread through the bloodstream to the skeleton - particularly into areas rich in hematopoeic (red) marrow. Children and adolescents have more red marrow than adults because their bones are still growing; this means that tuberculosis can affect a wide variety of bones in growing subadults.

What I think happened in this metacarpal is that the mycobacteria moved to the diaphysis (shaft) of the bone and caused the blood supply to the bone to be cut off (ischemic necrosis). The cortex of the bone then began to resorb rapidly, resulting in the moth-eaten appearance. The head of the radius (near the elbow) and the top of the tibia (near the knee) are also common places for tuberculosis to appear in bone, although these sites are not nearly as destroyed as the metacarpal in this individual. Those areas were probably sites of infection that hadn't yet progressed to the necrotic stage.

It's still possible that this individual had a few osteomyelitic lesions rather than tuberculosis. However, it's rare for osteomyelitis to affect the metacarpals - unless you get bitten by someone (as, for instance, by punching them in the mouth) carrying strep or staph.

I'm a bad, bad American

Today at lunch, from a conversation about scorpion bites, adolescent torturing of animals, and (as always) the problem with English short vowels, I learned a bunch of new words for animals in Italian and can say that I'm afraid of mice. (Incidentally, this confused the Italians because I didn't know the word in Italian and the English word mice is a homophone for mais, or corn in Italian. Yes, I am afraid of corn.) Having worked that out, the conversation turned to interrogating me on the fauna of North Carolina. I insisted that we have bears and panthers, but the Italians insisted that panthers are only in Africa and we have pumas instead. CP asked if I lived in a fattoria, which he helpfully translated as "factory" in English. Turns out, it means farm. Somehow, CP then started talking about east coast geography - he named the states starting with Florida and moving north to NC. He left out Georgia, which I pointed out. He then asked, "Quanti stati ha America? Cinquanta due (52), si?" I paused, absolutely confused by the question, and had to think how many states there are. Amidst lots of laughter from the Italians, I said that no, we have 50. CP continued to argue with me, though, insisting that Hawaii and Alaska count as states, so that makes 52, right? The moral of the story is, after an hour of attuning my brain to Italian, it takes me a wee bit too much time to access the American side. I also go to reprise my Brad Pitt conversation for Valentina, rattling off as quickly as I could the series brad, bread, braid, broad, brood, and reiterating that, yes, they all sound different to me.

Italian words I learned today: topo (mouse); pozzo (a well); pantagone (giant rat - I think this is slang); fattoria (farm); parccheggiare a spina (diagonal parking); gradi francesi (represented the way we do degrees Fahrenheit, is a measure of water hardness).

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