October 31, 2009

Ossa dei Morti

In completely separate research streams this week on Roman funeral customs and Halloween, I came across an Italian All Soul's Day tradition rooted in the Roman Lemuralia, or the festival honoring the dead. During the latter, the paterfamilias would fill his mouth with black fava beans, which he would take out one by one and throw over his shoulder as he walked through the house. The lemuri, or souls of the deceased, would stoop to pick them up (as fava beans contained the souls of the dead) and leave the house. When Christianity took hold, traditions such as this were frowned upon. The practice of purifying the house of souls with fava was transformed into ossa dei morti, cookies (sometimes called fave dolci) made with almond paste, that are shaped to look like finger bones (or, in some traditions, tibiae).

If only I had stayed in Italy another month in 2007, I might have found out about this tradition earlier (and gotten some awesome recipes from my friends' mothers and grandmothers). I am seriously considering whipping up a batch of ossa dei morti on Monday... or at least filing this away to start a family tradition next year when Chickpea is old enough to help out.

October 27, 2009

Girly Teeth

After 32 years of decent dental health, in which I had one occlusal lesion in my lower left first molar (albeit one that was filled three separate times because the first and second dentists did a crappy job), I suddenly realized yesterday that I had not one but two smooth surface lesions on my lower left premolars, both along the buccal gumline. Carious lesions don't just appear. It takes a while for the munchy little bacteria to eat away at the enamel, turning it yellow then brown. Somehow I had two surprisingly large brown spots on my poor premolars. As an osteologist, I look at my teeth at least once a day. Sure, I don't inspect every single millimeter of them with a dental mirror, but as they're the only inside part of my skeleton on the outside, I gaze at them more than is probably healthy. So it's odd that I wouldn't notice the classic signs of dental caries in my own mouth.

But then I thought back to the outrageous amount of information I read over the course of my pregnancy last year. There was always a warning about dental procedures: some people seemed to think they were harmful, particularly in the first trimester, and some felt that good dental health was necessary for a healthy baby. I didn't think about this too much and did what I'd always done: brush at least twice a day. No flossing, in spite the ravages of periodontal disease I've seen in ancient skeletons. No cleanings at the dentist, in spite of the nasty tartar buildup I've seen on every single skull I've ever examined.

It seems, though, that I'm not alone in my confusion about dental care during pregnancy. A 2008 article notes that dental care in pregnancy is misunderstood by even doctors and dentists. What I should have searched for was the effects of pregnancy on dental health. I would have quickly found this 2002 review article that has two key findings: 1) Pregnancy-related changes are most frequent and most marked in gingival tissue; and 2) Changes in salivary composition in late pregnancy and during lactation may temporarily predispose to dental caries and erosion. Granted, as spelled out in the article, it's not that pregnancy causes carious lesions, rather it creates a better environment for bacteria to multiply and attack teeth and gums. One of my pregnancy side-effects, as it were, was sensitive gums, particularly in my first trimester. Even with the softest toothbrush, my gums would bleed every time I brushed. I thought, however, that my gums would go back to normal soon enough with no lasting effects, much like how the rest of my pregnancy-related complaints disappeared within a couple weeks after delivery. Although my gums seem fine, the changes in gingival tissues (especially the periodontal membrane) I had during pregnancy (and possibly now, as I am still nursing) must have contributed to these lesions.

But it got me thinking... I don't specialize in dental anthropology, but I can't remember ever having read that females of childbearing age have higher rates of carious lesions (and their inevitable result in antiquity, antemortem tooth loss) on average than males. Or that females have a higher rate of periodontal disease, the bony reaction to untreated gingivitis. I've already analyzed my Roman dental data for these disease processes, but I didn't think to specifically examine reproductive-age females. In antiquity, the creation of a better environment for hosting oral bacteria would have meant far more carious lesions than it does for today's hygiene-conscious woman. We really should be able to see this increase in the skeletal record - provided, of course, that men weren't doing something similarly cariogenic with their mouths. I doubt we could say much more than that women in the population likely had prenatal and postpartum caries, because the etiology of caries is multifaceted and there are tons of variables affecting it, although it would be cool if we could isolate the women who had given birth using their dental remains.

At any rate, a dentist appointment on Thursday will confirm just how rampant the decay is and how many fillings I need. Yay, pregnancy. Just one of the many things veteran mothers don't tell you about.

UPDATE: No cavities here, oddly enough. It seems I brush too hard, and my gums are receding slightly in the area of my mandibular premolars, exposing a bit of the somewhat darker and more sensitive root. That's good news, but I still need to be vigilant so that I don't get root caries - and now I know why some osteologists advocate counting root lesions differently than occlusal and smooth surface caries.

