December 17, 2008

9 down, 51 to go

Last week, a few more of my Sr samples got run on the SEM. Fortunately, all 9 of them worked perfectly. Maybe centrifuging the samples was indeed the key that caused about two-thirds of my samples to fail in October. My Sr graph is now getting more and more populated, and thus harder and harder to interpret. I still have strong evidence of several immigrants from different phases and contexts, but there is a vast grey area of people who could be immigrants or could be locals. There's no Sr baseline for Rome, only geological maps that indicate an approximate range that the city should be and my two pig samples. Adding more people also means the demographics of the migrants are changing: after yesterday's results, two of the clearest immigrants are a 15-year-old and a 50-60-year-old male. Both of these are interesting in light of historical demographers' insistence that migrants were largely 20-30-year-old males in the military. Both have signatures in the low .707s, but I don't know yet which geographical area this maps to, other than that it was likely south of Rome. I also have a bit of unpublishable data (I'm rerunning the sample) indicating at least one person was from a .713 region, likely pretty far north of Rome.

So unless any samples fail, I am done with creating little tiny dots of Sr and am just waiting for the SEM to be back on its feet to run the remaining 50 people. Then, I have to figure out how to use my remaining $3k in grant money. Do I test the third molars of the immigrants with Sr to find out if they moved more than once? Do I add oxygen isotope analyses to see if I can identify individuals' homelands further? Do I just buy a bunch of books and a new pair of jeans and write it all off as research expenses?

December 16, 2008

That's how you know you're fresh

Patrick and I were in the checkout line at Kroger the other day. The bagger looked at me and said, "I like your color scheme." I was wearing a dark green coat and peach scarf over a plum sweater, jeans, and red shoes. He continued, "That's how you know you're fresh. You wear all sorts of colors, and they still match!"

December 11, 2008


Grading papers and exams sucks. I always have high expectations for the work that will come out of undergraduates in a 400-level class. I don't expect them to write publishable papers or even come up with a new or original way of looking at a skeleton. But I do expect them to write in complete sentences, to check their paper for typos (particularly of anatomical terms), complete all aspects of the assignment, and, most importantly, fully cite their work and include a bibliography. Do undergraduate classes no longer require in-text citations? Only one student out of 15 cited things properly in her final paper for me: author, year, page number (if relevant). I gather that some of them are being taught a weird style, like APA, but honestly, I don't care about style as much as I care that they don't seem to know when it's appropriate or necessary to include a citation. They don't include them when they first mention a methodology they're using (e.g., the Phenice method for sexing the os coxae); they don't include them when they paraphrase a sentence from a published work (and, yes, it's easy to tell when this occurs); but most egregiously, some of them don't include them when they use quotation marks. These are juniors and seniors. Mostly anthropology majors. In a class that's geared towards senior majors and graduate students.

Maybe it's because I came out of an undergraduate program in classics that I learned quite quickly in my first year how to write a proper college paper, with appropriate citations and bibliography. I learned how to track down references in the days before fully online card catalogues and Google Scholar. I learned that quality work is rewarded not only by a good grade but by a sense of accomplishment at a job well done. But I went to college to enrich myself, not merely to get a B.A. Maybe in today's world where everyone needs a bachelor's degree to get a decent job, professors aren't holding students to as high a standard as I was. Maybe it's only classicists and other pedants who insist on papers free of typos, who won't stand for a simplistic comparative essay, who value a student's ability to make an argument rather than regurgitate what the textbook says.

But after reading 15 papers in which not even one student looked to a source outside of their primary textbooks (and did not even look to any of the books listed on the syllabus, which were on reserve in the library), I have lost much of my faith in undergraduate students' ability to write even the simplest paper. I will continue to hold them to the high standards I was taught (and yeah, I still have papers from my freshman year of college - they're far more rigorous than anything I've seen in years from my students). My hope is that they will take away from my class not only the ability to age and sex a skeleton but the ability to think critically about the methods they use to do so - and to be able to write coherently about their reasoning. But if they're not even being taught the basics of paper writing before they get to me, is it really my responsibility to teach them that or, worse, to condescend to grade them on what they know rather than what I think they should know?

December 9, 2008

Why I love zoos

We went to the San Diego Zoo on Sunday because, well, we're in San Diego. (And the very concept of Sea World scares the crap out of me. But that's another story entirely.) Per my request, we spent a large portion of our time staring at apes and monkeys. Their little opposable hands are both cool and freaky at the same time. Every time I think a zoo is going to be rather boring, the animals remind me why I like going to see them, especially the ape children.

In one habitat were the orangutans. The male, hunched over and looking like a particularly sad Snuffleuppagus, was whining for food. A female was sitting at the glass that separated us from them, fascinated with a girl who was similarly sitting on the ground taking notes and especially interested in the girl's water bottle and compact mirror.

Many of the gorillas were sitting or sleeping against the glass separating them from us. A gorilla child was being quite spazzy, jumping all over his father, the silverback, and generally wreaking havoc. The best part, though, was when he picked up a stick and started spinning in circles for the heck of it. It was quite cute - and then he bonked his head into the glass. As Patrick noted, he also kept trying to imitate his dad by beating his tiny little gorilla chest. Adorable.

The bonobos weren't as interesting as I'd hoped they would be. They were eating a lunch of oranges when we showed up, just munching and staring at the people behind the glass. One female was quite active and kept swinging all over the place, doing somersaults and flips from the ropes. And there was a bonobo child who plopped himself down facing the spectators and proceeded to pick his nose and eat it. I guess it's a primate thing.

In another habitat, I was straining to get a better look at a colobus monkey and her 1-week-old baby (a rather ugly and helpless little thing). A couple other high-school-aged girls were standing next to me, directly across from part of the chain-link colobus cage wall. A male skittered across the wall and tried to get some lettuce from the top of the cage. But perhaps he wanted our attention, which was directed sideways trying to get a good look at the baby, because he plastered his ventral side against the cage and started urinating. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw this stream of water nearly hit the girl next to me - it was only inches from splashing her.

I expected strange things from the apes and monkeys, but one giraffe took the prize for animals doing weird things. A large male giraffe kept following others around, trying to sniff their nether regions. He persisted when a female giraffe walked into a corner of the habitat to poop. A minute later, another female walked to the same corner and started peeing - and the male stuck out his long black tongue to catch a few drops. I don't think Patrick believes me, but it totally happened.

Those were the zoo highlights. Patrick has all sorts of pictures of the animals he has yet to cull and post, but since his camera doesn't take video, I felt it necessary to report on the slightly odd animal behavior.

December 8, 2008

Editing Funnies: Tortured Metaphor Edition!

And now for some odd metaphors from the novella I'm editing... Don't worry, I fixed them all. Well, except for maybe the last one. 'cause I have no idea what it means.
  • “We know about the first shoe of possible trade secret litigation, but the dirty trick second and third shoes have yet to be seen.”
  • “Go ahead. You’re singing to the choir.”
  • “What’s with all this clock and dagger routine?” (Fine, probably just a typo.)
  • “You as the investor and me as the Wall Street guy should be as arm’s lengthy away from this as possible.”
  • “They will fight to the teeth to discredit you and your work.”
  • “Marty and Joe are the super above-board Mssrs. Clean of the group.” (Sure, it’s correct, but who uses that abbreviation anymore?)
  • This confirmed for me that Dunlap was one shrewd and connected apple! (Those bananas are pretty stupid and out of touch.)

December 5, 2008

Anthropology fail

My google alerts told me about an online article I might want to read called, "The Greeks: an Anthropological Study." So it's not a real news piece, and it was written by something called the Australian Macedonian Advisory Council, probably a group made up of people of Greek ancestry living Down Under. It seems to be a reaction or opinion piece claiming (as the Greeks and Italians are wont to do) that they are an autochthonous people, which is a mildly quaint notion to us Americans.

While I have no problem with people using the historical and even the archaeological record of ancient Greece to support their ancestry claims, this piece demonstrates that, even in the 21st century, there are people who believe that the cranial/cephalic index is scientific and a good way to trace descent based on the ancient skeletal record. Just one excerpt from the piece:

"The skeletal record can, in part, supplement the evidence of reconstructed history. Six skulls from Hagias Kosmas near Athens represent the period of amalgamation of Neolithic Mediterranean, Danubian, and Cycladic elements, between 2500 and 2200 B.C. Three are dolichocephalic, one mesocephalic, and two brachycephalic. The faces of all are narrow, the noses leptorrhine, the orbits high. One may conclude that a Cretan type of Mediterranean and the Cypriote Dinaric form were both present. Twenty-five Mid-Helladic crania represent the period after the arrival of the Corded or "Kurgan" folk from the north, and during the seizure of power by the Minoan conquerors from Crete. Of these, twenty-three come from Asine, and two from Mycenae. Needless to say, the population of this time was very mixed. Only two skulls are brachycephalic; they are both male, and both associated with very short stature. One is of medium size, high-vaulted, and narrow-nosed and narrow-faced; the other extremely broad-faced and chamaerrhine. They seem to represent two different broad-headed types, both of which can probably be found in Greece today."

