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.

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