May 18, 2008

Shootin' and Sawin'

Students' Final Projects
Part VI - Miscellaneous Trauma

The last two projects I haven't yet posted about include one involving projectile trauma (gunshot wounds) inflicted on some pig heads and the effects of a variety of rusty implements used to dismember bone.

1. Jennifer got pretty into this project, getting 3 free pig heads from a local meat market (thanks, Cudlin's!) and enlisting the help of a friend with guns to teach her to shoot and use the larger guns to wound the poor pigs. She noted that the larger-caliber guns predictably made a much bigger mess, splattering pig brains and pig eyes all over the place. All of the wounds were made with high-velocity weapons, so the damage to bone was pretty significant. She added an element to her project by asking her mom to bury the pig heads in the garden and then trying to find them (i.e., using archaeological techniques to figure out where the depression/discolorations in the ground would indicate something was freshly buried there). Here are some of the pictures from her project. Top left, Jennifer is taking a pig head (not sure which one - she named all three) out of its ice packaging; top right, her friend shows off his arsenal; bottom left, pig heads macerating in water, bleach, and detergent; bottom right, a picture of the lower jaw of the pig after being shot and defleshed, showing an exit wound.

2. Heather designed her own project on rust transfer to bone. She was going to do a straight-up trauma project, but her brother told her that he had a whole bunch of rusty tools at his house. So we talked about rust on bone and found that there really isn't any forensic research that has been done in terms of rust transfer. One of the problems is that there are apparently many kinds of rust and there isn't one simple test to see if there are rust particles on something (i.e., you can't just swab a bone with a chemical to see the rust show up). Heather got a bunch of pig legs (after some amount of convincing the butcher that a thigh had a single bone and not two bones) and inflicted a variety of trauma: she used a rusty hoe/shovel/something to break the bone, and she used a flimsy rusty tree saw as well. What she found was that most of the rust was transferred to the soft tissue and marrow, with only a little remaining in the cortical bone of the long bone shafts. She'll probably post more about her project in the comments (hi, Heather!), but I wanted to post a couple of her videos that really made me laugh.


May 17, 2008

Funny Bones

I don't normally like Mother Goose & Grimm, but today's comic strip was pretty awesome. How many other people can have their dissertations summed up in one panel?

May 15, 2008

Young Me / Now Me

A couple weeks back, I posted our Young Me / Now Me entry. Patrick's picture got an honorable mention, and I was excited. Then, a freelancer for the British newspaper The Guardian contacted him to ask about the contest and what re-enacting a childhood photograph meant to him. We were eagerly awaiting the article, which came out yesterday in the arts section of the paper. Oddly enough, none of Patrick's quotes made it into the article, but neither did his picture. However, MY pictures did make it into the gallery, which is here (I'm #7). Cool! Patrick's trying to get one of his friends' family members to pick up a print edition of yesterday's Guardian to see if the pictures made it in. But if anyone out there can check yesterday's Arts section and let me know (or better yet, mail it to me!), I'd appreciate it.

Viva la revolution!

Students' Final Projects
Part V - Cemetery Mapping

I'm a sucker for cemeteries and tend to spend hours in them reading tombstones and trying to work out genealogies. I visit cemeteries in every major European city I go to, and I was thoroughly geeked out when I moved up north and could track gravestone iconography a la Deetz-n-Dethlefsen. So one of the final projects that students could choose was to map a local cemetery and figure out some of the genealogy. I know nothing about this area of the country, although Patrick told me that much of this area of central/upstate NY was parceled out to Revolutionary soldiers. Cortland has a large, oldish cemetery in the center of town near the university, but I was very curious about a small one located just across the street from Wal-Mart on Route 13 south. The headstones are all askew owing to the sinking of the ground, and there isn't really anywhere to stop and park. I also couldn't find anything on the cemetery by checking the usual online sites that list graveyards and people buried in them. So I was happy when two students, Natalie and Jeremy, decided to map the site and give me a little more information that they gleaned from the local historical society.

The ladies at the Historical Society called it the South Cortland Cemetery, although there apparently are no records that indicate the actual name of the graveyard. Someone does, however, maintain the cemetery, as American flags show up on occasion to honor the veterans. Jeremy reported that it was odd to see a 50-stars American flag gracing the grave of a Revolutionary War veteran. Natalie reported that one of the largest families buried in the cemetery was John Stanbro and his descendants, which included at least 13 children. Interestingly enough, John's relations spelled their name in a variety of ways, including Stanbrough, Stanborough, Stanbury, and Stanberry, making genealogical tracking a bit more complicated for my students.

I liked what they did for mapping. I had asked them to triangulate to map the headstones and draw them on graph paper. While they did triangulate based on the stone walls that demarcated the cemetery, they plotted only one central point for each headstone and footstone, then graphed it in Excel using different colors and shapes for headstones, footstones, trees, and a tree stump. This is how their graph came out. I think it's interesting that the footstones are clustered on the east side of the cemetery, whereas there are basically none on the west side - perhaps it's a change in burial style, but I don't know the dates of the headstones they mapped. Rather than genealogy, I should have asked them to record the iconography on the stones, as I'm curious if there are lots of willows or death's heads in this cemetery.

I do, however, like this saying carved into one of the gravestones:

I want my mummy

Students' Final Projects
Part IV - Mummification

I thought that more students would do the chicken mummification project. It seemed really simple; many websites encourage parents and teachers to use it as a project for elementary school kids, to learn about ancient Egypt and dessication, I guess. (Aside: I kind of wish my parents had told me that those little packets in shoeboxes were used to preserve mummies.) But only three students chose to mummify an animal; one group used a store-bought chicken, and one guy used a dead mouse he found in his backyard.

1. Kerri and Kathleen decided to do this project, even though they live in the dorms on campus. I was worried that the chicken would start smelling, particularly if students didn't change the salt often enough (i.e., when it becomes damp from absorbing the gooey rotting juices). I blogged about this earlier, as the chicken did indeed start to smell and they ended up keeping it at the house of another student who had a garage she didn't care about. Kerri, who named her lab skeleton as well, wrote that, "Of course she needed a name, and Geraldine seemed like the only logical thing, so Geraldine it was." Of course! Her paper also included phrases like, "... and the UNGODLY SMELL!" complete with caps and exclamation point. At any rate, here are the pictures they sent me to go with their ginger-teriyaki-Febreezed-chicken-mummy:

2. Chase also wanted to do the mummification project, but he hadn't started 4-6 weeks before the paper was due. I suggested that he use a smaller animal - maybe a Cornish game hen - so that it wouldn't take as long. He decided instead to use a dead mouse that he found in his backyard. Unlike a store-bought chicken, though, the mouse still had fur on it and all its innards. I suspect that was Chase's problem - the fur likely prevented the salt from thoroughly contacting the skin and leaching the moisture out of the carcass, and the innards just meant several more things that needed to be mummified. Judging by his pictures, though, I suspect he also didn't use enough salt. Mummification of a chicken takes bags and bags of salt (so I'm not sure if Kerri and Kathleen used enough either), and this mouse just looks like shake-n-bake. This has got to be my favorite picture from students' projects - the contrast between the salt-coated mouse carcass and the Christmas-themed ziploc had me in hysterics. The little spot of blood is kind of gross, though.

So overall, the mummification project failed to produce the results I was expecting from all the stuff I'd read on the web and was apparently far smellier and messier than I was led to believe. Ah well, lesson learned: Never assign mummies again.

May 14, 2008

Poor Piggies

Students' Final Projects
Part III - Blunt Trauma

Quite a lot of students did projects on blunt trauma. Most of them also included hilarious pictures of themselves actually enjoying creating their final project. So here's a summary of what they turned in.

1. Joe and Pete, my two rather imposing football players, used lower leg and foot bones of a pig that Joe had kept remains of in his freezer (why, I don't know). I knew it was going to be an interesting couple of reports when their presentation last week started off with a slide that said, simply, "One 45-lb piglet was severely harmed in the making of this project. Rest assured, he was delicious." As you can see, their pictures are really not all that great. They found it difficult to crush the pig using their blunt instruments (a tire iron and homemade mace), which I attribute to the fact they were trying to crush the calcaneus of a young pig. Throughout the semester, Joe was quite the card in class, and his paper did not disappoint. In his report, he notes that, "This would prove to be one of the more interesting school projects known to man." He also felt that he broke the bone "because I have the strength of many men." My favorite line, though, was his insistence that their project was awesome because, "as usual, our every movement was calculated genius. The results of the pig smashing were fantastic at worst."

2. Kelly and Ciara also procured some pig parts and inflicted trauma on them with a hammer, a rubber mallet, an iron wrench, and a 2x4. They got ultra-fresh legs that apparently bled when they whacked them. Their pictures aren't great, but I did very much enjoy this photo of Kelly pretending to eat it after traumatizing it. The wrench caused a complete fracture of the femur they had (which honestly looks like an os coxae - I'm not convinced the butchers at the meat market know the difference between the two bones of the hip joint), while the mallet simply caused a dent, and the 2x4 and hammer caused small fractures and some radiating fracture lines from the point of impact.

May 8, 2008

Do you see what I see?

Students' Final Projects.
Part I - Sharp Trauma.

This is the third paper I've received so far from a student (I gave them a final project rather than an in-class final), but it's the first one that included pictures. Two of my students, I'll call them Sarah and Brian, ended up doing sharp trauma to bone. They couldn't find pig legs as I suggested, so they bought a rack of ribs at the grocery store. Sarah took pictures while Brian, wearing pink dish gloves for no apparent reason, hacked into the ribs with a steak knife and some kind of meat fork. The videos they showed in class were pretty entertaining, as Brian made all kinds of silly noises as he thrust the knife hard enough to cut bone. So I was perusing the pictures he just sent me to accompany his paper and happened to zoom in on this one. It looks innocuous enough - I mean, except for the gloves and the raw meat and the hackage. But then something caught my eye - what seemed to be a grocery list taped to the cabinet (in what I presume is the kitchen of Sarah's shared apartment). So here's a close-up for you. Just read the last two lines. I laughed my ass off. The moral of the story is: crop your pictures before sending them to your professor. (Update: They sent me a video of all their pictures. It's cute.)


May 7, 2008


I like to use the TV show Bones as a teaching tool. It's actually not all that bad sometimes - sure, the fact that she works with the FBI is pretty far-fetched, and her involvement with the case is laughable, but sometimes the forensic anthropology isn't all that bad. Last week, for example, they used strontium isotope analysis to determine where someone was from. It was ludicrously precise, but the general concept was right. So I was actually surprised by this Monday's episode. In a pass-over of a skeleton during the opening credits, I noticed that the pelvis was upside down. Thinking maybe there was some connection between it and the bizarre British skeleton from a few posts ago, I rewound and stepped through it. Nope, the pelvis is completely upside down and backwards. For no good reason. Also, the fibulae are misplaced on the inside of the calves. And the clavicles aren't sided correctly. I could almost overlook that. But an upside down pelvis? It's like an epidemic now. Do they think I won't notice?

May 5, 2008

Student Presentations

Since I asked the students to choose a hands-on final project rather than take an in-class exam, I designated today for them to earn some extra credit by presenting what they've done so far. A couple guys had done a blunt trauma experiment on pig bones. A girl convinced a friend to help her shoot pig heads and deflesh them. Another group used a rack of ribs to study the sharp trauma they inflicted, more students studied a nearby cemetery, and some did in-depth reports on leprosy and syphilis.

Two girls from my first class had decided to do the project on mummification, which involves dessicating a gutted chicken using loads of salt. Unfortunately, they both lived in the dorms, and the chicken got really ripe really quickly. But they kept it at another student's house for the last 2 weeks of drying out and brought it to class today for show-and-tell during their presentation. One of the girls was talking about how they did the project while the other one slipped on latex gloves and was showing the chicken off to the class.

Student: ... so after we dried it out, it looked like this. The next step was to rub it with oil and aromatic spices. [This was supposed to be similar to Egyptian mummies.]

Me: Great! What spices did you use?

Student: Well, we didn't have any since we live in the dorms. So we went to Wal-Mart, but the spices were expensive. So we bought the cheapest thing we could find - teriyaki sauce. We rubbed it all over the chicken, then wrapped it in linen. It looks dirty and gross, but it's just the teriyaki sauce.

Me: [after much, much laughter] So you didn't decorate your mummy, then?

Other Student: No, but we sprayed it with Febreeze!

I felt bad about laughing hysterically at their mummified chicken teriyaki. But really, it was a pretty ridiculous sight. Once they turn in their finals, I'm totally posting the crazy pictures from these projects. The trauma projects are definitely the coolest.

May 4, 2008

Funding Rate

I totalled all the grants I've applied for over the years to fund my dissertation. Between 2005 and 2007, I applied for $88,952 in dissertation research grants. My funding success rate is 26.5%. Man, academia is hard. Convincing granting agencies to fund social science research is also hard. If I add in the three diss completion fellowships that I also didn't get, my success rate falls to 15.8%. So in case the last post made you think I am under any illusion that I am awesome, you can rest assured that three-quarters of the time, granting agencies just laugh at me.

May 3, 2008

My Rich Dissertation

I found out on Friday that my proposal to do additional chemical testing on bones and teeth was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. They've awarded me a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to run strontium analysis on upwards of 100 samples from my Roman skeletons. (You know, all those bits of bone I sawed through last summer and smuggled back - well, legally brought back - to the U.S.) I'm super excited about this for two reasons. First, of course, now that my dissertation project is well-funded through a variety of granting agencies, I will be doing the largest strontium study from ancient world remains. Strontium analysis will tell me where my Romans originated, which will in turn help me talk about the nature of migration in the Roman Empire, a topic that surprisingly hasn't really been covered apart from slavery/forced migration. We have no idea where people moved to Rome from, whether they lived with other people from their homelands or blended together, what kinds of jobs they had, and whether they were healthy or not. The second reason I'm excited is that it's surprisingly hard for archaeologists to get Wenner-Gren funding, as they tend to fund the more culturally-focused projects and because the archaeology projects have to be far-reaching and engage contemporary theory. I think that only one other archaeology student in my department in the last 8 years has gotten funded by Wenner-Gren, so I feel like I've just gotten a ginormous gold star on my dissertation. (Not to mention, my advisor and department will be pretty happy about this too.)

Because I'm still in I'm-completely-magnum mode, I will share with you some of my favorite lines from the reviews of my proposal. Don't worry, the president of the foundation ended on a line that put me in my place.
  • "A very strong proposal that struggles to cross the not insignificant disciplinary terrain between anthropology and classics. Such pioneering work should be steadfastly encouraged rather than beaten back by entrenched disciplinary interests."
  • "I like this application very much. It is a timely and topical proposal, the applicant has the right background (classics and bioarchaeology), and knows the relevant literature (and is aware of significant projects in Europe that address similar questions elsewhere, for example in Britain)."
  • "I like the proposal, it seems well thought out, the question is of interest, using isotope analyses to identify individual immigrants is obviously a strong approach, and given the importance of migration in human societies today, understanding the role of migration in ancient societies is not only of interest in an anthropological context, but could have more far-reaching implications."
  • President's Response: "Congratulations on being among the top 2% of the applications submitted for the Dissertation Fieldwork Grant this season. This is quite an achievement and particularly so considering that it is your fourth submission to the Foundation. Well done."

In spite of my bravado, I'm still quite surprised that this proposal got funded. As the president alluded to, it was my fourth application, and I was completely frustrated with the Foundation. Each time you re-apply, you have to include a page explaining how you changed your project since the last time. For this project, I explained that I was only asking for a portion of the project to be funded and better contextualized my research question in light of anthropological theory. But I was also tired of reviewers slamming me for being a classicist or the discipline of classics for being resistant to change, so I ended my proposal with this paragraph:

"Finally, an issue that several reviewers have had with this project in general deserves comment. Having studied in both classics and anthropology departments for over a decade, I am well aware of the disconnect and animosity that often exists between researchers in the two fields. Some classical archaeologists are guilty of perpetuating a text-based, ideologically-driven approach to the past, and some anthropological archaeologists do not allow for the possibility that classical archaeology is evolving and can contribute new information and new theories to anthropology. A previous reviewer noted that, “The urban processes the proposal seeks to elucidate are not spelled out in an anthropological fashion, although I would expect that they meet the standards of classical archaeology.” Another took issue with my claim that this project could contribute new information to the study of urban development in the past and said that a “major accomplishment” in anthropological archaeology has been to “take on and answer questions beyond that of the typical role of classical archaeology of corroborating or contradicting the received wisdom of written sources.” The historical record of Imperial Rome cannot be ignored and is a useful place to start in posing questions, but my project goes beyond confirming or denying history. Another reviewer expressed the concern that I made “na├»ve statements and expectations in terms of bringing together two areas that have developed in opposition over the course of the development of the university system in the US.” Without ambitious and multidisciplinary projects, however, we stand to miss out on the contributions in method and theory that classics and anthropology can make to one another. In this proposal, I address the historical record as well as current theory in both classical archaeology and anthropology in regard to migration, I present preliminary findings of my fieldwork, and I discuss how an in-depth stable isotope analysis will provide information not only about Roman life but also about ancient migration in general."

I wasn't exactly magnanimous in this statement, but after 3 rejections I felt the need to defend myself and to call out reviewers who clearly held a grudge against classics. So, yeah, still very surprised that this proposal was funded. But I was heartened that there are anthropologists out there who aren't writing me off as "just a classicist" and who recognize that ancient Rome can yet yield new information. I can't wait to get started on analyzing these bones - I plan to spend basically all summer in the isotope labs at UNC and Duke. Fun!

May 2, 2008

What's wrong with this picture?

I was google-imaging around for some pics to pepper my slides with today, and I came across this image, presumably of a forensic anthropologist working diligently in a lab, laying out a skeleton. The image is from the Forensic Newsletter of Staffordshire University in the UK. Brits are known for their excellence in osteology, so this picture was a shock to me. There are, at the very least, 6 things wrong with the way this skeleton is laid out (11 if you count the paired bones separately). So, who can point out things that are wrong with this picture? (Click here for a super-sized version, which will help.) More importantly, who can explain to me why this picture would grace the website of a forensic science program?

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