It's really unfortunate that the lay public thinks this is what anthropology is about: recording merely the length and width of a cranium, and using those measurements from a couple dozen people to re-create the entire "racial" history of ancient Greece. The piece goes on to talk about hair form and skin color, all of which have been re-created based on art (which we all know is an exact reflection of real life). But really it's just curious that the readers of this piece would understand all the terminology used, brachycephalic versus mesocephalic, leptorrhine versus chamaerrhine, and would be convinced by the argument.

Of course, the most recent literature cited dates to 1934. That should tell the author something. Although a 1934 treatise on a mosaic could still be relevant, anthropology has progressed through leaps and bounds in the past 75 years, as all good sciences do, and we have this magical technique called multivariate statistics so that we don't have to rely on a simplistic two-measurement index. Then again, even though Franz Boas discredited the cephalic index and Giuseppe Sergi questioned the racial typologies generated by it in Italy all in the 1910s, I've seen it used in Greek archaeology publications as recently as the 1990s. As Greek bioarchaeology in general is opening up to outsiders in much the same way as Italian bioarchaeology is, I hope the influence of primarily American and British research will once and for all make the cephalic index a thing of the past. At least, I can do my part to help.

December 4, 2008

Editing: scary things in print

Fortunately, this novella is only being printed for a small audience, mostly the author's friends and family. Or I'd really question his usage of a lot of things, particularly slang that was likely offensive in 1945 and is definitely offensive today...
  • Joe has a bit of a gay/kike stigma, but nothing overwhelming.
  • "Got the drift, goombah?"
  • Most of Mr. Carroll's income went to the "Irish virus": booze.
  • "Talk slowly so this guinea can capiche."
From a linguistic standpoint, these slurs are kind of interesting. I didn't know that "kike" came from the Hebrew word for circle. Jews who emigrated through Ellis Island and who couldn't write English used a circle to sign their names rather than an X, as X is the sign of the cross. I also didn't know that "guinea" is apparently the worst thing you can call an Italian-American person, as it indicates they're non-white (as the southerners and particularly Sicilians were accused of being, especially as compared to light-skinned immigrants from Ireland and Germany). I did, however, know that "goombah" was a bastardization of an Italian dialect word for "friend."

Since this novel is more or less a period piece, I guess I'll leave these terms in. But wow, I don't think I've ever seen these terms in print - just explained to me in hushed tones by my New Jersey grandmother.

December 3, 2008

Lenovo is trying to kill me

I got a new lappy battery in the mail today. It came with one tiny piece of paper in three languages (English, French, and German, for those who care), and it says:

Battery Instruction Manual for Lenovo Battery Module

DANGER: If the rechargeable battery pack is incorrectly replaced, there is danger of an explosion.
DANGER: Fire or chemical burn hazard if mistreated.
DANGER: Keep battery pack away from fire.
DANGER: Do not attempt to disassemble it.
DANGER: Keep away from children.
DANGER: Do not taunt happy fun ball.

So I made the last one up. But this "battery instruction manual" does not come with any installation instructions. Or really anything beyond dire warnings about how I will die if I install it incorrectly. Thanks, Lenovo! Even though I'm fully capable of plugging in a new lappy battery, I think I'll wait for Patrick to get home so he can negotiate the 'splosion.

More editing...

And yet more strange turns of phrase...
  • "Let me tell you the morning line, and keep your trap shut." (Anyone know what the "morning line" is or who says that?)
  • I had written all the answers on toilet paper and hidden them in my uniform jumper blouse. (He uses "blouse" several more times to describe his uniform shirt. Did blouse really used to mean a man's shirt too? Nevermind, wikipedia says yes, it means a uniform jacket.)
  • "At least you've kept your puss out of the papers for now." (When's the last time you heard anyone but your oldest relative use "puss" to mean "face"?)
  • "Trust me, Vinnie, your gunsels don't know what tough is." (Gunsel? Not in the online dictionaries, but I found it in wiktionary.)
  • "You'll win on the square, or almost on the square." (Is that like "on the nose"? Where do these phrases come from, other than 1945?)
  • Vinnie was a hunk of clay ready to be honed. (Love the mixed metaphors!)
More tomorrow... if I can stand to read any more. At least I'm over 1/4 done at this point.

December 2, 2008

Editing Amusement

Here's why I agree to edit novellas... for the laughter. This one is a largely autobiographical story, it seems, about how this guy grew up during the Depression and joined the Navy. Today's choice bits:
  • After a while, sleep came, and so did revelry, at 5:45 am, with the sound of a bugle.
  • The daily audio wakeup call was, "Grab your socks, let go of your cocks."
  • I had been corresponding with Vinnie by mail, but it was kind of sterile, and I couldn't wait to see him in a more touchy and feely sense.
  • Every day included lectures on Navel lore.
  • "What the fuck do you think me and the rest of the class are doing? We don't have weegie boards to consult."
And that's only in the first 10 pages. Weegie board really got to me (as Patrick can attest to).

November 27, 2008


Ur Doin' It Rong...

November 24, 2008

Terrible advertising

This popped up on the right-hand advert bar in my Facebook today.

I now expect flowers from everyone for Thanksgiving. You can wait, though, until there's a year in which Thanksgiving falls on Thursday, November 17th, as I'm fairly certain that would be never. (I'm sure Patrick can mathematically prove this.)

Maybe the ad is referring instead to the famous Greek Marxist group, whose signs I occasionally saw the summer I lived on Crete.

Sulphur? I hardly know her!

I had a thought the other day: perhaps I could test the individuals from the Casal Bertone mausoleum in order to figure out if they worked in the nearby fullonica or not. Not a whole lot is known about the ancient process of fulling, except the salacious fact that fullers used donated urine to clean the cloth. After it was cleaned (the ammonia in the urine reacting with the natural grease in the wool to form a kind of soap), the light-colored cloth would be bleached. This was done using a conical frame, upon which the wet cloth would be draped, and a pot of burning sulphur underneath (or sulfur, if you prefer the American spelling). There's a drawing of this from a house in Pompeii:

This got me thinking: I wonder how bad sulphur inhalation is for a person? Sulphur in and of itself is not toxic, and in fact is required for life, but products such as sulphur dioxide can cause problems, especially neurological and metabolic issues. Presumably, sulphur is also incorporated into the remodelling human body the way that C, N, and Sr are. So if a person worked in a fullonica, would he have had more exposure to sulphur and thus higher levels of it in his bones?

I can't seem to find a lot of information online about either isotopic or trace element analysis of sulphur in an archaeological (bone) context. It's all about petroleum and fish and stuff. I think I'm looking into trace elements rather than isotopes, as I think the isotopes would help me identify if someone was an immigrant (sulphur being concentrated more in volcanic areas like Rome). But since it's trace element analysis that can help prove Pb poisoning, perhaps it can also prove S poisoning? There's a lot about anthropogenic Pb and how to test for it (which would be pointless in Rome, as they used lead to line their aqueduct pipes, in ceramic production, and even flavored wine with it!), but I can't find much on anthropogenic sulphur. I wish I had a chemist friend... or even an archaeological trace element analysis friend... someone to tell me if this is an avenue worth pursuing or not.

November 22, 2008

Labs Suck

I have 3 sets of columns to finish running so that I can get my samples done before Thanksgiving. This was the plan, anyway, because more Sr will be run on the SEM in early December, and I wanted my samples to be among them. So I got in at 9am and found a parking space, in spite of the insane football traffic in advance of the noon game, and started preparing columns. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the centrifuge to work, so I sent out email to a bunch of lab staff to see what I was missing. One of the grad students, Mike, came in around 11 and got the centrifuge on. I set it up, all was good, and an undergrad happened to mention that one of the lab rooms smelled funny. Mike determined that the hoods weren't working - the hoods that suck out all the bad fumes from the gross chemicals (mostly hydrochloric, hydrofluoric, and nitric acids) - and ordered us all out until Public Safety can get the hoods working again.

So I have some columns drying out, but fortunately didn't lose any samples because I hadn't loaded them yet. I was a bit worried about having been in a lab with no functioning fume hoods for 2 hours, though. The MSDS (material safety data sheets) of course told me that all of these acids are highly corrosive and that, if inhaled, a person should immediately get fresh air or oxygen and see a doctor. The MSDS, though, always seem to be for the highest concentration of a given chemical: and I was fairly certain that it was 7 molar nitric acid that was making the fumes, as that was the only acid I was using (I had 14 beakers drying down on a hotplate). 7 molar isn't all that high, but I ended up going to Student Health anyway, weaving my way through the throngs of hooligans headed to the game, as it was 11:30 by this point.

