April 30, 2008

Laugh Lines

I'm often surprised by what gets laughs during a presentation or lecture. At the AAPA meetings in April, I got unintentional laughs when I mentioned that fullers, upset about Vespasian's tax on urine, put out large pots for people to "make deposits" as they passed by. I guess pee is always funny, even to biological anthropologists.

Today in class I was talking about estimating postmortem interval (time since death). Forensic entomologists study insects to figure this out, but the textbook also taught me that they can test the bugs for evidence of drugs. So I said, "Forensic entomologists can tell something about 'personal habits' - that is, if a person was taking drugs. Maggots that feed on a person who did cocaine before she or he died will still have it in their system. The little maggots eat the person's flesh, and then you have some coked-out maggots, going crazy on the corpse." This elicited hiccuped giggles from a student in the front row and tittering from the back.

I wish I could be funnier in class, but most of my laugh lines end up being completely unintentional.

April 28, 2008


Today I showed my class a video called Following Antigone, which is an introduction to the work that the EAAF (Equipo Argentino di Antropologia Forense) has done in a variety of countries. They're an international NGO that exhumes people, often the victims of mass murders like the "disappeared," identifying the bodies and returning them to their families for proper burial. It was an interesting 40-minute film, and the most compelling parts were when the Argentinian anthropologists were interviewed, relating how forensic work brought back memories of friends and family who had been "disappeared" and how they worried about the repercussions of their work from the military and police.

I discovered that you can watch Following Antigone as a streaming video on The Archaeology Channel. I actually remember when this website started years ago. I had considered volunteering some time doing webmaster-ish work, but at the time it seemed impossibly lame, with old and broken links to other sites. Somewhere in the last 5+ years, though, TAC has become a useful resource, particularly because of the dozens of streaming videos about archaeology that they offer. If only Cortland's ethernet connection had been better, the video wouldn't have stopped to buffer so often today.

April 21, 2008


I want. So much. So many. So badly. Even more than bone paperclips.

Ice Melt

After giving a particularly unimpressive and uninspired lecture on excavation and recovery methods in forensic anthropology (read: archaeology), a student came up to me after class and handed me a stack of 6 photos (which you can click through here if you like this kind of stuff: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). This was the first one, and it looked like a skeletonized deer. I kind of thought the student wanted me to identify the species, since I've been asked that before, so I said:

Me: Looks like a deer. Wow, look at all that fur.
Student: Yeah, it was pretty cool.
Me: So did you find this somewhere?
Student: Well, my dad was driving from Cortland to Marathon, out on 11. And he was passing this little lake and decided to stop to look at it, since it was a nice weekend. He walked a little ways and saw this. He immediately drove back to get me, telling me he'd found a cool skeleton. So we went out and took pictures since it was pretty interesting.
Me: That's great! So did you leave it there?
Student: Yeah, we did. But you can go see it if you want, about halfway to Marathon on 11. And you can keep the pictures. I made copies for you.

From what I can tell, it looks like a juvenile deer. Note the extra teeth coming in at the upper half of the jaw. This state of dental eruption probably makes the fawn about 1.5 years old. Since I don't really know the rut dates of deer up here, I can't figure out when this fawn was born. But if it was killed during deer hunting season, it could very well have skeletonized during the winter under the snow. The remaining skin is puzzling, and I have no idea how it produced all that fur - it looks more like hair than what I imagine deer having. Can any hunters help me out here? The fur looks like it's exploded and is seriously creeping me out. The skull, on the other hand, is pretty cool. Poor Bambi.

At any rate, I was ecstatic that a student got her dad involved in her forensic anthropology course, decided it was really cool to go look at a dead deer, and took the initiative to photograph it and bring me pictures. It's a far cry from an apple for the teacher, but my students know me better than that.

April 19, 2008


UPDATE (4/23)! One of Patrick's re-enactments was given an Honorable Mention in the Young Me / Now Me photo competition. He pointed out that since I took the picture, I am now an award-winning photographer! Let's see which other biological anthropologist has *that* on her CV!

Because I'm enthralled by everything Ze Frank does, I convinced Patrick that we should enter his latest contest - to re-enact a childhood picture. It's called Young Me / Now Me.

Here's my entry (if we can ever figure out how to enter, which requires use of Twitter). You can see Patrick's two re-enactments by clicking here. It's really fun. You should do it too. Then send me a link.

April 18, 2008

Forensic Lab - Mapping

This week in class, I've been talking about various aspects of the recovery process in forensic cases, but mostly locating and recording human skeletal remains. This is also apparently our first week of spring in upstate NY, with the temperatures soaring to about 75 degrees today. So I held lab outside and simulated a forensic scene so that the students could map the body and associated artifacts.

My TA (Sarah) and I had fun setting up the scene. We ran a large tape measure 28', ran five 6' tape measures perpendicularly, and strung twine along the remaining 28', making four 5'x7' squares (ok, so they're rectangles, but you see what I mean). I had a 5' tall glow-in-the-dark plastic skeleton my mom bought me at some kind of post-Halloween sale, which we clumsily disarticulated and strewed amongst the four squares. Sarah brought some empty liquor bottles, including a 40 of Coors Light, and I brought clothes, shoes, jewelry, a murder weapon, and an ID card.

Each group then mapped one of the 5'x7' squares by triangulating a few points on each bone or object and plotting the point on graph paper. The less spatially-minded students were a bit slower at this task, but eventually everyone got the hang of triangulating and mapping. I snapped a bunch of pictures of both classes working, as well as pictures of each square and some overhead pics from the anthropology department office and from my own office. (Clicking on the link will get you to a webpage with all the photos and labels.)

The ID card that I planted in the second square was Patrick's infamous Virginia Tech ID from his first year - the one where he has long hair and a moustache and looks like a serial killer. The students got a kick out of this:

"Hey, there's an ID."
"Oooh, it's a guy. Wait. Oh yeah, a guy with long hair."
"Patrick A. Reynolds. Arthur. Andrew. Adam. Hm."
"I guess X/XX/78 is his birthday?"
"So the killer is 30 years old."
"Wait, what if this Patrick Reynolds isn't the killer? What if he was the one wearing the blouse and skirt?"

At that point, I was laughing pretty hard. One of the students asked me who Patrick is, and I admitted it was my husband. But that it was an old picture and he doesn't really look like a serial killer.

Anyway, after 3 hours in the sun, I was hot, dehydrated, and sunburned. But the lab went pretty well, and I think most of the students enjoyed it. I can't wait to see what they wrote on their labs about the identity of the victim and the perpetrator. (If anyone would like a copy of the lab, click here.)

April 13, 2008

Ay Ay Pee Ay

I took some really random notes at the AAPA conference, from which I just returned. Some of the papers were interesting, but most of them just made me think about my own research and wonder what I could do better. Here's a sampling of my notes:

Session 9, Reconstructing Health and Disease
1:15 - H2O + sewage = spread of infectious diseases (assumed)
1:45 - Imperial Rome, Isola Sacra, Wilson bands, blah blah blah
2:15 - WTF is polster (trep disease)???

Session 16, Bioarchaeology
8:30 - quaTERnary
8:45 - max likelihood estimation = good, Bayesian method = bad; wtf is Bayesian method?
10:15 - 2 dist. waves of immig to Americas
10:30 - Roman Britans ate smoked food (ham?), maybe eggs, imported foods, NO millet (C4)

I did look up polster. It's a bulge of smooth muscle cells. Which doesn't make any sense. So maybe I have to look in a palaeopathology book or something. I don't care enough about Bayesian aging right now to look it up, although the topic came up in more than one conversation, so I probably should. I learned how to pronounce the word quaternary at 8:30 on Friday morning. And during my "volunteering" session on Friday afternoon, I learned way too much about things like sperm plugs during talks about primate genetics.

The two papers I liked the most were in my Saturday morning session on palaeopathology. One was first-authored by a researcher at Elon College in NC. She described the formation of a ridge in the olecranon process of the ulna as a transverse mid-trochlear ridge, and she figured out which muscles would have to act on the arms in what ways to form this anomalous ridge of bone. The odd thing was, she claimed never to have seen this bone formation before. At the end of the talk, someone piped up and said they're all over Eskimo ulnae. And someone else said, yeah, they're all over Native Americans. And yet another voice added Iron Age Europeans, and I added Romans. I've even seen this ridge in the Indian study skeletons we have at Cortland - just last week, while teaching a lab on arthritis to my students, someone pointed out this ridge, and I said it was normal. So it was interesting that no one has ever described a muscle marker that most osteologists don't think twice about. It does seem, though, based on her research, that this ridge is more likely to be found in people who do a lot of gripping-and-pounding activities, as the ridge forms along with the muscle to aid in elbow stabilization.

The other paper I enjoyed was by a newly-minted PhD who studied obesity in the corpses that came through the Body Farm. It's notoriously difficult to estimate body mass (weight) from just skeletal remains. But another piece of information is always useful for forensic anthropologists in trying to get a proper ID on a skeleton. So she studied the bones and particularly (at least for this presentation) looked at arthritis patterns. She found that obese individuals almost always had arthritis, and that they were more prone to DISH as well. Extremely overweight people also use their arms to raise themselves from a seated position, and she reasoned that the arms were becoming load-bearing and thus suffering from arthritis more than the arms of people who weren't obese. She also looked at the knees, as obese individuals tend to have either a knock-kneed or a bow-legged stance. In fact, only 10% of the people she looked at had a normal knee alignment. At any rate, it seems that obesity and arthritis are strongly correlated, but I don't think there's yet any good way to figure out from a skeleton if a person was obese.

Overall, it was a successful conference. I got to meet a lot of people who were interesting and interested in my work. I presented a paper for the first time at the AAPAs - it was well attended (perhaps 200 people in the room), but I was terrified. Somehow, I can lecture three times a week with no problem, but put me in front of a podium and 200 people, and I freak out. Ah well. Hopefully I'll get better and lose my nerves the more times I force myself to do this.

April 2, 2008

Shy Ghost

I headed down to NJ this past weekend to see my mom and grandmother and catch sight of the ghost of my great-uncle. Unfortunately, the trip was a let-down.

We called the guy who lives in my great-uncle's old apartment, and he invited us to come over. I don't remember his name, but will call him Mr. Magoo because he so totally looked like him. Also at the apartment was Alex, a very nice 70-something man who for some inexplicable reason has the hots for my 87-yr-old grandmother but whom my grandmother professes to be unable to stand. (His favorite pastime is sending her those cards that play a song when you open them, regardless of the appropriateness of the song. But I digress...)

My mom started by telling Magoo about her conversation with the ghost psychologist, who said that Frank probably doesn't realize he's dead. We need to keep telling him that he's dead and get him to walk to the light. Magoo wasn't a dummy - he'd seen Sylvia Browne on the Montel show. Every time Frank showed up, "I says to him, I says, 'Go to Jesus,'" Magoo reported. It seemed that Magoo was doing everything right, then. We pressed him for more details on the sightings.

Apparently Magoo has been seeing Frank for 7 or 8 years, he said. He'd also occasionally seen a woman and a 5-year-old girl walk through the apartment as well. His description of Frank was reasonable, but "tall and thin" describes a lot of people. Magoo had gotten annoyed recently, though, because he thinks Frank is trying to wake him up at night by banging on the TV. (We're still unsure how he knows it's the TV when he's in the other room.) He also is convinced that Frank is moving stuff. First, this tube that's part of his breathing apparatus popped off, and Alex witnessed that. But then there was some crepe-paper bird that was sitting on top of one of the many religious figurines in the house, and apparently it flew off, crashed, and broke. (It's unclear if he witnessed this or just saw the ensuing carnage.)

Not much else happened as we talked to him for a good 45 minutes. My grandma kept trying to summon Frank, Alex kept looking fondly at my grandma, Magoo kept interrupting my mom with stories about how he once predicted what would happen in a Yankees game in 1942. He's convinced he has some kind of gift of premonition and ability to see dead people.

So no ghost. We even went to the graveyard where Frank (and his brothers and parents) are buried, but nothing interesting happened. Ho hum. I did get a lot of food out of the trip, including a ton of Italian ice (which my family calls 'shalalee' for a reason I still can't figure out etymologically), Italian cheese, and Patrick's favorite Croatian cookies, Napolitanke.

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