January 20, 2009

Roman Diet

I'm sure that you, like me, have been waiting with bated breath to find out what my Romans were eating. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait a bit longer for full results. But today I found out the results from the dental apatite (the inorganic component of enamel) for most of my sample. Although it seems that there are a couple outliers (people who were eating different foods from everyone else), for the most part everyone falls within an average range (although each person is, of course, different). Unlike the Sr samples, the C/N samples were taken from cross-sections of femoral midshaft, which means the results represent the average diet a person was eating in the last 5-10 years of his/her life. What is very interesting about the δ13Cap results is that the people from Castellaccio seem to have been eating more marine foods and possibly more millet (a C4 food). I have to wait on the collagen results, though, to make more sense of the apatite and to find out for sure what contribution marine resources made to the diet. And then I'll set to work on figuring out if women and men, kids and adults, and immigrants and locals were eating different foods.

January 17, 2009

Might for Right

Patrick and I were talking the other day, and in response to something he said, I retorted, "Nobody bothers me!" He didn't get it. I kept on, "Nobody bothers me either!" I always forget that he never really watched TV as a kid, so he doesn't share in my bizarre childhood memories of local TV commercials and get my references. Somewhere in the 80s, I would guess, there was a commercial on what must have been a TV station out of D.C. for Jhoon Rhee's martial arts studio. I just forced him to watch it while I sang along (link above if embed doesn't work):



I loved that commercial. My brother and I would act it out whenever it came on. Apparently, Jhoon Rhee is still alive and *ahem* kicking. In fact, he has been a consultant to numerous presidents and pro athletes and created National Teacher Appreciation Day.

Please tell me someone else remembers this commercial so that I can continue to make my "nobody bothers meeeee" references.

January 11, 2009

Millet-eaters

A recently-accepted article in AJPA provides the first concrete evidence for the consumption of millet in Italy in over 20 years (Tafuri et al., Stable isotope evidence for the consumption of millet and other plants in Bronze Age Italy, AJPA early view). I'm a bit annoyed, as part of my dissertation involves carbon isotope analysis to answer the question of whether or not Romans consumed millet, contrary to historical sources that claim millet was only for animals. No one else had thought to do C analysis in Italy for this reason (or perhaps other studies came up empty of C4 plant evidence), and I was hoping to provide some good evidence that my lower-class people ate everything they could find.

Then again, the current evidence is that people in Italy in the Bronze Age (15th-8th century BC) and the Iron Age (8th-5th century BC) ate millet, and all samples come from sites near the Alps or very far south on the peninsula. There are still no data supporting this kind of consumption during the Roman Republic or Empire. At a time when diets were likely changing rapidly owing to immigration (and thus new foodways) and importation of grain and edible animals, it's still important to test whether millet, by all accounts a famine-only kind of grain, was being eaten, particularly by the lower classes.

So I guess I haven't really been scooped. I do really want to get my carbon and nitrogen results back, though, to see what kind of surprises the dietary data hold for the classical period.

January 9, 2009

The difference between archaeologists and geologists...

I was meeting with the geochemist today about invoices and analysis of my strontium data, and he starts out with:

DC: Hey, you're an archaeologist, right?
KK: Uhm, yup. Why?
DC: I was sent a picture of this object. It's a North Carolina artifact. But I'm not sure what it is, so I thought I'd see if an archaeologist or a historian could tell me.
KK: Sure, there are loads of NC archaeologists in my department who could help you. What is it, ceramic, arrowhead?
DC: It's metal. Here's a picture.
KK: Wow, that's huge. And... conical? It looks magnetic too.
DC: Yup, it's definitely magnetic. We analyzed a bit of the artifact using the SEM and found out [some technical stuff I didn't really understand] about the metal.
KK: Cool. Well, no one in my department really does historical artifacts, but someone should be able to tell you what it is or who else to talk to. So you said it came from NC?
DC: Yeah, this woman sent me the picture because she thinks it's from a UFO.

At this point, I just burst into laughter. "A UFO" is totally not how I expected him to end the sentence "She thinks it's from..." He tried to explain a bit more, but I just kept laughing. Surprised at how funny I found it, he started laughing too. After I calmed down, he continued...

DC: We get this kind of thing all the time here, actually. Usually it's people thinking they've found some rare meteorite, but occasionally we get people who think they have a trace of an alien world.
KK: So this woman found a chunk of metal and thinks it's from a UFO?
DC: Yeah. Well, she says she found it, and then the government came and took it from her. But they gave it back, and she sent me a sample. It looks to me like someone dug a hole and poured in molten iron. But I don't know why anyone would do that.
KK: Hm, that is odd. Well, I've never seen anything like it on any historical dig I've been on, and it doesn't look like the slag heaps we get in Italy.

So I got him in touch with one of our NC archaeologists to see if they can sort this out. Doesn't sound like the woman who found the "UFO artifact" will want to hear that it's, for example, the poured foundation for a post. She wants the SEM to find out that it's metal that's out of this world.