Fortunately, the physician's assistant there said that, were I going to get pulmonitis, it would likely have been acute and it would have shown up by that point. Based on my presentation, he didn't think there was anything to worry about. But, if I develop asthma-like symptoms within the next 24-48 hours, I should get myself to the ER, where they'll do a chest xray and maybe give me steroids. Whee!

I think I'm going to sit in my house with the humidifier on all weekend attempting to clean out my mucous membranes of any inhaled nitric acid. This will leave me quite far behind on my sample prep and unable to make the early December deadline. Double whee! Why do I pretend that I'm a scientist?

November 16, 2008

Swords and Crisco

I was editing a thesis and came across this figure:

Apparently this is a well-known model in macroeconomics that indicates the relationship between a nation's expenditures on civilian goods and military goods. Wikipedia seems unclear as to the origin of the term - guns make sense, but butter? Why would that food be picked over all foods to represent civilian interests? Butter's hardly a staple food for any society, not like potatoes in Ireland or pasta in Italy or rice in China.

November 14, 2008

... and the department returneth.

Turns out, anthro had more money in the tuition pot than they thought. So now I get to teach 101 at the Friday Center again. Yay? Here's me being cautiously optimistic about my spring prospects. I still have to hurry up and pick a textbook and hammer out a syllabus for a class I haven't taught in something like six years, though. In the hopes that they won't take it away again. Maybe I'll wait until I have more time over Thanksgiving.

November 12, 2008

Roamin' Romans

It seems that the 3D live walk-through of ancient Rome is available now in Google Earth. After this fellowship application is done, I want to play around with it. It details the city around 320 AD, the height of the Empire and largest extent of the city. It'll be interesting to see if they just have the area within the walls or any of the suburbium. (My guess is the former.) The project is spearheaded by the Rome Reborn project, headed by Bernie Frisher at UVa. It's too bad he wasn't there when I was in school - this is something I totally could have gotten into, in spite of the fact that I'm not a huge fan of architecture as a scholarly pursuit.

November 11, 2008

The department giveth...

A little over a week ago, I got an email from the assistant chair offering me a position teaching intro to anthro as an extension course (night school). It's a new class, but at an enrollment cap of 20, I thought it could be interesting. After all, I've taught extension courses before at the community college. I accepted the verbal and written offers and started collecting syllabi and my thoughts about a textbook to assign.

Yesterday, I was unoffered the position. There's some kind of confusion over whether or not this position comes with tuition remission. It was offered to me as a graduate teaching fellowship, which requires the graduate student be enrolled. As long as the student is within the university's 10-semester remission limit, they get free tuition and insurance, in addition to a stipend. Now, I'm technically an out-of-state student this year because the residency office is a bunch of boneheads and, well, technically I was living out of state last year. But no one told me that a job offer would be recinded by the department simply because I was out of state, like many other students are.

So I'm a bit pissed. And so I launch into my normal rant about how the department should really consider funding students in their last and second-to-last years, those of us really trying to push out a dissertation and go out and get real jobs. Those of us who've put in our time, gotten prestigious external grants that require us to stay an extra semester doing dissertation work, and always have excellent teaching evaluations from students and professors who've supervised us... for example. But the department instead favors the younger students who don't know how to get outside funding and are still taking classes. Which I suppose is fair. But if they just let in, like, 8 new students a year rather than 15, perhaps we wouldn't be in such tight financial straits.

Anyone need an anthropology class taught this spring?

November 6, 2008

Stop the portmanteausanity!

Really? Hologramterview? There is no reason for that to be a word. Thanks, CNN.

November 5, 2008

Collective Memory

When I was in second grade, a black family moved in next door to us. They were the first in our very white neighborhood, but were followed pretty quickly by two more families as General Electric expanded in the late 80s in central Virginia. It’s the first time I can remember being aware not just of race but what it meant socially, as some members of the neighborhood weren’t too happy with this development. But I became fast friends with Courtney up the street, while my brother made long-lasting friendships with Joe and DeeDee, his closest friends to this day. This was not even twenty years after my mom’s New Jersey high school was integrated in the early 70s. Her class yearbook photos, always the large-format classy portraits where everyone’s wearing a black dress or a suit, suddenly included a sprinkling of people without the Polish, Russian, or Italian heritage that had always made up the entirety of the school. Now, twenty years removed from my first memories of race and forty from my mom's, my future children will grow up not only with a school and a neighborhood that reflect the diversity of the American populace, but a government that does as well. And that’s pretty cool.

October 30, 2008

Chairing and Writing

I just got an email asking if I'd like to chair a session at the upcoming Society for American Archaeology conference in Atlanta. Chairing isn't all that big a deal - it's a matter of making sure everyone's presentation starts, that people keep to the time limit as much as possible, and that you don't mispronounce people's names when you introduce them. But it's kind of nerve-wracking. At the last session I co-chaired, I ended up having to fix the A/V issues the paid A/V people couldn't fix, introduce people with thoughtful details, ask questions after their talks if no one else did, and give my own paper. I was a wreck by the end of the afternoon and rather screwed up the opportunity to talk to the woman who practically created the field of bioarchaeology. Can chairing at SAA possibly be worse? The session is tentatively entitled, Archaeology of Death, Space, and Identity in Europe, which honestly sounds quite cool. I suppose I should do it. I get my name in the program for chairing too!

And in second email news, I've been asked to contribute a paper to an upcoming Journal of Roman Archaeology volume on diaspora in the Roman world. This volume is growing out of a conference that I couldn't attend in England in September, but fortunately I get to add my own thoughts on migration to Rome in the Imperial period to the book. It won't come out until 2010, but my paper is due in late March. So between that, the AAPAs in late March, and the SAAs in April, my spring is going to be a mess. I need to get cracking on those strontium isotopes this weekend so that I can finish with the fuckers by the end of the semester.

So maybe things are looking up in the academic world at the moment. Now if I can just get a fellowship so that I don't have to teach next year...

October 24, 2008


Hopefully the boring strontium saga will come to an end soon. The five samples that I ran with the geochemist watching over my shoulder worked perfectly fine. I just have to exactly replicate what I did for those samples, and all should be well. Let's hope. But it means that I have 5 new results, for a total of 51 good results so far. That's about halfway there! Perhaps I will be finished with these by the end of the semester after all.

In missing bone news, I found the errant mandible. It had decided it felt more kinship with the plastic disarticulated cranium-in-a-box and was hanging out there underneath some parietals and a sphenoid. Thankfully, no need to worry my advisor with this news.

But the 3 versus 4 credit class issue has not yet been resolved, although that did involve emailing my advisor and making him deal with it. It's so disempowering to be a grad student sometimes. Well, most of the time. The student who was having a major issue with the lack of a fourth credit didn't even show up to class today, after badgering both me and academic advising for the past two days. *sigh*

And in I-knew-them-when news, Lara and Trey stopped by today to say hi! They unfortunately missed most of the class, who all absconded for the weekend early, but we had a nice visit.

October 22, 2008

Chew on This

One of my students today informed me that the mandible from his skeleton was missing. He'd seen it before, but hadn't studied it in a while. His lab partner piped up, "Yeah, I noticed it was missing a while ago." Aaaaand why didn't she say anything prior to today? Grrr. After a very quick look-see through the cabinets, I couldn't find their mandible. But I was in the middle of answering five different questions and imagining what my advisor will do to me if the mandible wandered off, so I should go back later and do a thorough sweep of the cabinets. It's possible that my advisor borrowed the mandible for some reason, but it's also possible that a student took it home to study one day and never brought it back. I wonder what the penalty is for stealing human remains? I know there is one if you steal remains from a cemetery or an archaeological site, but do the same laws apply to those in a teaching collection?

I also found out in class from 3 different students that the academic advising people don't think they're registered for the 1-credit lab. Even though it shows up on my faculty course listing, and everyone's in it. I'm pretty sure the department secretary failed to set up the course properly, since I had issues with this over the summer, which means I need to head over to academic advising at some point and attempt to clear this up myself. What a pain in the ass.

October 20, 2008

And again...

I stopped by to talk to the geochemists today. With little idea of what went wrong, I am quick-processing 5 samples to make sure my column procedure is correct. The enamel is drying in water right now. On Wednesday, I'll do columns and dry down the samples to get them onto the mass spec that night or in the morning. Hopefully, something along the way will jump out at the geochemist and I can find out what I'm doing wrong or what's going wrong. So yay, I get to spend most of my waking hours in the geochem lab this week.

October 15, 2008

Ugh III: The Ughinator

My samples aren't doing so well. Of the first turret, 9 samples failed completely and 5 were more or less saved. Of the second turret, 15 samples failed completely and 4 were basically fine. So now my record is 24 failed and 9 run, or under 40% success rate. That's not great. The third turret only has 2 of my samples on it: both appear to have run fine, as have all the other samples on it, some with the 3.5 M HNO3 from before August 14 and some with the nitric acid from after that date. So I don't think the geochemist knows yet what went wrong. If I'm lucky, I suppose it's possible that I suck at loading samples and have lost no work whatsoever. But he seems to think that's an unlikely scenario.

At any rate, of the 9 samples, only 1 is likely to be an immigrant. Everyone else is sitting solidly in the .7092-.7096 range.

October 12, 2008

Ugh II

Still no idea what went wrong. Fortunately, the geochemist rescued 4 of my samples. The data aren't great, but they're usable. One sample ran perfectly, ET42. Why? No idea. It went through columns the same day as other samples that didn't work. It was dissolved in 3.5 M HNO3 the same day as other samples that didn't work. It only contained 5.7 mg of enamel, and other samples contained more. Every sample was drilled with a hand-held dental drill.

Two Sr standards were loaded into the turret with my samples. One worked fine, but the other was a bit high. The geochemist said that the pressure on the mass spec was a bit low but that that shouldn't cause all my samples to fail. It's still possible that I suck at loading samples. If I failed to load the samples correctly, they might not work. Unfortunately, I loaded 25 samples the other day. Fortunately, we only load half of each sample, so I still have another half in reserve. Unfortunately, the geochemist thinks there was something wrong in the columns and not in the loading.


Ah well. Of the 5 samples that worked, one appears to be an immigrant, also from the .7085 area. Which just fits with my current prediction that 20% of the people I'm studying were born elsewhere (based on the first 35 samples I ran).

Let's hope that the next turret, which is currently loaded up with 19 of my samples, runs a lot better tomorrow.


So none of my samples appears to have run. Ugh. The geochemist told me that it's possible it's the mass spec's fault. He's running the Sr standard to see if that's the case. I'm kind of hoping it is, because the other options mean it's my fault. So the my fault alternatives are that I didn't run Sr columns correctly or that I didn't drill out enough enamel. And there's one other possibility: that someone made the 3.5 M HNO3 wrong. If it's the mass spec, all's well. They recalibrate it and rerun my samples. All the other reasons mean that I have to re-drill out enamel and re-run them through columns. Shit. This sets me back at least a month if it's my fault. And of course makes me nervous in the isotope lab that I'm fucking something up.

October 11, 2008

Endless amounts of Sr

I loaded 14 samples onto a turret on Thursday, and the mass spec started a barrel run last night. Today I headed in to run another 16 samples through columns and checked the printout. Other than the fact that it aborted on bead 10 because of some filament issue (and I have no idea if this is normal or if the machine basically crashed), the data look pretty damn normal. Everyone so far (only 6 people, since it bombed) is .709-.710, or a Roman. The last person that was run had blocks as widely varied as .709 and .706, so maybe that one didn't work at all. I'll know when I eventually get the data and run it through Tripoli, a computer program that I still know very little about. I'm trying to run all the Castellaccio data first since it has half as many people as Casal Bertone. With all the Castellaccio data, I might even be able to start a chapter of the diss. Woo!

In addition to columns, today I'm loading up another turret with 19 of my samples that should start running on Sunday. When the first turret comes out tomorrow, I can load another 19 samples to run on Tuesday, I think. *sigh* By fall break, I will have more data than I know what to do with.

October 8, 2008


Apparently there will be no water in the isotope geochemistry lab tomorrow. I'm not sure why, but it puts the kibosh on my plan to run 16 more samples through columns. Or to drill the last of my 17 teeth. Or to get anything related to isotopes done. Which is probably fine, as there are only 3 clean beakers and I'm not entirely sure when the next batch is coming off the hotplate. Yay for bottlenecks.

On the up side, though, I might have 38 more samples run through the mass spec this weekend (each turret fits 20 filaments, but one of those is a standard), now that the machine is done chugging its way through a crapload of lead samples. But on the down side, it means I have to spend hours loading my samples onto the filaments myself. Last time, I only got through about 10 in 3 hours because it's a painstaking process that involves using a ridiculous piece of plastic tubing to pipette out 2 microliters of acid onto the sample. So it could take me all day to load one turret. Fun! Maybe I'll learn how to change the giant cylinder of liquid nitrogen. That shit fumes and is all kinds of sciencey.

October 3, 2008

Drink from a Skull

Finally, someone has combined my two loves: skulls and vodka. Who wants to buy me new Crystal Head vodka? Please? Pretty please? (Even if it has an 8-min embedded infomercial starring Dan Aykroyd that liberally references the clusterfuck that was the latest Indiana Jones movie, it's still damned cool.)

September 27, 2008

Screaming Primate

I couldn't find a parking space close to the geochem lab today, so I parked at Sitterson near a large bus stop. As I walked past, I noticed a six-pack sitting on the wall just behind the stop. The cans were large, and I assumed they were Colt 45 or something. I came closer and learned they were Howling Monkey Energy Drink. The can really caught my attention with its insane number of words, the warning that children and pregnant women shouldn't drink it, and the fact that its secret ingredient is quinine. I guess this drink will wake you up AND keep you protected from malaria.

The interwebs tell me that the makers of Howling Monkey (warning: singing, spastic site!) have opted for some kind of viral marketing campaign, doing give-aways and taste tests. But this six-pack still had a price tag on it: $3.60 per can! Plus, it was sitting next to a small plastic bucket that had a pound of coffee, a mason jar with some kind of preserves, and a thin glass jar of peach marinade. Maybe someone was visiting NC and accidentally left their recent Southern Season purchases at the bus stop?

I nearly swiped a can for Patrick. If anyone would drink a free can of insane cola with quinine and vitamins in it, it would be him. But since I don't know where they've been, I guess I have to find a place that I can legitimately purchase some.

September 17, 2008

Dental School

A geologist in the Geosciences Department had an idea: she could set me up with a hand-held dental drill so that I could mill out enamel, rather than my using the micromill. The latter takes, on average, an hour per sample for set-up, drilling, and weighing the enamel. This was fine with me over the summer, when no one else was using the micromill and I could leave it conveniently set up for my needs. But the geologist's grad student is now in need of the mill - something about how their mill is out of commission because of construction. I knew a simple Dremel wouldn't be precise enough for my purpose - drilling out 5-20 mg of enamel from the area between the dentoenamel junction and the occlusal surface of the tooth. But the hand-held dental drill seems to work.

The set-up is similar to this picture: the dental drill attaches to a motor that powers it, and it has a rheostatic speed gauge. The drill takes the exact same bits as the micromill, so I hunted around for a nice, fine-pointed bit and installed it. But it's hard to eyeball the area that needs to be drilled. So I mounted the teeth onto a large glass slide and set it on a really, really nice Olympus microscope attached to a computer. Using the microscope software, I got incredibly good magnification of the tooth and, bonus!, it can capture the image as a .jpg. (It might be able to do movies too, but I haven't figured out how yet.) So I spent a few hours today milling enamel out of a bunch of teeth until my hand was tired of holding the drill. Because there's a scale on the table just behind the microscope, it only took me 15-20 minutes per tooth to prepare and drill the enamel. That's still a long time, considering I have about 70 samples left to drill, but it's a far cry from 1 hour per sample.

Since the microscope could take pictures, I decided to take one of a first molar with a carious lesion (cavity). I was instructed in Italy not to take a tooth if it had a lesion in it but to pick another one of the four molars. But if all four teeth had carious lesions or if there was only one molar, I documented the lesion and took it home with me. This is a picture of the middle section of a tooth with a carious lesion that started either interproximally (between two teeth, where food can get trapped if you don't floss) or occlusally (the chewing surface). Notice how the discoloration extends all the way into the pulp cavity. The enamel is largely gone and the lesion is extending into the dentin, but there's no breech of the pulp chamber yet. There's definite softening of the enamel, though - which I could also tell as I drilled through. At this magnification, you can even see the nice parallel striations from the diamond saw blade I used to section the tooth.

And this is why it's fun to be an archaeologist - the thrill of using new lab tools to do weird stuff to ancient dead people.

September 10, 2008

Di dove siete?

