November 30, 2010

Archaeology of a Mural of Archaeology

I was in New Orleans for the American Anthropological Association meeting last week. I stayed down on Frenchmen Street, which is at the end of Decatur, about a mile-long walk from the conference venue. In the other direction on Frenchmen was a small park. It wasn't until Sunday morning, just minutes before grabbing a cab to the airport, that I noticed a mural on the Apple Barrel Bar, just a block away from the hotel:

If you click to embiggen the picture (apologies for the palm tree shadow), you'll notice that the mural depicts a white-haired, balding man with glasses who is screening dirt and finding pieces of pottery. The further accoutrements (a vase, a book, a pick) declare his trade: archaeology. I was stupidly excited to find a mural of an archaeologist - complete with what seem to be actual artifacts stuck into the screen - a stone's throw from my hotel while at an anthropology conference. (Google street view unfortunately has a giant beer truck in the way, but you can kind of see the mural here.)

I was determined to find out more about this mural once I got back home to a proper internet connection. But I largely came up short. Kris Hirst's archaeology page at has this thumbnail image of the archaeologist, but no further information about the mural. Then I discovered this page on, which tells me:

"The white-haired, white male archaeologist is sitting on a box that--as you look more closely, is the roof of the warehouse that may have once stood on the site being excavated. Shards of pottery and shell are embedded in the mural. The Greater New Orleans Archaeology Program uses it as a background image on their website and identify it as 'Neighborhood Archaeology' by Rain Webb, 1986. Commissioned by and courtesy of Phil Esteve, Apple Barrel Bar & Restaurant, 609 Frenchman St., N.O., LA."

The GNOAP no longer has the mural on their webpage (although they have an amazing fleur-de-lis in which the upright petal is replaced by a trowel!). I searched for the title of the mural and for the artist, but to no avail. The Apple Barrel Bar seems to have no website, and the proprietor who commissioned the mural passed away a few years ago.

Uncertain where to turn next, I contacted the director of the GNOAP, Andrea White, to see what she knew about the mural. Andrea emailed me the following:

"To my knowledge, [the mural] was not tied to any specific archaeology project in the vicinity although it was painted soon after the completion of several large-scale projects in the city. [...] As for the inspiration of the archaeologist... that is still a question too since it does not resemble anyone locally. Yes, the finds are real, and I'm not sure of their origin. I am tracking down sources now to write a small article on it, so I will keep you informed."

What really interests me is that the artist chose to depict an archaeologist in this way: older, white, male, balding, with glasses and a beard. I assumed this depicted a real person because most archaeologists in the popular imagination are young(ish) rogues - Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, among others. (At the AAA meeting, a student at, I think, Bloomsburg University was passing out surveys on popular conceptions of archaeologists, which coincided nicely with my thoughts on the subject matter of the mural!) In this situation, then, is the conception of an archaeologist as a mature white man a counterpoint to the expected discourse? Does it accurately reflect the majority of archaeologists in the U.S.? Or does it belie an inherent assumption that knowledge is created by wise men?

The mystery of the archaeology mural in New Orleans continues! I'm looking forward to hearing what Andrea finds out about the mural and the artifacts that make up its central focus. If anyone out there has additional information about this mural - or even just comments on its subject - let me know!

November 29, 2010

200 Years of Life Expectancy vs. Wealth

In this very short BBC video, Hans Rosling, a Swedish professor of international health, shows both how statistics can be dynamic and how much the last two centuries have shaped our health and wealth, particularly in the West:

I wonder if Santa will bring me fancy interactive laser beam bouncing ball technology for Christmas. Between that and the sparkly snowglobe forensic imaging system from Bones, I could make a 3D movie out of my dissertation research! (I snark because I wish I could make something this cool out of my statistics.)

[Shoutout to Sociological Images for the video link.]

November 27, 2010

Sex and Gender of Egyptian Mummies

This Egyptian mummy (c. 350 AD), which has been in a museum collection in England since the end of the 19th century, was recently subjected to a CT scan. The news coverage isn't great, as I had to read between the lines of the dumbed-down popular science of it. In essence, previous assessment of the mummy in 1993 had concluded that it was a male child of about 7 years old who had possibly been murdered. The CT scan last week appears to have confirmed from the soft tissue that the child was male - however, he was wrapped in clothing that had traditionally feminine symbols on it and was buried with a bracelet and breast cones typical of girls and women. He was also younger than expected, around 4-5 years old based on dental development and epiphyseal fusion. The injuries he sustained - a broken clavicle and a fractured skull that resulted in hemorrhage - seemed to have happened a few weeks before his death (I assume based on evidence of healing/remodeling of the bone).

Oddly, both the articles from this week's Daily Mail note that a "detailed analysis of pelvic bones and teeth confirmed the mummy is a boy despite its female adornments." As I've harped on in the past (mostly in my Bones review posts), unless the researchers have a large collection of pelvic bones and teeth from children of known sex from Roman Egypt to which they can compare, it is often little more than a guess whether the child is male or female. Since the researchers did a CT scan and had soft tissue, I would imagine this piece of data was the key to their estimation of sex. It's therefore strange that the Daily Mail chose to focus on the skeletal tissue rather than the soft tissue.

The coverage of this mummy also has some issues with the difference between sex and gender. One of the researchers who worked on this mummy told the Daily Mail, "It's a boy. It's not always obvious, and you need to know what you are looking for." I'm not in any way an expert on Egyptian mummies, but I can unequivocally state that she is right - well, partially: gender is not obvious from physical remains. But I can't say that she's right that "it's a boy" - after all, according to the article, this child was buried with feminine accoutrements. Not just in a shroud usually reserved for girls, but with breast cones. The child's sex seems clear: the child was male (if I am reading correctly that the CT scan found evidence of genitalia). But the child's gender is not at all clear. I wonder how many other Egyptian mummies have a disconnect between their biological sex and their culturally-constructed (burial-styled) gender? I recall from an art history course that the amazing Roman mummy portraits often were younger than the mummy itself and sometimes of a different sex. Are sex and gender in Egyptian mummies (especially children) otherwise known, studied, or understood phenomena? A quick google search shows that this is not the first time a mummy turned out to be male in spite of presumed feminine burial styling. How different will our study of ancient Egyptian burial practices be if we find out through subjecting mummies to new technology that they are not the sex/gender we think they are?

November 21, 2010

Bones - Season 6, Episode 7 (Review)

The Babe in the Bar

Episode Summary

Jimmy Walpert is a modern-day Willy Wonka, who puts on a publicity stunt of crafting the world's largest chocolate bar - 6' wide x 15' long. When his employees cut into it to give his adoring public a taste, however, they hit human bone - and a river of putrefied tissue. At the scene, Brennan assesses age and sex. From the os coxae, she can tell that the victim was female, and from the degree of spondylosis, she estimates the victim was in her late 20s. The entire chocolate bar is taken back to the Jeffersonian, where it is subjected to a CT scan to see what else is inside.

Mr. Nigel-Murray (returning from his post-Jeopardy $1 million win, which he squandered on, quite literally, hookers and blow) suggests that a slight occipital depression could be an indication of a blow to the head (and an implication of murder), but Brennan counters that the victim could have had a grand mal seizure while lying in or near the chocolate mold. However, they also note that the right radius has an indication of perimortem trauma, possibly sharp-force trauma sustained in an attack. Dr. Saroyan finds that there are two trapped bubbles in the chocolate, the result of the victim's last breath. She has the chocolate cut and frozen, then extracts the gas from the bubbles for Dr. Hodgins to analyze. Booth and Brennan learn that the victim is Harriet Solloway and talk to her sister, Geneva, who notes Harriet's ability to lie and pass herself off as anyone she wants.

Back at the Jeffersonian, Brennan and Nigel-Murray find that the contusion to the occipital matches the edge of the chocolate mold. The victim's septal cartilage was crushed, there is a hairline fracture of the left frontal process of the maxilla, and pressure fractures on the orbits all indicate the victim was suffocated while submerged. Further, they note that the trauma to the right radius is actually not perimortem; rather, it is a pseudarthrosis indicating the victim sustained an injury to her arm 5-6 months before she died and did not have proper medical attention.

The results from the gas in the bubbles yield carbon dioxide as well as a variety of other gases that Dr. Hodgins traces back to Bolomo Sparkling Wines. Mr. Bolomo had a fling with both Geneva and Harriet Solloway, and Geneva was jealous and upset with her sister. During questioning at the FBI, Booth asks if Geneva caused the stab wound to her sister's right arm, but Geneva denies it. Mr. Nigel-Murray and Brennan confer at the Jeffersonian and note that the perimortem fractures support a scenario of attack: the attacker held the victim down with one hand, fracturing her sternum and clavicle, and suffocated her with the other hand. Nigel-Murray, however, notes a small, proliferative lesion on the distal edge of the fracture. Brennan identifies it as an aventitious cyst, wherein the bone formed a callus around a foreign object that had been embedded in the bone. A microslice of the cyst leads Hodgins to identify Helopeltis theobromae, an insect from Indonesia that thrives on the cocoa plant.

It turns out that the victim, Harriet, was a spy. She worked for Ambrosia, a chocolate company that competed with Walpert. During training in Indonesia, she hurt her right arm with a machete. As they were so far from medical care, she did not get proper treatment and the wound got infected. Nigel-Murray, however, finds another perimortem injury: on the fourth finger of the left hand, the victim's proximal phalanx showed asymmetry in the articular condyle and damage to the corresponding facet, as if someone had twisted her finger.

The attacker turns out to be Scott Kimper, the chocolatier who was having an affair with Harriet Solloway. He bought her an engagement ring (and hoped to leave his wife), but found out that she was a spy for Ambrosia. He had shared all of his secrets with her and felt betrayed both professionally and personally, so he killed her. Analysis of the second trapped gas bubble revealed a trace amount of blood, which was matched through DNA to Scott Kimper.

Forensic Comments
  • The world's largest chocolate bar, as far as I could find in a google search, is actually 224" long, 110" wide, and 10" thick. Walpert's chocolate bar was apparently only two-dimensional (unless I missed the reported third dimension).
  • Brennan finally uses the pelvis to figure out the victim's sex. However, using the degree of degeneration of the lumbar(?) vertebrae is not at all reasonable, especially when there is clearly a well-preserved pelvis available for age estimation. (Degeneration can vary based on activity, diet, environment, etc.)
  • Brennan notes that the victim sustained "sharp-force" trauma. However, only blunt trauma is generally separated into blunt-force (meaning, inflicted by others) and blunt (meaning, accidental). But maybe forensic anthropologists do use "sharp-force" rather than just "sharp trauma."
  • I doubt that suffocation would have caused such severe and widespread fractures: to the back of the head, eye orbits, the nose, the maxilla, the clavicle, and the sternum. That's quite a lot of fractures considering their theory is that the attacker held the victim down with one hand (and covered her mouth with the other?). Honestly, I'm not sure what they think the attacker did.
  • The finding of the pseudarthrosis has all kinds of issues:
    1. Nigel-Murray reports an issue with the "distal edge" of the fracture. He should be more specific as to the location, however, such as antero-distal.
    2. This occurs when two halves of a bone don't unite after a trauma (such as a fracture). How did the victim manage to hit herself with a machete so hard it fractured her radius in two? Was the implication that someone else in the field did it? Wouldn't a machete wound that is so deep (and, presumably, wide) that it severed the bone have also severed, say, the radial nerve? Wouldn't that have warranted flying out of the field for medical attention?
    3. Bone can form around an intrusion, especially with/during an infection. I've never read about this happening with an organic object (the bug). Wouldn't it have decomposed rather than being embedded in the bone? If it was still in the bone and causing infection, wouldn't the victim have had a drainage channel to the external surface (i.e., a debriding, pus-oozing wound in her lower arm)?
    4. A pseudarthrosis means, literally, a "fake joint." Which means that the victim had been using her arm in spite of the wound and it had started to form another articulation point (basically, that she had an extra wrist in the lower part of her arm). I think the writers meant that she simply had a non-union of a fracture (or bone trauma). Seriously, this part bugged the crap out of me.
  • If the victim had her finger wrenched immediately before death - and the implication was that the attacker took the ring from her finger before suffocating her - there would not have been anywhere near enough time for bony changes to occur to the articular surfaces of the phalanges.
  • Why did the victim's last breath have the attacker's blood in it?
  • Note to Bones writers: there are no condyles in the finger bones. I know that wikipedia says that a condyle is the surface of any joint, but we refer to the surfaces as, simply, articular surfaces or articular facets. The condyles are special, such as the femoral condyles, the tibial condyles, or the mandibular condyles.
  • Note to Bones prop people: your skeletons are really fake-looking. The victim's skeleton was in no way convincing as a skeleton, much less as that of a young white female.


Nigel-Murray is back! Which means a whole lot of random factoids. (I can't help it, I like Nigel-Murray, especially since his turn on Mad Men.) To wit:
  • Pope Clement XIV was rumored to have been killed with a poisoned cup of chocolate.
  • Chocolate and violence often intersect, Brennan notes. In Aztec society, cocoa pods represented the human heart, while the seeds represented the blood, especially in rituals. (Not sure if this is true, but cocoa/cacao did play a big role in ancient Mesoamerican societies.)
  • The cacao tree is a species of the genus Theobroma, which translates from the Latin (sic) as "food of the gods." (Another note to the Bones writers: "theo" is Greek, "deo" is Latin. Mr. Nigel-Murray would not have made that mistake.)
  • Milton Hershey was a Quaker, and the English Quakers believed that violence among the poor would be ended if they would give up alcohol for chocolate. (I couldn't find confirmation of this in a quick search, but Cadbury was also a Quaker!)
The less said about the "yowza" trope throughout the episode, the better.

It always bugs me about Bones that the characters constantly refer to one another by Dr. So-and-so. From now on, I want all of my closest friends to call me Dr. Killgrove (or Dr. Bone Girl). Also, I want my significant other to refer to me by just my last name, as Angela always calls her husband Hodgins. (Have you noticed that Sweets and Wick are the only ones who call one another Lance and Daisy on a regular basis?) Seriously, anthropologists are some of the most laid-back academics, and there were many professors I was invited to call by their first names as an undergrad.


Forensic Mystery - B. I was reasonably uncertain who committed murder and why, and the victim's back story was pretty interesting. (I still think that Sweets could have had more to do, since the victim was clearly a pathological liar.)

Forensic Solution -
C-. I have to dock a lot of points for the whole pseudarthrosis debacle. I just don't buy that a bug would be embedded in the bone, and the bug was what led them to the victim's working for Ambrosia as a spy (and therefore to the murderer's motive). The rest of the forensics seemed reasonable (excluding Dr. Saroyan's extraction of gas from bubbles, which doesn't seem plausible) and was largely error-free.

- B-. The victim's story was compelling, especially with the sister who hated her and the wake of jilted lovers. However, I prefer the forensic drama where a killer has to be caught (rather than one who spells his last name for the FBI). There was no Booth-Brennan tension, nor was Hannah anywhere near this episode. The main non-forensic drama this episode was the non-drama of Hodgins telling everyone that Angela is pregnant and Dr. Saroyan being all mother-hen about Michelle, her ward/adoptive daughter. Those story arcs were benign, though, and didn't detract much from the forensic drama.

Academic Blogging in Anthropology

Many scientists have realized that public outreach is imperative if we want to continue our research. After all, taxpayer dollars fund things like the National Science Foundation (which funded the majority of my dissertation research on migration to Imperial Rome), and the public at large wants to know what we do in our windowless labs all day. This week, I came across two different pieces on the topic - a link to a Nature article (via John Hawks' blog) and this year's keynote AAA talk by archaeologist Jeremy Sabloff, which I attended on Friday evening.

Sabloff entreated everyone to engage in more public outreach, pointing out that anthropology has no go-to public face, no academic or academics routinely asked to comment on newsworthy items. He further noted that many of us are doing a kind of outreach by blogging or tweeting about our research and our life in academe, which helps take us out of the ivory tower a bit. But these sorts of public, written expression tend to be looked down upon and can even hurt a tenure case. Sabloff wants those who are willing to step up and become a more public face of anthropology - and thinks that there should be some change within the discipline so that writing a blog, for example, is seen as public outreach and so that public outreach is seen as one of the many contributions an anthropologist can make, not just research and publication, which tend to form a significant chunk of a tenure case. Sabloff quoted Jim Peacock, a distinguished professor in my department at UNC and past president of the AAAs, who had previously noted that, rather than sticking to the adage, "publish or perish," we need to reconceive it as "public or perish."

And there you have it - I watch and review Bones so that one day I might be tenured faculty. That's where Sabloff was going with his comments, right?

November 18, 2010

Bloggin' the AAAs

To my oh-so-numerous fans of my Bones reviews, I am sorry to say that I won't be able to post anything until Sunday, as I'm currently at the American Anthropological Association meetings in New Orleans. This city is awesome, I'm eating very, very well, and having a great time (in spite of the decided lack of internet at the hotel and the conference). I will leave you instead with some things to think about when you present a conference paper:

  1. Black text on a blue background is never a good idea.
  2. Read your paper aloud for someone else so that you don't say ridiculous tautological things like, "Schemas are schematic."
  3. If you are an archaeologist, tell me where your site is. "Portugal" or "Mesoamerica" only get half-credit.
  4. If you are an archaeologist, tell me when your site is. "Old Kingdom" or "Epigravettian" give me only a vague notion of the millennium in which your talk is set.
  5. 28 slides (each with 5-10 images) for a 15-minute talk is at least 14 too many.
  6. Words or terms that come up repeatedly in your talk and with which most people in your audience will not be familiar should be spelled out on at least one slide - bonus points if you also define the word. ("Hama goblets" said several times quickly sounds like an incantation a la Beetlejuice.)
  7. Don't try to joke with, act familiar with, or attempt to elicit lots of participation from your audience. It's a professional conference, not Whose Line Is It Anyway?
  8. Reading a paper is fine (with me, anyway), but write it to be understood aurally rather than understood visually (complex sentences, ridiculous wording need to be stripped).
I've heard some interesting talks, and I've heard some really bad talks. I started recording which talks were read and which were presented, because I had a theory that the older, more established professors presented talks while the grad students read talks. (And my hypothesis was based on the idea that the rules of archaeology today have changed - to get grant funding, we have to also be anthropologists, which means discussing Bourdieu or Mauss or transnationalism or phenomenology, etc., and that's hard to do without reading a paper.) But it's been about equal in my very unscientific study: about half of the "presenters" are grad students and half are professors, and it's the same with the "readers."

My paper today was well-received, which was nice. I only presented the geographical homelands of immigrants to Rome, which I discussed with reference to the known locations of immigrant-producing areas in the Empire. But it's always good when fellow anthropologists don't think I'm "just a classical archaeologist" (as unfortunately there are still anthropologists who think classical archaeology is not real archaeology), and even better when they think that my research is necessary and important.

More to come on the AAAs as I find better internet. And then back to regularly-scheduled Bones reviews when I get around to it.

November 11, 2010

Bones - Season 6, Episode 6 (Review)

The Shallow in the Deep

Episode Summary

The gang at the Jeffersonian is tasked with identifying the skeletons from a recently found shipwreck, namely that of the Amalia Rose, a (fictional) slave ship bound for New Orleans. They happen to have the ship's manifest, which lists age, race, and "degree of color," in addition to the slaves' names. Brennan finds the skeleton of a male child under 10 years old, around 130cm tall, with a mixture of Negroid and Caucasoid features, and Angela IDs him from the manifest. Daisy notes that the skeleton she is working on has a well-defined symphyseal rim and partial ectocranial suture closure; this individual was a female in her 40s who stood about 5' tall. Dr. Saroyan, however, has found a skull with pink stuff attached. Brennan notices immediately that there has been penetrating trauma to the cribriform plate (of the ethmoid) and the palatine bones, meaning this person was punctured through the mouth, as if by a large fishhook. The condition of the cartilage in the skeleton tells her that the person had not been dead for more than a month.

While Hodgins attempts to ID the pink organism, Brennan finds abrasions to the pisiform of one of the slaves, indicating he or she had been manacled. The xrays of the murder victim, in the meantime, indicate he (presumably they identified sex, but I can't recall it) was only about 20 when he died (based on lack of epiphyseal closure of the proximal tibia), and injuries to the zygomatic arch, the mandible, the right ulna, and the left tibia indicate he had suffered multiple, repeated injuries to his skeleton at a young age - the team suspects child abuse. When Angela regresses her facial reconstruction, they find a match - Liam Maloney. It seems, though, that the victim had stolen someone else's identity - Mike Caspar's.

While Booth and Brennan go to check out the Caspars, Daisy identifies another slave from the ship: 25-year-old Hany Beaufort, whose first name also happens to be the same as Dr. Saroyan's great-grandmother. Hodgins finally is able to identify the organism: osedax mucofloris, literally the bone-eating snot flower. Once he and Daisy clean the bone, they note significant abrasions to the anterior surface of the long bones. Booth and Brennan track down the victim's friend, who works on a "cougar cruise," and are led to the red herring of maggots (resulting from a smuggled Sardinian cheese, casu marzu). The cruise captain, however, identifies the woman that Liam was last seen with: Claire Caspar, the wife of Mike, whose identity was stolen by Liam. Claire eventually admits to killing Liam, although it was sort of accidental - they struggled, and he went overboard. As he crawled up (and scraped himself to the bone on the barnacles), she tried to help with the fishhook, but he called her old, so she stabbed him.

The episode concludes with a reception at the Jeffersonian for the new exhibit chronicling the Amalia Rose, which includes Angela's charcoal facial drawings and Dr. Saroyan's reading of the manifest.

Forensic Comments
  • Why must they always attempt to estimate sex from the remains of children? The first slave ship ID was of a 10-year-old boy.
  • Daisy's guess that the woman whose skeleton she was working on was in her 40s when she died may be reasonable based on the lipping of the symphyseal rim and some degree of suture closure (although no one relies on the latter for an age estimate, as it can vary substantially), but in actuality, she'd need to give a score and a range based on more than just one reference point (especially for ectocranial suture closure).
  • Brennan notes abrasions to the pisiform in another slave skeleton. First, a pisiform was recovered from a shipwreck two centuries ago? Those things are dinky! Second, Brennan decides the person was manacled based on some abrasions on the pisiform? If slavery were that easy to identify in the bioarchaeological record, we'd have found some Roman slaves by now. (However, I've apparently been pronouncing pisiform wrong, as the dictionary agrees with Brennan's PIE-si-form rather than my PIH-si-form. And the Latin doesn't even back me up this week.)
  • Angela's facial reconstructions are pretty good this week - in that they look like actual facial reconstructions and aren't dead ringers for the victim. Good use of age regression techniques too.
  • Hodgins' weird pink worm was recently discovered and feasts on dead whale bones. Sooo, there was a dead whale in the Atlantic near the D.C. coast and no one noticed? Or there were multiple dead whales, since presumably the organism has to find another dead whale after it eats the first.
  • It's also been bugging me that there was an incredibly well-preserved shipwreck so close to the D.C. coast and no one had found it before.

The Angela-Saroyan dialogue was good at times, but with an episode that also had to tackle a recent murder victim, their emotional responses to the slave ship got short shrift. Angela at one point said, "One person gets killed, it's murder; a million people get killed, and it's history." It reminded me of a quotation from a Native American (I honestly can't find who said it, but if you know, tell me so I can properly attribute it - I think I got it from Skull Wars): "If you desecrate a white grave, you wind up sitting in prison. But desecrate an Indian grave, you get a PhD."

Otherwise, Brennan spouted a lot of medical/anatomical terminology this episode, especially when explaining to Booth why his joints crack and pop all the time (bubbles - or "gas" - in the synovial fluid). Daisy was particularly wooden in her delivery of her lines, and I usually like Carla Gallo as an actor. In spite of her character's flaws, I do like the Sweets-Daisy pairing (perhaps because it delights the geek in me to pair Freaks and Geeks with Undeclared). However, the less said about the extremely squicky and ill-conceived Saved By the Bell reference, the better.


Forensic Mystery - C. The guy was killed with a fishhook and easily IDed. It felt like the show was spinning its wheels for quite a while, especially since Sweets had a whole bunch of lines that were kind of pointless. (After all, Brennan was also in the foster care system, but there was absolutely no mention of that.) There wasn't enough time to build up to a good forensic mystery because of the time spent on the shipwreck.

Forensic Solution - C+. Everything about the forensic case seemed reasonable, even the facial reconstruction (for once). But it wasn't particularly interesting, and the interesting part (the pink worm) was not very realistic.

Drama - B-. The forensic drama was practically nil, as there was absolutely no sense of danger, and really only one red herring in regard to the murderer. There was some drama in the slave ship, though maybe that was only in my mind, as I was eager to find out where the writers were going with it. They could have (should have?) given this kind of story its own episode. I know the formula is to focus on the recent murders, but Angela is right, this one is pretty interesting too and the people who died are no less important.

Update (11/12/10) - I occasionally check my blog's stats, and I noticed that at least 50 people have arrived at this post in the last 24 hours by searching for Amalia Rose victims/slave ship/manifest. For an episode that pushed the slave ship to the B plotline, it sure generated a lot of interest! I renew my suggestion that the writers do at least one episode a season on an "ancient" murder - there is clearly interest in this from the Bones-watching public!

Update (7/11/11) - Sgt. Richard Wells wrote in to tell me that I was right in remembering a quote from Skull Wars.  On page 210, Walter Echo-Hawk is quoted as having said: "If you desecrate a white grave, you wind up sitting in prison. But desecrate an Indian grave, you get Ph.D."

November 10, 2010

The Realities of Archaeology

Every now and then, McSweeney's runs an essay that I find funny. This is perhaps the best one yet - although its hilarity arises from the fact that it is so spot-on. So all the 10-year-olds out there who want to be archaeologists should take heed!

So You Wanted to Be an Archaeologist...
Scott C. Reynolds

In the winter of your tenth year, your letter to Santa Claus consisted of the following items:

• Bull Whip
• Fedora
• Leather Jacket
• Globe
Wheelock's Latin
• Optimus Prime

You had recently seen Raiders of the Lost Ark and were obsessed with becoming an archaeologist, just like your new hero, Indiana Jones. You were sure that with all the accouterments of the profession in hand you'd be jetting off to discover fortune and glory in exotic lands in no time. Optimus Prime was on the list because you were ten and trucks that turn into robots were awesome. Plus you'd need a modern relic of appropriate weight to swap out for some treasure, should it come to that.

You skated through high school with grades just high enough to be respectable and test scores that ensured your entry into the college of your choice. It's not that you were lazy per se; you just chose to study ancient cultures on your own at the expense of doing your biology homework. You figured the general curriculum of public school was fine for most kids, but when you already know what you want out of life, it's up to you to pursue it on your own terms.

College was another story. You had a hard time dealing with the idea that your undergraduate degree required so many credits in things that meant so little to the study of ancient peoples. You were paying your way; you were supposed to be laying the foundation for your future. Who were they to tell you what classes you needed to take? You should have been in Paleolithic Symbology 2102 studying religious iconography of early man, not European Literature 1101 reading and dissecting the works of Thomas Mann.

Even the practical coursework in your field was a chore. You had envisioned study abroad programs at Giza or Angkor Wat. What you ended up with was a summer in the swamps of central Florida, uncovering arrowheads numbers 15,234 through 15,416 left abandoned by yet another well-studied and well-documented pre-Columbian native tribe. Every day was an exercise in being hot, getting bitten by mosquitoes, and carefully sifting and cataloguing two cubic centimeters of soil. Every time you found an arrowhead, which was about once per hour, you tried to envision historically appropriate ways of driving it into your skull. The bow and arrow was a bit unwieldy for the task, and you concluded that modern man's greatest technological achievement was the creation of weaponry compact enough to be easily used on oneself.

You slogged your way through a master's degree...


... and that's where the essay stops paralleling my life. Read the rest here at McSweeney's.

All of this essay rings true, although I've excerpted the part that's true for me, that is, through the field experience. Rather than the swamps of central Florida, however, I toiled away in red clay and 99% humidity at the site of a slave house in central Virginia. And rather than finding arrowheads (which we would have been thrilled by), we found a rusted nail perhaps twice a week and lots and lots of rusted SPAM cans. Beyond that, the description diverges from my experience. I really like writing up articles and seeing my work in print, I stuck with archaeology through a PhD, and I am looking forward to being faculty (although maybe not to discussing the Harris Matrix for 40 years...).

But I may have to give this article to all of my undergraduates who want to be archaeologists.

November 8, 2010


In the December issue of the Journal of Archaeological Sciences (quite possibly my favorite academic journal at the moment), there is an article on "Ergosterol as a potential biomarker for alcohol fermentation in lipid residues from prehistoric pottery." A generally-accepted theory is that fermentation (for beer/wine or for bread) is related to the advent and spread of agriculture. However, almost all of the research on alcohol in the past, according to the authors, is related to consumption rather than production. Arguments for the production of alcohol rely solely on indirect archaeological evidence.

The authors seek to remedy this gap in the methodological literature. Testing of lipid (fat) remains in archaeological ceramics has been around for at least a few years. It is possible to look for traces of sterols, cholesterol being the key animal lipid. Plants, on the other hand, produce phytosterols. One of the sterols specific to the fungus kingdom, which includes yeast, is ergosterol (think: ergot). The authors tested potsherds from 134 Bronze Age/Iron Age vessels from settled agricultural groups in Sweden and 115 potsherds from Neolithic hunter-gatherer sites in Sweden.

They did not find any ergosterol in the Neolithic vessels but did find it in 6 of the 134 potsherds from the Bronze/Iron Age. The pots, they concluded, were used for either baking or brewing. The vessels' form suggests a drinking bowl of some sort, however, suggesting it was for brewing or holding alcohol rather than for baking bread. Particularly interesting is their antepenultimate paragraph:

"There are ethnographic examples of ceramic vessels being used for the preparation and fermentation of beer. No addition of yeast is necessary as the pores of the vessels host the yeast between batches (Hayashida, 2008:167). The immobilization of yeast in a ceramic matrix has actually been successfully tried in connection with the development of modern continuous beer brewing systems (Nakanishi et al.,1989). Such impregnation of yeast into the ceramic matrix of the prehistoric vessel will have left detectable traces. Vessels used for fermentation are likely to have had a longer life time of use than for example cooking vessels due to thermal chocks and handling of the latter. Therefore we might expect there to be a smaller number of these vessels than of others in a given assemblage. The special character of these vessels may also be connected to their appearance in funerary contexts."

If yeast can survive in ceramic vessels in sufficient quantities to make beer, it will be exciting when this technique is applied more widely. We may learn more about the process of alcohol fermentation in the past - not to mention more about the people who consumed it and the situations in which they did so. At any rate, even with the low frequency of vessels that had evidence of ergosterol, their data provide direct evidence that fermentation was indeed associated with agricultural societies.

November 4, 2010

Bones - Season 6, Episode 5 (Review)

The Bones That Weren't

Episode Summary

A skateboarder breaks into a construction site and trips over a human skull peeking out of the recently-poured concrete. After Booth and Hannah discuss her going to Anacostia to ferret out a dirty cop, Booth, Brennan, and Sweets meet up in the diner for some "squint" talk about first-order logic. Thankfully, they get a call about the skull in the pavilion. On site, Brennan estimates the skull is male from the angle of the jaw and estimates the individual was in his late 20s from the wear on his teeth. At the lab, they realize that there are no other bones, just a cast of the bones in the concrete. Viziri is back, ostensibly from a stint as a cultural anthropologist, and he suggests injecting a barium-sulfate slurry into the concrete and then using fluoroscopy to create an image of what is encased therein. Clearly the tissue decomposed first, as the resulting image is of a skeleton rather than a body. Further investigation reveals that the left central maxillary incisor had a dental tattoo on it, which points the team at the identity of the individual. Angela borrows an additive stereolithograph from the archaeology department and "prints" a 3D replica of the skeleton based on the cast generated by Viziri, who notes that the victim had "turned out hips," high arches, and (anomalous?) muscle attachments at the hips and shoulders. The victim was a ballet dancer. After a brief foray to a dance studio, where we meet a woman whom the victim injured accidentally, we head back to the lab, where Dr. Saroyan finds circular microfractures on the skull, which Viziri interprets as evidence of breakdancing. Hodgins shows up and mentions that he's found evidence of Blastomysis dermatitidis, a fungus that attacked the bone. There was an outbreak in Kalorama Park a few months ago. He also found flecks of bronze. Booth and Bones head to the park, where they meet a lot of buskers, including a guy dressed as a statue who only talks in Shakespearean quotations. Their additional suspects include the park's janitor and a couple of the buskers who knew the victim. At the lab, Viziri notes that there are nicks to the right tibia, femur, and ilium, the back of the 10th rib on the left side, the left transverse process of the T6, and the right scapula. Angela concludes that the victim was pushed off a high portion of the construction site and into some exposed vertical rebar. Dr. Saroyan notes that the transverse process injury does not line up with the rebar-inflicted punctures. The victim was stabbed and the fungus was introduced. Hodgins and Viziri conclude from their swab of the Dumpster that the fungus may have come from the sharp trash poker that the janitor carries around. However, this does not tie him specifically to the murder. Brennan realizes that the perpetrator may have left a handprint while attempting to "bury" the victim under plastic. Hodgins suggests trying vacuum metal deposition of gold, which binds with the lipids from the fingerprints. They get a handprint from a small child or a woman with small hands, and they invite the ballet teacher and the busker in for questioning. After they handle the glasses in the interrogation room, Booth has enough evidence to arrest the busker for the murder. The busker and the victim were both pickpockets, but the victim apparently crossed the busker, and she got mad. Oh yeah, and Hannah gets shot in the leg, then bonds with Brennan over gifting in the hospital.

Forensic Comments
  • Estimating sex based on the angle of the jaw is pretty sketchy. I'm honestly not even sure what that means - gonial eversion? Definitely wouldn't trust that sex estimate. Similarly, our teeth are so lightly worn in the age of processed food (and some people grind their teeth) that I doubt Brennan could estimate late 20s so specifically. I would want to confirm with the plastic skeleton that the sex was male (not "a male" as Booth said - it is either "a man" or "male characteristics" - yeah, picky).
  • I'm not up on my slurries, but the barium-sulfate injection combined with the fluoroscopy sounded reasonable to me.
  • Angela got the stereolithograph from the archaeology department. Maybe at the Jeffersonian, archaeology is that well-funded. Most of us don't have 3D printers just lying around. Nor ones that shoot lasers in all directions. Fancy.
  • I don't buy that the victim had "turned out hips." This seems to be a ballet move, but I'm not sure what the concomitant change to the skeleton would be - some sort of exostosis on the anterolateral head of the femur?
  • I really wanted to complain about Brennan's pronunciation of malleolus, but it seems I am wrong. Or rather, in my defense, I use a classical Latin pronunciation (malleOlus - as I took 10 years of the language) rather than an Americanized medical pronunciation (mallEolus).
  • Blastomysis dermatitidis is the organism involved in blastomycosis, a fungal infection that causes lytic lesions in bone. I didn't realize it could completely eat bone, though, nor that it could survive in dead bone. But maybe this part is realistic.
  • Picky consistency issue: one of the wounds is to the left transverse process of T6, as noted by Viziri, and it shows up on Angela's image that way as well. But Dr. Saroyan says that the anomalous wound is to the right transverse process of T6.
  • Hannah must have crappy doctors that none of them noticed an avulsion fracture of her femur.
  • The vacuum metal deposition technique is really pretty cool.


Tonight's dialogue is brought to you by the conversation between Sweets and the human statue, which went on (almost) entirely in Shakespeare quotations. To wit:
  • An honest tale speeds best being plainly told. - Richard III, IV.iv
  • Truth is truth to the end of reckoning. - Measure for Measure, V.i
  • There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. - Hamlet V.ii
  • By Isis, I will give thee bloody teeth if thou with [Robert] paragon again. - Antony and Cleopatra, I.v
  • Were we burdened with like weight of pain as much or more we should ourselves complain. - Comedy of Errors, II.i
  • One may smile and smile and be a villain. - Hamlet, I.v
  • A cutpurse of the empire and the rule, that from a shelf the precious diadem stole and put it in his pocket. - Hamlet, III.iv
  • