September 15, 2010

Athenian plague victim?

Although this news appears to have been reported in Greek in April, the BBC and other outlets today took notice of a facial reconstruction of "an 11-year-old girl from Athens" who died in 430 BC. The most in-depth English coverage that I could find comes from Archaeology Daily News, which notes that:

"The 11-year-old Athenian girl died of typhoid fever in 430 BC during a plague, and her bones were found in a mass grave near the ancient Athenian cemetery of Keramikos when the Athens subway was being dug up in 1995. The mass grave was full of 150 men, women and children.

Papagrigorakis took DNA from the teeth of the other skulls in the grave to prove that they had died of typhoid fever. DNA was not taken from Myrtis herself because the team did not want to damage her intact teeth."


OK, so, it was a mass grave. And (all?) the other people whose DNA was tested were positive for the typhoid-causing bacterium. I can buy that "Myrtis" probably died from typhoid. But they took no DNA from this subadult individual. At 11 years old, it's not easy (some would argue it's impossible) to tell sex from the skeleton alone.

As far as I can tell from the Greek article in Ta Nea (Google translate hilariously calls the skeleton "the blueberry" throughout the article) it appears that Myrtis was labeled a girl because of the small chin and small canines. I would normally assume that they did DNA analysis on the other children and then seriated them (by, for example, the size of the canines), but they reported there were only 8 children. The red hair and brown eyes? Just guesses based on what ancient authors reported (yet we know that the Greeks had a slightly different way of talking about colors than we do; for example, the infamous "wine-dark sea" of Homer's Iliad).

At any rate, I think this facial reconstruction is pretty cool. The dental development (and issues therewith) is interesting, and it was a good choice of skull because the end result is striking and grabs your attention. Still, I'm at a loss for why the researchers didn't do DNA analysis from this individual - as they would have found out definitively whether it was a female, what hair color this person had, and whether the typhoid bacterium was present. At this point, these attributes are just guesses.

It's not exactly a deception of the public - because these attributes can be reconstructed from DNA and other biochemical methods, they just weren't for this particular individual. But we are led to believe some very specific things about a skeleton that there is no definitive evidence to back up. Myrtis has apparently become a "representative of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals" to raise awareness about child health around the world. This is undoubtedly a good thing - promoting ancient facial reconstruction, bioarchaeology in Greece, and awareness of contemporary health issues - but it irritates me that behind the gorgeous reconstruction may be someone else entirely.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Cool post! Do you happen to know if that recently developed program that uses 3-D imaging to identify 20 markers of sex on human pelvic bones can be used for sub-adults or only adults? I agree with you irritation, but I also agree with the idea of not performing destructive tests on all of the individuals recovered. Can the samples that would need to be taken from teeth only be done by a similar method as what you showed in an older post from when you were working in Rome a few years ago(the one with the video of the teeth being cut into slabs) or is there a less destructive technique more like using a tree increment borer for looking at tree rings? Sorry if these questions seem inane: I am new to archaeology.

Kristina said...

Hm, I don't know about 3D imaging, although I should probably give myself a crash course in it at some point. As for the DNA analysis, generally we just take chunks of bone/tooth, but I suspect that a tooth could just be bored into with a dental drill (much like a dentist's removing degraded enamel to put in a filling). I don't know how much tooth is needed for that, though - maybe they would need more material than could be obtained through a small bore hole.

onix said...

haircolour for antique remains? new. thx.

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