October 13, 2009

Comparative Cemeteries

It never ceases to amaze me just how few Roman cemeteries have been published (at least, in terms of the skeletal data. It seems the exciting grave goods are always published). Consider that in 2001, Italian bioarchaeologists noted that over 3,500 skeletons had been excavated in the previous three years. I don't even know how to extrapolate from that, as there was a lot of construction work done in 2000 for the Grande Giubileo, but Rome is still putting in all sorts of metro and train lines, so I would assume there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 skeletons that have been excavated in the last 10-15 years. And these are only from sites that are under the purview of the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma, so they are cemeteries from the city and suburbs of Rome. (I'm pretty sure, for example, that the cemeteries at Isola Sacra are curated by the soprintendenza for Lazio.)

The lack of publications makes it both easy and hard to figure out what my comparative populations are for my dissertation. I have counted 8 Imperial cemeteries that have been published on their own, plus 4 that have been published as comparative material (and thus have only summary data rather than raw numbers). But this includes other urban sites like Pompeii, Herculaneum, Isola Sacra, and the rural sites of Lucus Feroniae and Quadrella. If I really narrow my search to Imperial cemeteries from the city and suburbs of Rome, I get 3: Via Basiliano (about 1 km further from Rome than my Casal Bertone), Vallerano (just south of my Castellaccio), and Osteria del Curato. Basiliano had over 2,200 tombs, but only 142 skeletons are published. Vallerano had only 103 tombs, but they are all published. And Osteria del Curato seems to have had hundreds of burials, but 120 skeletons are published and another 100 or so are summarized.

It's probably silly to stress about this, as I'm picking comparative populations solely for demography (and possibly for basic palaeopathology of teeth and cribra orbitalia/porotic hyperostosis, as those are the diseases most often reported in Italian bioarch), which is background to my isotope studies. It's very surprising, though, that nothing close to raw data is published in the Italian bioarch articles I've read. There are percentages of males versus females, percentages for age-at-death, and average height of males and females. But in general, I have no idea exactly how many skeletons were assessed to come up with those percentages, and that is a bit frustrating and worrisome from a comparative standpoint. Even more difficult is the fact that more skeletons were found at each of my two study sites since 2007, so I don't have complete populations either, just a fairly large sample of each. This is probably a complication, though, of having a full ancient city underneath a modern one.

Mostly for the sake of my graphs, I think I'll compare my two sites with the cemeteries in the same (sub)urban radius, because putting them all on the same footing (as is often done in the literature I'm reading) will only minimize any differences between urban and suburban life. And there do seem to be differences, at least in terms of age at death and diet. But more to come on that in the future...

October 2, 2009

My Broken Family

My mom has always been supportive of my need to study human bones, as she's a nurse and thinks it's pretty cool herself. A couple years ago, she got me a DVD of the cardiac cath that my aunt had done. It was cool to see not only her heart beating but also the small bone spurs on her thoracic vertebrae. (Note: do not tell your aging aunt that she has evidence of minor arthritis in her spine, as she will freak out.) She also gave me a copy of a dental xray that my grandfather had, which was cool because he (unfortunately) has few teeth.

A few weeks back, my mom tripped while helping move some furniture and fell backwards - hard - onto her left wrist. It promptly snapped, possibly because this is the second time in her life she has broken it and possibly because she's getting older. But at that point, even in a fog of pain, my mom knew the drill: request copies of any and all tests that look inside her body. Here are a few of the images I pulled from the CD they burned for her, both when she injured it and after reduction and casting.

The first one is a lateral view of her wrist. You can see just how badly she fractured her radius because the nice strong white lines end abruptly, and the distal end is smushed sort of dorsally. Ouch.



Here's a dorsal view where the wrist doesn't look quite as bad, plus the same view after the doctor tried to manipulate the bone back into place before putting on a temporary cast.



Then last night, Patrick injured himself pretty badly at basketball. His right ankle was swollen and painful. This morning, it was still pretty badly swollen and there was a giant bruise that just kept getting bigger. As it's a Friday and we didn't want to risk an ER trip over the weekend, I got him an appointment to see a doctor this afternoon. The GP didn't think it was broken but sent us to a radiologist across the road to get an xray anyway. Definitely not broken, but I did get to see inside Patrick's leg. Here are three views: medial, anterior, and anterolateral.





The only weird thing is the distal tibia. To me, that looks like a line of epiphyseal fusion running horizontally, but Patrick is too old to have vestiges of that line... isn't he? Anyway, I find this all terribly cool, even if my mom and Patrick are a little freaked out about seeing their own bones. Maybe if these were reminders of my pain and discomfort, I'd be weirded out by them too.

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