I'm still working on trying to figure out where my immigrants came from. There is a band of cenozoic limestones that runs from north of Tivoli down nearly to Naples, it seems. But one published study had some .708 ratios in the Roccamonfina area, narrowing that range to northish of Naples. What was northish of Naples in ancient times? Gaeta has a ton of this kind of rock. It was an ancient town connected to Rome by the Appian Way, a place where the richer folk retired for vacations along the coast. Nearby was Sperlonga, where Tiberius built his cave-like villa from which we get a bunch of famous sculpture. I do hate to jump to conclusions with little data at this point, but wouldn't it be cool if these immigrants grew up in Gaeta or Sperlonga? If their parents were slaves or merchants? Gaeta is 135km/85mi from Rome, and the new google maps helpfully tell me that's 28 hours of walking. So not a terrible distance to migrate.

Barring any unforseen discoveries at the library, I think this is going in my abstract for AAPA. Gaeta seems as reasonable a place as any other. Also cool will be to look at the diet of these immigrants - I might even have to send in some teeth for C/N analysis, as a strong signature of seafood would more or less confirm that these people were from Gaeta or its environs.

September 8, 2008

I have immigrants!

Whilst not as cool as shouting, "I have syphilis!" upon studying ancient bones, I can exclaim that I have some immigrants. Surprisingly enough, the clearer evidence of immigrants right now is from Castellaccio, the site about 20km from the center of Rome. Casal Bertone, 1.5km from Rome, also appears to have immigrants, but the data aren't as conclusive yet. I can't wait to run all the rest of the teeth. It'll take for-freaking-ever (it took me, what, 8-10 weeks to get 35 samples done, and I have at least 70 more to go), but it might actually be worth it. In a sample of 9 individuals from Castellaccio, I have clear evidence of 2 immigrants - 2 female immigrants. And in a sample of 19 from Casal Bertone, I have 4 immigrants - 3 males and 1 female.

I have good strontium data from 30 people and 2 animals. Three samples didn't work - my errors are too high. Most of those people range from .709-.710, which is the 87Sr/86Sr ratio for young volcanic rock, the kind that composes most of the central coast of western Italy. Rome is located basically between two presumably dormant volcanoes, with two more just to the north. Around this area, extending down through the Alban Hills, there are strontium ratios with .709-.710 values. But I have 6 people so far who have .708 values (or 20% of my sample). This isn't quite low enough to put them into the older volcanic rocks in southern Italy near Vesuvius, which run around .705-.707. What .708 maps to are the cenozoic carbonates, which I believe includes travertine and limestones. The Romans used a lot of travertine in place of true marble and quarried it from Tivoli. But the published strontium data puts .708 around the Roccamonfina volcanic area, just north of Naples. This would make some sense, as the published strontium ratios tend to decrease moving south and .708 would fill a nice gap.

So it's possible my immigrants made their way from somewhere around Cassino, perhaps midway between Naples and Frosinone, which was well over 100km south of Rome. Even if there were decent roads, that trip easily could have taken a week. Or it's possible they came from an area as close as Tivoli, only about 30km to the east. The problem with strontium is that it gives you a data point consistent with local geology; and the geology in Italy is fairly complicated, with loads of older rock in the east and young volcanic rock in the west.

But just as it's possible to tell the difference between the Vesuvius area and the Alban Hills with strontium, in spite of their seeming similarity in geological composition, I might be able to scare up some articles that tease out more precision from the travertine/cenozoic carbonate so that I can say whether these individuals came from the east or the south. But it does seem to be relatively short-distance movement within the country. I hope I get some evidence of long-distance immigration soon.

Oh, and I totally want a giant wall-sized geological map of Italy for my office. Wonder where I could get one?

September 7, 2008

Abstract Thinking

I need to submit an abstract by the 10th. It can only be 100 words. And I have no idea what the review committee is looking for. So, here are my two attempts; I can only send in one. Which do you think is better/more interesting/likelier to get accepted? [Too late - I had to cough up $115 (!) and register for SAA. This is my abstract.]

What makes one Roman?

The literary record provides a unified picture of what it was like to be Roman, but this picture only reflects the lives of the literate upper class. Revealing the lives of the lower class residents of Rome is still not a popular topic in Roman archaeology, and these individuals remain nameless, unromanticized by history. Skeletons from two Imperial period Roman cemeteries, however, challenge the notion that romanitas can be easily defined. Using stable isotope (C, N, and Sr) data from 52 individuals, this paper explores differences in lifestyle among males, females, children, and immigrants of the Roman lower classes.

September 5, 2008


Aqueducts are kind of a pain in the ass. Although I can figure out where their sources were that fed Rome and I can see where in Rome the aqueducts emptied out (at baths and latrines, for example), that doesn't help me figure out which aqueducts my Romans might have drawn their water from. This is important because strontium isotope ratios are affected by local groundwater. If the Romans were getting water from another region with a different Sr isotope ratio or if they were eating a lot of imported grain, my Sr measurements from teeth are complicated.

As it stands, I might have some immigrants in my first run of 35 samples. 3 of them didn't work - my errors are too high, and one is just full of rubidium (because I screwed up the extraction process on that sample). But that still means that 30 human samples and 2 animal samples worked. Poking around geology article databases found me a paper that spells out the Sr isotope ranges for the volcanic mess around Rome, mostly in the Alban Hills. There were a couple aqueducts that came from that direction, but others came from directly east. The Sr from the volcanic soils ranges from around .709 to .711 (ish). Most of my Romans (and both of my animals) were in that range. However, I do have 8 people under .709 for their Sr. The question is, what's the cut-off? Does .708959 make someone an immigrant, or does it reflect mixing of the Sr content of, say, water and grain?

I'm gonna do a bit more poking this weekend as I try to draw up an abstract for AAPA and another one for SAA, and then I'll discuss my thoughts with the geochemist on Monday. If I can find an area outside of Rome with a .708 Sr content, perhaps that will help my immigrant case. But I'm hopeful that some of the lower .708 values mean something. For what it's worth, those individuals seem to be mature men and women (men ranging from 20-50, women from 40-60). So this could be interesting.

September 4, 2008

Funny Bones

I was reading a trashy magazine while getting a pedicure today (don't judge me - pedicures are awesome) and came across this ad for the season premiere of Bones. Don't get me wrong, I watched the show yesterday with rapt attention, parroting back the particularly hideous nerd-flirt lines to Patrick. (I don't remember the exact lines now, but they all involved words like "rational," "empiricism," and "solipsistic." Yes, Bones egregiously used the word "solipsistic.")

So what's wrong with this ad? Other than the superfluous skull in the lower right, which has laughably fake cracks likely added in Photoshop, and the stupid Chinese-food angle that makes no sense whatsoever, some of the bones are misplaced. Look closely at the pic and see if you can figure out what's wrong. I'll give you some hints: clavicles, radius (2 things wrong), tibiae, fibulae. And possibly more.

Oh, Kathy Reichs. You're slacking in your capacity as technical advisor to this show.

August 30, 2008

I'll gladly pay you Wednesday for some strontium today.

On Friday, I headed over to the geosciences department to learn how to load my samples into the mass spectrometer from a graduate student. She more or less flew through the procedure and then left me alone to figure it out and do the rest of the samples myself. As I understand it (and I don't really understand a lot of it - I need to figure out real terms for these things), what I was doing was loading the sample onto a filament. I rehydrated the dried strontium with small drops of H3PO3 and TaCL5 (tantalum - I had to look it up), sucked it up into a tiny itty bitty pipette, and dropped it onto the filament, letting it burn off, which I guess stuck the sample to the filament. Then, using pliers, I put the filament upside-down into what's called a turret - a wheel that lets you load up to 20 filaments that are screwed into it. So we ended up loading 19 of my Romans, with the remaining slot taken up by the strontium standard.

At this point, an undergrad showed up and learned how to change out the turret. This involved first depressurizing the chamber in the mass spec and then changing out the liquid nitrogen. But since he'd never done this before, he wasn't all that careful and liquid nitrogen started fuming and then spilling out of the funnel, separating into little beads and skittering across the floor. So that was pretty cool, actually. It was almost like mercury rolling around. I watched the turret change for a while, but since it would take hours to vacuum down the chamber, I headed off.

Although my 19 samples ran on the machine this morning, not every sample works the first time. Theoretically, there is some sample left in the little beaker that can be added to a new filament if the first round bombs. The remaining 16 samples that I did will be run on Monday, and I was told to expect results by Wednesday. I'm pretty excited. Even if I only get 20 good results, it's still 20 more than I had. And they'll be available in time for me to write this all up in an abstract for the AAPAs. Now if only I could think of a topic for my SAA abstract, I'd be set.

August 23, 2008

My Eternal Flame

I boarded my flight from Manchester and found a little old lady occupying the window seat next to my aisle seat. She was dressed like any little old lady, except she was wearing Birkenstocks - with pantyhose. We made pleasant conversation as we settled in, listened to the safety demonstration (she read the safety card carefully), and took off. No, I wasn't really in England on holiday, more of a business trip. Yes, she'd been to the U.S. once before, to Orlando about 20 years ago. I didn't ask her what she did, since she seemed to be about 70. (Turns out, she was only 63 and had recently retired from teaching ESL in Manchester.) I asked where she was headed in the U.S., and she said, "New Castle." "Uhm... in the U.K.? Newcastle-upon-Tyne?" "No," she said, "New Castle, Delaware." "Oh, do you have family there?" I asked, thinking that was a really random destination for someone going overseas. "No, I'm going to meet some people from a church. I've never met them in person before." I replied with simply, "Oh, interesting," not really caring to ask any more about her church.

While they rebooted the in-flight entertainment system (yo, wtf, US Air - it never works the first time), we chatted some more, since I hadn't had coffee and was too tired to do work. Her name, she said, was Christine, and she was delighted that we had nearly the same name. The meal came (thankfully, with a load of caffeine), and we both tucked in. After a few mouthsful, Christine turned to me and said, "May I ask you, have you experienced eternal life?" Christ on a cracker, I thought, I can't get away from this woman because it's a full flight and I have a tray table of food in front of me, and now she's gonna try to convert me. I said no and hastily added that I'm an anthropologist and, as such, am very interested in religion. I've studied numerous world religions, cultures, and languages, and I think people around the world approach problems in different ways. She started to say something, so I continued by explaining that my mother was raised Russian Orthodox and never felt connected to the religion and that my dad searched for spirituality throughout much of his adult life. Fortunately for me, this seemed to satisfy her, because she only shook her head slightly and said, "You should have a relationship with religion, not just an observation." "Right," I said. "So what do you think of this cobbler? Do they call it cobbler in the U.K.?"

I never did ask which brand of churchiness she was hawking (maybe Episcopal? what is it that all the non-Catholics in Britain are?), but she was reading "The Victorious Walk" (which you too can buy here for as little as 4 cents!).

So yeah, it's been two weeks of non-stop crazy, weird, or downright strange people. I hope the flight from Philly to Raleigh is less insane.

August 21, 2008

We're Famous!

Today's Telegraph & Argus has an article (with pictures) of the palaeopath class. They shooed us out of the lab the other day to take a few pictures of bones and people. In the print edition, there is a pic of some of my fellow students looking at bones, but in the online version, there are two pics of two of the instructors. Anyway, read all about us here!

August 16, 2008

Still Cold and Wet

Well, week one of the palaeopath short course is over. It's pretty brutal being a student again, honestly. We have 8- and sometimes 10-hour days of lecture, lab, and more lecture, broken up with coffee/tea breaks and the ineviteable samosa/chicken tikka lunch (and, of course, a curry dinner). Most of the lectures have been quite good - we've heard from the likes of palaeopath superstars like Charlotte Roberts and Don Orter, but also from the up-and-comers. I've introduced myself to some cool people who seem interested in my work. Despite the fact that I find histology hideously boring and tried so hard to keep awake that day, for the most part I am learning a lot. Lab practicals are good too - after lectures about leprosy, TB, syphilis, dental disease, etc., we get to look at the same stuff in lab, playing with the bone, turning it over, taking pictures of it, which is so much more useful than looking at 2D pictures in textbooks. The lab staff also go through the trouble of putting out the whole skeleton where available, so that you can see the distribution of lesions rather than just isolated bones.

By the end of each day, I'm pretty well exhausted. So it's curry and then bed, sometimes with a bit of editing thrown in (to fund my European clothes buying habit). Today was a lot nicer than I thought it would be - 65 and mostly sunny. I headed to Leeds and shopped until I was exhausted (5 hours - I have no stamina anymore). The city was quiet and clean, and there really were far more shops in the city center (mostly on the pedestrian quarter) than I could go into.

Random things I saw today:
  • Tiny cart selling jacket potatoes (baked potatoes) on the side of the road. Who eats take-away baked potatoes?
  • Tiny cobbler's cart. You could get your shoes fixed, in the middle of the piazza. Or whatever they're called here.
  • A Chinese place called "Yuk Buffet." Couldn't whip out the camera fast enough.
  • A carwash whose mascot was Spongebob. Bet that's not licensed!
  • Cinder toffee. Even with a recipe, I still have no idea what it is. The nice girl at the sweet shop told me it was made with sugar, baking soda, and vinegar.
I am getting better at looking right before crossing the street and thus haven't been killed yet. But I saw this woman in a car today, talking out the window to a man standing in the street. And I was confused as to how she moved the car from the passenger's seat - for a split second, until I remembered they drive funny here. Oh, and I rode two double-decker buses today. Both times on the top, both times in the front. Scary as shit.

August 11, 2008

Damp and Sleepy

My first night in England went well (after an uncomfortable plane ride and the requisite 24 hours with no sleep). The Ivy Guest House may not look like much and the floors may creak, but the bed was comfy and there was actually an extra blanket for poor southern me. (Seriously, a 30+ degree drop in temperature is not affecting me well.) The bathroom is shared, but I had no problem showering and getting ready before breakfast opened at 7am. I got the vegetarian breakfast - I'll have to take a picture tomorrow, because it consisted of: a sunny-side-up egg, 2 slices of wheat toast, a hashbrown, sauteed mushrooms, two canned (er, tinned - guess this is England) Roma tomatoes, this odd fried stick of carrots and peas, and baked beans. Yup. Baked beans. For breakfast. I tried the ginger preserves on my toast, which was quite a good choice. Maybe tomorrow I'll go for the Marmite. *shudder* And I still haven't tried HP, which appears to be somewhere halfway between ketchup and A1 sauce.

August 8, 2008

From Manchester to Liverpool

I'm headed off to England tomorrow morning, to an area of the country where the adjectival forms of certain proper nouns bear no relation to normal English. (Maybe there's more of a linguistic connection between pool and puddle than I thought...) There's wireless access at the Uni of Bradford, so I can bore everyone with stories from pathology class. I'm pretty psyched to see horrible Old World diseases and crazy Industrial-Revolution-caused vitamin deficiencies.

If anyone wants a souvenir, comment away. Just remember, the exchange rate sucks and I'll be in the north of England, not London. I can get Beatles and Brontë paraphernalia and wander around the Yorkshire Dales (who knew that Wensleydale wasn't just a cheese?) but not "Mind the Gap" tourist schlock or, sadly, anything from Harrod's. (And now I really, really want to see this in Liverpool.)

August 6, 2008

Simmer Down Now

I'm not sure if it's ok to take a camera into the isotope lab, so I haven't reported on my goings-on over the past couple weeks. After finishing up the micromilling of 30 teeth, I needed to do strontium columns this week before leaving for England. Strontium columns are actually like tiny plastic funnels with a tiny little filter at the bottom. They rest in a plastic tab that sits on top of a waste beaker. All this means that they're really easy to spill if you don't watch yourself. So this is the really chemistry-intensive part. By that, I mean the part where you have to put a certain number of drops of various molar nitric acid into the little funnels. And wait. And do it again. And wait. At the end, what happens is that the resin (held into the funnel by the filter) magically makes any water that passes through it able to collect strontium - and only strontium. Then you have a beaker with about 500 microliters of water-n-strontium. Drop in some phosphoric acid, and it's time to boil it down.

Here's where it gets kind of crazy. The idea of strontium in solution is easy enough for me to accept. But then you have to simmer the water off. It takes about 8 hours (although some were done in 4 because of their placement on the hot plate), and then you get this. See that little tiny dot at the bottom of the little tiny beaker (fakely mocked-up since I don't have a real pic)? That's strontium. About 5 micrograms of it. A tiny brown dot, about the size of the head of a pin.

Eventually, these little Roman pinheads will get loaded into the mass spectrometer, and at some point I'll get a bunch of numbers for the strontium levels in my samples. I'm not entirely sure how these numbers get interpreted, but at the very least I can compare the 33 human samples with the 2 animal samples and - I hope - be able to tell if those 33 people were immigrants or not. But I won't know until someone switches the mass spec from neodymium back to strontium.

July 27, 2008

DBAP Patrons and Their Lovely Clothing

Patrick, Juline, and I went to see the Durham Bulls play the Louisville Bats on Saturday night. It's not that we care about the sport in the least, it's that we really wanted tasty fried and sugary foods. Mmm, giant orange sno-cone and huge bag of cotton candy. While Patrick mostly watched the game (and the sneering baby), Juline and I watched people. Soon we were rewarded with this t-shirt, which was being worn by a seemingly harried father of two.

Me: Juline, check it out! That guy's shirt is bizarre!
Juline: Wait, what does that even mean?
Me: I dunno. Do you think he knows what beer goggles are?
Juline: Or that it's terribly inappropriate to have a picture of a kid there? Is that his kid?
Me: Jesus, what a horrific shirt. Patrick, get a picture of it.
Patrick: You guys did notice that "responsible" is misspelled, right?
Me and Juline: Hahahaha, no, we didn't!

So beer goggling is not technically in the Urban Dictionary, but beer googling is. It's when you get really drunk and surf the internet and find progressively unattractive women. Either way... why is there a photo of a (male?) child in Speedo goggles on the back of a shirt that glorifies drinking until you lose all sense of attractiveness and sleep with the first person who shows any interest? And is the typo ironic and purposeful or simply lame? For what it's worth, the front of the shirt had the name of a brewery or bar in Durham, but I can't find more info on it. If I could, I'd go by one of these shirts. You know, for Dress Like a Douchebag Day.

July 25, 2008

Edamus, bibamus, gaudeamus!

My Roman immigrants (and locals) are headed on a new journey, to a world they never knew existed: exotic southern Florida. In between my trips to the geochem lab today to check on their enamel counterparts, my Romans yielded their midshaft femora to my whims. I used my trusty Buehler (which just happened to come with a "bone chuck") to slice off a sliver of femur from each of 52 individuals from my two sites. I chose these individuals to represent a cross-section of the population, from babies to old folks, although I'm testing more people from Casal Bertone than from Castellaccio to make a nod to proportional sampling. At any rate, here's a picture of them nestled all cozily in plastic bags, ready to be boxed, shipped, and destroyed for the sake of figuring out the ancient Roman diet. (You know what they kinda look like?)

Their bone collagen and apatite will be digested (very appropriate) and run for isotopes of carbon and nitrogen, which will indicate the proportion of the diet made up of meat, legumes, fish, and vegetables. For the babies, I might even be able to tell when they were weaned. Although this analysis is destructive, fortunately I only had to send a couple grams of bone for each person, which means I still have most of the samples I took. Ave atque vale, Romani.

July 22, 2008

Radioactive Cows

Jenn, the geosciences lab goddess, told me today that the procedure they follow for analyzing strontium isotopes was created following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Days of releasing radiation into the environment have led to numerous cancers and diseases, but even after that cleared, the food chain was still contaminated. People who drank milk from cows that had eaten affected grass, for example, stored up iodine in their thyroids and got cancer. So for over a decade, scientists have been testing milk in the area for radioactive iodine, plutonium, cesium, and strontium. They are able to test the milk quickly and efficiently, and as a result I get to run my enamel samples quickly and efficiently as well.

July 21, 2008

Anatomy and Word

I was digging through my data collection diary that I wrote in Italy last year while examining skeletons. It ended up being nearly 200 pages of notes and thoughts about Roman skeletons, Italian bioarchaeologists, food, and public transportation. I was looking for any entries that suggested a particular skeleton was special or important, or that it needed to be analyzed for Sr, C, or N isotopes. After a couple dozen pages, though, Word flipped out. It seems to have absolutely no knowledge of biological or anatomical terms and gave me the error message below. I think Word should come standard with a dictionary that knows words like "pyogenic osteomyelitis," "spondylolisthesis," "sphenooccipital synchondrosis," and "ischiopubic ramus." You know, common terms.

(Incidentally, there were only about a dozen typos in the entire document. Because I'm that good - in spite of my tarnished reputation in the Woodbrook Elementary 3rd grade spelling bee, when I succeeded with "psychology" but inexplicably failed to spell "quarter" correctly and Jamie Maupin won. Not that I'm bitter.)

July 19, 2008

Bizarro Latin

Oh, Bizarro. Don't you know better than to use the first "free online English to Latin translator" you find on Google? Is it really that hard to find an underpaid classicist who will be so offended by the resulting sentence that they will fix it for you? I expected more from Dan Piraro. Then again, I haven't seen the comic posted on his blog yet. Maybe he'll defend his terrible translation there. Or at least get excoriated by disgruntled Latinists who think this kind of joke is better left to Henry Beard.

July 18, 2008

Grist for the Mill

After you follow my how-to video and get some lovely tooth sections, the next step in the increasingly long process of running strontium isotope samples is to drill out enamel. The enamel that forms earliest in life is closest to the junction with the dentine, as a tooth grows in both directions - enamel laid up into the crown, and dentine laid down into the roots. The dentist working with the geochemist here at UNC feels that the best enamel for strontium analysis to find migrants is located about 50 micrometers from the dento-enamel junction. That's 1,000 times smaller than a millimeter. In order to get enough strontium for analysis in the mass spec, I have to drill out between 5-10 mg of enamel. With sample weight this low and precision at the DEJ essential, it means using a micromill - a microscope/drill attached to a computer. Using the software installed, you can draw a line on the sample where you want the drill to go. So I can map the area 50 µm from the DEJ, tell the drill to make any number of passes, and give it the appropriate depth.

On Tuesday, I managed to affix my samples (the middle section of 5 teeth) to glass microscope slides with resin, and I affixed the slides to the removable micromill platform. On Wednesday, I loaded the platform into the mill and learned how to use it from a geology grad student. The interface is pretty easy, and in no time I was drawing lines and watching the mill at work. The grad student, however, had told me the settings she used on the mill - she'd set it to make one pass at a depth of perhaps 15 µm. It took me 4 hours of milling one sample to get enough material (10mg) appropriate for strontium analysis. And then it dawned on me - the grad student had mentioned that for her analyses, she needed 5-10 µg of material. I need 1,000 times that! So on Thursday, I set the micromill to 3 passes at 250 µm depth each - and got much better results. Since each tooth section is precisely 3mm, I can go much deeper to get all the enamel I need. Which will be important when I'm drilling teeth that are incredibly worn and lacking a lot of enamel.

This whole week, then, amounted to learning how to do a bunch of stuff, from affixing samples to slides (resin really doesn't work too well, and I ended up having to re-stick the teeth with Duco cement, the osteologist's best friend), to working a micromill, to realizing that µm was not 10 times smaller than mm. Today I get to pour nitric acid on my samples and dry them out, and next week I'll learn about "columns" ... whatever that means. In the meantime, here's a short video of the automated goodness of the micromill.

July 17, 2008

Cutting Teeth

The first thing I have to do in order to prepare the ancient Roman teeth for strontium analysis is to section them. So I learned from a very nice dentist at the Dental School at UNC how to use a saw to do this - without having to embed each tooth in plastic or resin. The point of obtaining a thick section from the middle of the tooth is that I can theoretically get at the "good" enamel - the stuff at the dento-enamel junction, and therefore the stuff that will help me tell if an individual was originally from Rome or not. Once I get the middle section, I have to affix it to a slide and use a micromill (a very precise drill hooked up to a microscope and computer) to drill out 5-10mg of enamel. The micromill is automated, so the sample has to be nice and flat and held tightly to the moving platform. Since I was sectioning some teeth today, and since I will undoubtedly have to teach other archaeologists who want to do strontium analysis to section teeth, I documented my afternoon.

My last osteological movie on chopping ancient femora in half was a raging success, so I decided to make a video demonstration of sectioning ancient teeth using the spiffy saw I found a couple weeks ago. This is my first attempt at stitching together several smaller movies into one big movie - complete with title slide and credits - so let me know what you think (but be nice!). It's about 7.5 minutes long and includes an audio narration by me (plus the appearance of my ugly elbow and giant hands).

So the next time you find yourself cozied up to a lab saw with 200 old, dry teeth and seven days to kill, you too can cut them into thirds. Without further ado, allow me to present to you, "How to use a Buehler Isomet 1000 to section teeth." Break out the popcorn and enjoy!

(If the embedded video doesn't work, it means that google sucks. So click here instead.)

July 10, 2008

Indy Films

I just came across this hilarious summary (in the form of a script) for the fourth Indiana Jones movie. I am not ashamed to say it actually made me lol. If you hated the movie as much as I did, read on. (This writer did not have as many problems with the egregious treatment of "natives" in the movie as Laura and I did and is more annoyed with the stupid plot.)

July 8, 2008

Articular Paths

I just got an email that my endlessly-revised journal article was accepted by Southeastern Archaeology! I was honestly despairing of ever publishing my master's thesis from ECU (written and defended waaaaay back in 2002), so much so that I've been referring to it as, "my never-to-be-published article on biodistance." Here's why.

Summer 2002. Immediately after graduating, I started revising the project for journal publication, which my committee strongly encouraged. But it was my first semester of teaching college, so revising was put on the back burner.

Fall 2002. Started a completely different PhD program at UNC. Biodistance was forgotten in favor of Rome and Latin.

Spring 2004. After a switch back to a PhD in anthropology, I finally got some time to talk to my former-and-current advisor and revised the article, which I sent to the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Winter 2004. About 8 months of waiting, and the article was rejected. Not "revise and resubmit," but outright rejected. Seems that, in spite of the editorial leadership at AJPA of one of my committee members, biodistance and nonmetric cranial traits were seen as passe. In retrospect, I was merely applying methods to what I considered to be an interesting research question rather than generating new methods of my own. But I was still pissed.

Fall 2005. Annoyed at the length of time it takes to get an article reviewed, I spent another 8 or so months turning the article around, and this time I was talked into sending it to American Antiquity, another highly-regarded journal in my field and very friendly to bioarchaeology papers. This did, however, involve taking into account all the previous reviewers' comments, addressing them, running some new stats, and rearranging and reformatting the headings and bibliography.

Summer 2006. So by this point, I'm half moved to New York and half staying in North Carolina for fall teaching. I got a rejection from American Antiquity, although it was a tentative revise-and-resubmit. That is, the reviewers weren't outright rejecting the article, but both wanted to see a load of changes and complete resubmission to them. In retrospect, I probably should have pursued this avenue, as it's a good journal. But I decided instead to revise and submit to a different journal.

January 2007. Before I headed off to Rome, I decided to take one final stab at this unpublished research that had been hanging over my head since 2002. I revised the article based on reviewers' comments from AJPA and AmAntiq, reformatted, and sent it off to Southeastern Archaeology, my last hope before sending it to a NC-specific journal.

May 2007. In surprisingly fast turnaround time, I got a letter from the editors of Southeastern Archaeology that I needed to revise and resubmit. Poop. One reviewer had some major issues with my work - issues that I wasn't willing to tackle for this article, issues that involved methodological problems that I didn't create and didn't know how to solve, issues that, were I a mathematician and statistician, I would write an article discussing. I really meant to work on the revisions while in Italy, but Roman skeletons and gelato were much more interesting.

January 2008. After getting back to the US and catching my breath before teaching forensic anthropology in the spring, I decided to give it another go. I badgered a statistician at Cortland, who agreed with me that the reviewer's comments weren't entirely valid, and I began revising the article and crafting an argument for why I didn't need to include a multidimensional scaling graph. Added some acknowledgments, had Patrick whip up a lovely map of coastal NC, and sent that sucker back to the editors.

July 8, 2008. Got an email from the editors saying the article had been accepted! Woo! I need to make a couple minor revisions (change the cluster graph to greyscale, e.g.), but it'll be printed in the Summer 2009 issue of Southeastern Archaeology.

So, that's the path of an article from conception to birth. Apparently academia is on a seven-year gestation cycle. Or maybe that's just me.

July 3, 2008

Skull Map

Andy sent me a link to an article in the London Times with an interactive Google map showing "several" of the thousands of skeletons uncovered in London in recent years. If you click on one of the darling little skulls that marks the location of an ancient skeleton, you can get time period and museum accession number. Some of the bodies have a bit more information. One skull represents a Roman graveyard dating to the 2nd century AD near the Liverpool Street underground station. A Black Death cemetery close to the Thames included 420 burials. The map isn't nearly as populated as it could be, but commuters could still think about all the bodies they pass by on their trip to work. This map was created to promote the upcoming exhibit at the Wellcome Collection, Skeletons: London's Buried Bones. I would be interested in seeing the exhibit, as Americans don't generally display skeletons in museums (largely because display of Native American remains is strictly prohibited) and because the Brits are starting to use skeletons as storytellers - creating individual histories from all the data available, a sort of forensic archaeology where the individual rather than the collective is of interest. It's an approach that I will undoubtedly play with as I write up my dissertation for publication: using individuals as a way to humanize the past and get the public excited about dead Romans.

July 2, 2008

Buehler? Buehler?

This morning, I met a geology undergrad at the department so that we could figure out together how to use their crappy little wafering saw. It was in sorry shape - the blade was nicked, it was damn near impossible to change out the water, and it was really not right for sectioning something as precision-worthy as two-millennia-old teeth. It's a tiny little gem saw, the kind that people who are way into geodes use to cut up rocks. After half an hour of fucking around with this thing, I gave up and resigned myself to spending $257 on a blade to use the dentist's saw.

Then I happened to stop by my advisor's lab to get the MNI of this skeletal collection I'm analyzing for him. Turns out, he has a super spiffy saw in his lab. I didn't see a blade attached to it, but he's convinced he has one somewhere. Which means... I can do all my sectioning at the bioarch lab! For free! Well, plus the cost of water, I suspect. The geochemist told me that I don't need milli-q water (simple distilled will work), but he suggested ultrasounding the blade in between teeth. I'm not yet sure what that means or how it would prevent cross-contamination. I do also need to buy some wax and plexiglass or some sort of stick so that I can attach the tooth to the stick and lower it onto the saw blade like the dentist showed me. But that can't cost too much.

So... who wants to learn how to section teeth with me?

July 1, 2008

Adventures in Micromilling

I met a geology grad student at their department today so that she could show me how to use the micromill, a microscope/drill that'll help me extract enamel powder for Sr isotope analysis. The lab was locked, so it took her a few minutes to go find a key. Then she asked me what kind of containers I had. I was clueless and just showed her the teeth. So she got her advisor, who was quite unhappy to be dragged from her desk to deal with an anthropologist who clearly knew nothing about geochemistry. It seems that I need a few more pieces of the puzzle: I need to know what kind of containers to collect the enamel powder in, what size drill bit to use, and the procedure for cleaning the drill and platform so that I don't cross-contaminate samples. Unfortunately, the geochemist I'm dealing with is out of town for the rest of the summer. Fortunately, it should only take me a few days or a week to micromill all 110 teeth once I figure out the other issues.

But before all that happens, though, I still need to section the 110 teeth. I contacted the dentist again, and he said I could use his saw... but his chair wants me to buy a new wafering blade. Which appears to be about $250. Oofa. I'm not happy about spending an additional $2 per sample to cut the teeth in half, since this is a new step in the Sr analysis procedure that seems rather pointless to me. But it's supposed to produce better results, so I guess I need to suck it up and buy a wafering blade.

June 26, 2008


I'm always too cheap to pay for a glossy, GUI, point-and-click statistical program, and I waffle between SPSS and Systat. Generally, I prefer Systat because it's easier to use, and the bells and whistles don't drag it down like they do SPSS. Plus, it produces prettier dendrograms than SPSS's icicle and monochromatic ones. Today I needed to generate a simple cluster analysis and dendrogram and downloaded the trial versions of both SPSS 16.0 and Systat 12.0. Annoyingly enough, neither of them worked, probably because I had downloaded the trial versions in the past and they expired. But I discovered that Systat puts out a free version of their program for students. It's called Mystat and, although it sounds like a feminine hygiene product, it actually works pretty well for my purposes: relatively simple statistics. I mean, if I want to do really complicated shit, I'd probably suck it up and learn R. (Kidding. R is impossible for social scientists to understand.) The download took a while, but Mystat quickly installed and I had made this lovely, color-coded dendrogram in under 2 minutes. It tells you that Native Americans on the North Carolina coastal plain in the Late Woodland period have some geographical differences in the expression of genetic traits. Nevertheless, they all still interbred (based on a different statistic). No matter how hard I try, I keep getting sucked back into sidelining in population interaction in ancient NC.

Good Day

I showed up at school yesterday and found three new books waiting for me: Biological Anthropology of the Human Skeleton (2008 edition, hot off the presses!) and two Cambridge titles: Zooarchaeology and Teeth. After reading my packet of teaching evaluations from Cortland and chatting up a colleague I hadn't seen in a while, I headed into a 90-minute meeting with my advisor. I laid out my new plan for isotope analysis (test all first molars for Sr, reserve $2k for further tests on any immigrants I find, and send 50 individuals to a colleague at USF for C/N so as not to waste time learning how to do it myself), and he fully agreed with me. After picking up a lovely smoothie, I settled in to write some email and got a message from a bioarchaeologist who might want me to collaborate on her project with my Roman skeletons - more on this as (if?) it develops. Then I headed over to the isotope geochemistry lab and harassed the lab tech about strontium. There are many steps to this procedure: first, I have to section all 112 teeth into thirds. Then, I need to learn how to use the micromill to drill out 5-20 μg of enamel from near the DEJ. And then the lab tech will teach me how to prepare the enamel and run it through the mass spec. Everyone's schedules are kind of hectic for the summer, though, so I might only get about 5-10 Sr results by August. This should, however, be enough information to bullshit (ahem, I mean, extrapolate) an abstract to the AAPAs. So yay, everything's going as planned, if a bit slowly.

To reward myself for a good day, I bought these:

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