I wish random people would email me asking me to look at the alien skeleton they just dug up in their backyard. That would be awesome.

AAPEh?

Back in September, I submitted an abstract for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists conference to be held in Chicago in April. It was the first time I submitted an abstract to AAPA with actual results in it. The year before, as I was still sweltering in Rome with little to show for all my work, I half-assed an abstract on health or something boring and got to present a podium paper at the 2008 meetings in Columbus. This year, I rushed to get my Sr data run on the SEM and interpreted in time to meet the abstract deadline, because AAPA supposedly only accepts abstracts if you have concrete data (kind of hard for archaeologists to get in September following a summer field session). So I'm a bit peeved that my abstract was only accepted as a poster this year. I had data and conclusions!

Posters can be fun, as you get to talk to people more informally, and random people come up to you and ask if you're doing aDNA (and if you want to, they have a lab that will totally not charge you a whole lot, yeah, right). But this year it'll mean attempting to bring my own chair somehow so that 7-months-pregnant me isn't horribly miserable for 2 hours standing around. And it means attempting to find a hotel room in Chicago in April that isn't disgustingly exorbitantly priced. And feeling bad if I fail to make it to the Field Museum because my back hurts.

It's still odd to me that this paper wasn't accepted for a podium presentation. I wonder if strontium isotope analysis just isn't that cool anymore, if I'd have to include oxygen or do another element entirely for it to impress the review committee. Unfortunately, isotope analysis is still a bit advanced for the classical meetings - although the AIAs have a BioArchaeology (sic) session this weekend in Philly, most of it is mortuary analysis and the one archaeological chemistry paper seems to be simply a review of the state of the art. So perhaps my research has fallen between the cracks of physical anthropology and classical archaeology, as it tends to do sometimes, and will land on the classics side within a year or two. At least now I can concentrate on making my paper for the SAAs, which are just three weeks after the AAPAs, that much better.

January 8, 2009

Data, data everywhere

Apparently I really was doing something horribly wrong a couple months back when at least three dozen of my strontium samples failed miserably in the SEM. One of the geochemists emailed me a crapload of data this afternoon: at least 50 new results. Only one sample failed, but he's rerunning it tonight to see if the other half can give good data. Now I have 111 unique data points from a combined population of about 215 ancient Roman skeletons. And I have no idea what to do with them.

If I put all 100+ results on a scatterplot, there are only 5 clear outliers: three lower than the Roman range, and 2 higher than that range. 4 of the 5 are males older than 30, 1 is a kid around 11-15. But there has got to be fancier statistical analysis that one usually does with these numbers. I mean, given that there was both short-distance and long-distance migration in Rome, the question becomes: how do I sort out the short-distance migrants from the locals? And given that Sr ratios vary more or less continuously from north to south along the Italian peninsula, shouldn't I expect my data to fall into a more or less continuous range? Maybe I'll do some cluster analysis tomorrow. Or just go talk to the geochemist and see what suggestions he has for analysis.

It'll be sad if I only get 5 immigrants out of 6 months of lab work and $5,600 of grant money, mostly because I really want to write a dissertation on immigrants, but also because these results don't bode well for future Sr analysis in Rome. If the largest Sr study ever done in archaeology only manages to find an immigration rate of 5% (when we know from ancient demography that it should be more like 20%) with 100% sample coverage, what hope is there for people who can only afford to sample 10% of their population?

January 7, 2009

Fuming

Forget about giant scary nitric acid spills, I seem to be able to harm myself in my own home. Last night, I decided to make some tea, so I put the kettle on the stove and turned on the burner. I went into the living room to wait for it to whistle. After a few minutes, it seemed to be taking a long time, so I went into the kitchen to check on it. There on the front burner was the casserole dish from dinner, with a plastic serving spoon in it and a lid on top. The spoon was burning, sending plumes of nasty smoke into the top of the lid and out through the crack. I quickly shut off the burner, grabbed two potholders, and slid the dish to another burner. But the smell was pretty gross, and Patrick banished me from the kitchen while he helpfully dealt with my mistake. Somehow, I can manage to send off toxic fumes even in my own house, which is rather more worrisome than a little nitric acid on occasion.

Here's a picture of the spoon (upside down), still sitting outside on the picnic table with the casserole dish and top.

January 6, 2009

Eek

Yesterday, a UNC student in one of the chem labs on campus was injured by an exploding flask of acid... more specifically, nitric acid. She is fine - just has some cuts - and the lab apparently wasn't even evacuated after the explosion. So perhaps nitric acid isn't actually all that dangerous. The story makes me feel better about my exposure to nitric in the lab a couple months back but also makes me not want to run any more samples, seeing as how I'm not really trained to be in a chem lab.

All my samples should be done by Friday, though, so provided none of them fail, I'm done running Sr for a good long time.

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