June 18, 2010

Empathy and Humans

This is perhaps the most awesome thing I've seen in months: a 10-minute animated/illustrated mini lecture on the evolution and progression of empathy in humans. Seriously, it's well worth watching.

For more, search for "RSA Animate" on YouTube - someone decided to animate lectures given at the (British) Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts. Very cool pedagogical idea.

June 17, 2010

Reflections on an Academic Life

If there's anything that a combined 10 years as a graduate student have taught me about the academic life, it's that it's not easy. I try to convey this to undergraduates who want to go on to be researchers, so they're not unpleasantly surprised by grad school. It may be wildly presumptuous of me to offer unsolicited advice to undergraduates and to reflect on my time as an academic when I haven't yet landed a full-time job, but graduation and other liminal rituals always make me a bit maudlin. So here goes...

The problem with pursuing a career as an academic in the humanities is that research in them largely serves to explain and interpret the world around us rather than to make specific, lasting changes that directly impact the lives of average people. Funding is thus contingent on a person's ability to eke some sort of relevance out of research that they feel passionate about but that, in the grand scheme of things, makes the world a bit more nuanced but not easier to deal with on a day-to-day basis. This profession, then, sometimes requires a researcher to capitulate to the vagaries of funding and the whims of academic popularity of subject matter and approach. We no longer live in a world where foppish dilettantes with oodles of money are the only people to study the classics or excavate a burial mound or live among a foreign population. But we also no longer live in a time where that kind of investigation is seen as important in and of itself.

As an anthropologist who has skirted the line between humanistic and scientific pursuits, I can say that it is easier to gain funding (and thus achieve the academic standard of success) when I am more sciencey and when I invent scenarios in which my research about long-dead people is relevant to the current world situation. But it's still extraordinarily difficult to be an academic and to put up with all the roadblocks to what is, deep down, simply a life-long curiosity about people's innards.

The academic job season has officially opened, and as I begin applying for these positions, I constantly ask myself if it's worth it. All the stress, all the teaching, all the worrying about funding... for what? Will my research really yield new information about migration in antiquity that can be applied to today? Maybe, maybe not. Would taking a full-time job as an editor or research support staff member provide more job security, more money, and more tangible results than the academic career I've set myself on a path towards? Probably. But when I ask myself if I want to deal with churning out articles and conference papers, teaching thousands of students, doing unpaid committee work, and submitting scores of grant applications for the rest of my professional career, I keep coming down on the side of Yes. I'm eager to convince others of the importance of my research so that I can be a voyeur to the past, peering into the bodies of long-dead Romans.

A friend asked me a few months ago if it was silly to move on from an incomplete dissertation based on seemingly random events in her life. I don't think it's silly at all to pause at these "signs" and take a moment to reevaluate where you are and where you want to be. Scholars need to engage in this activity constantly in research, as well as in their career paths. If you start answering No more often than Yes to the question of whether you are willing to put up with job and research hurdles, then academia is not the place for you. What you do with your degree is entirely up to you, so remember that a career in academia is not the only path.

We all struggle with academic careers, and it's particularly difficult when life - in the form of a spouse, kids, and social commitments - complicates what sometimes needs to be a single-minded pursuit. It's up to you to find the balance, and whatever you decide to do to find that balance in your life is a valid choice.

June 10, 2010

Aqua Traiana

Back in January, a couple of British documentarians found the source of the Aqua Traiana, the 2nd century AD aqueduct that started about 35 miles north of Rome near Lake Bracciano. From my very limited knowledge of aqueducts, it seems like little is known about the Traiana, at least in terms of the volume of water that was imported to Rome each day and possibly in terms of its water depots (castella) in Rome, although it appears to have supplied the Janiculum with water. Because Frontinus, the water commissioner of Rome in the 1st century AD, doesn't have volume figures for the Traiana (as he predated its inauguration), I couldn't use it in my construction of a strontium isotope model for the ancient city.

Bracciano, however, is a volcanically formed lake, and the strontium isotope ratios of volcanic geology increase the further north one goes in the Italian peninsula. It is therefore possible that people living in Rome in the 2nd century and later could obtain a strontium value as high as perhaps .7107, which is the only published ratio for Bracciano I could find. And since it's volcanic, it is likely that the water has a high strontium content too, which means it would dominate the signature of someone who drank a mixture of water from Bracciano, the local Colli Albani (.7090-.7103), and the eastern aqueduct sources in the Monti Simbruini (.7079-.7080).

There are estimates of the volume of water the Traiana brought into Rome (e.g., 1,300 litres per second, or roughly 30 million gallons of water per day). If this figure is right, it has the possibility to substantially alter the percentage of high-strontium water available in the city, as it's about the same amount as Romans were importing from aqueduct sources in the local Colli Albani and half the amount they were importing from the low-strontium Monti Simbruini sources. As a way forward in modelling the strontium range of ancient Rome in order to investigate immigration, it is important to measure the strontium isotope ratio and concentration of the water from the source of the Traiana, which is why I've been watching the issues around the spring (and its associated architecture) unfold.

In spite of all the initial excitement about the aqueduct source and all the architecture and hydrological equipment, the owner of the land on which the aqueduct was found is suddenly not too keen on having archaeologists swarm his property to excavate this incredibly important feature in Roman hydrology. Apparently, he wants to do it himself to reap the rewards of finding priceless antiques. I hope that Italian authorities are successful in getting a permit to excavate or an injunction or whatever they need to preserve the site for professional inspection. And I hope that one day I (or some other enterprising geo- or archaeologist) can sample the water to get strontium isotope ratios and concentrations that would be useful to both bioarchaeologists and geologists in the area.

Still, based on my strontium isotope ratios from human remains, there are very few individuals over .7100, well within the expected range for people drinking water from the Colli Albani. A few individuals did have slightly higher ratios, though, such as .7104 - which could mean they came to Rome from a few dozen miles north, or that they drank water in Rome from the source waters of the Aqua Traiana. The strontium isotope analysis of Imperial Romans was far more complex than I initially thought it would be. Fortunately, between two-end-member models and the addition of oxygen isotope analysis, the complications of the aqueducts can be somewhat obviated. Of course, as with all research, analysis of additional samples (of people, animals, and water sources) would generate substantial progress in looking at migration to Rome through chemical means.

June 1, 2010

Five Little PhD Presents

While we were in Charlottesville for the holiday weekend, my mom plopped a small brown envelope next to my lunch plate and told me it was a happy PhD present. I opened it up and found...

Yup, teeth. Specifically, my 94-year-old grandfather's teeth. He finally decided to get dentures after years of chewing with fewer teeth than my 11-month-old. The dentist had to pull the remaining teeth, and my mom, who has been well-trained to give me xrays and other peeks inside the bodies of immediate family members, thought to ask the dentist if she could have her father's teeth.

Before I even dumped them out to get a better look at them, I peered into the bag and commented, "I didn't know grandpa had a crown." His wife retorted, "He didn't. He never had a crown." It was kind of a strange reaction since, well, it is pretty damned clear from even a cursory look that the maxillary right central incisor (RXI1) is a porcelain crown on top of a real root. Maybe my grandfather had had that crown for decades and his wife didn't know? Or one or both of them forgot? The other teeth are pretty badly chipped and carious - there appear to be an upper right lateral incisor (RXI2), an upper left lateral incisor (LXI2), an upper left canine (LXC), and a mandibular right central(?) incisor (RNI1).

Perhaps there were more teeth that didn't come out whole and therefore that I didn't get from the extraction. But if my grandfather really was eating as well as he was with only five teeth, I might have to rethink what edentulousness meant in antiquity. Seriously, he ate bread and corn and candy and pretty much everything he had eaten before, just cooked a bit longer. Plus, he's healthy as a horse - clearly his poor dental health has not caused further problems for him.

I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do with these teeth. But I keep trying to convince myself that it's no creepier than having, say, a lock of someone's hair. It's not, right?

Diss is in, let the comments begin!

Oddly enough, after all my worrying about table font size and margins, the Grad School accepted my dissertation within hours of my submitting it. Guess there isn't a lot for the dissertation-checker to do when spring graduation has passed and summer graduation is still a couple months away.The dissertation (Migration and Mobility in Imperial Rome) should be available through your favorite library within the week, but if you just can't wait to read 413 pages about isotope analysis, skeletal and dental pathologies, and slaves and lower-class immigrants to Rome, you can download it here. (It's a rather large PDF, about 24 megs.) I ended up choosing "traditional publishing" through UMI, mainly because it was $65 whereas their "open source" option was $160. Since I retain the copyright, I can post a copy of the PDF anywhere I want. This means I might miss out on any royalties that UMI will accrue, but I suspect that few people want to pay for a copy of my dissertation. Besides, I'd rather that people who want to read it be able to get easy access to it for free.

So now my ideas and my research are out there for others to comment on... or not to comment on. The latter is what I fear the most, metaphorical crickets after I put so much time and effort into a project I feel very proud of. To whet your appetite, here's the abstract:

Migration to Rome in the Imperial period has been under-researched owing to a dearth of epigraphical and historical evidence, particularly regarding the lower classes. A new set of data has come to light in the form of thousands of skeletons from lower-class cemeteries in Rome's suburbium. Two of these cemeteries, Casal Bertone near the city walls and Castellaccio Europarco in an agricultural area of the Roman suburbs, yielded 183 skeletons for osteological analysis. Combined strontium and oxygen isotope analyses of a subsample of 55 individuals isolated 20 people who came to Rome following a birth elsewhere. Carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of the same sample population demonstrated that there were significant differences between the childhood diet of immigrants to Rome and that of the locals. Immigrants were more likely to have consumed diets with significant amounts of the C4 plant millet. Prevalence of skeletal and dental diseases, however, were not significantly different between the immigrant and local populations. Mobility in Imperial Rome can thus be characterized from isotope analyses as long-distance migration from the provinces as well as movement of individuals within the Italian peninsula. The biological identification of immigrants to Rome in the absence of historical and epigraphical data is a significant first step towards a new understanding of who migrants were, where they came from, and what experiences they had upon arrival in the Imperial capital.

Finally, of course, it never hurts to reprise my favorite cartoon of all time, the Mother Goose and Grimm from May 17, 2008:

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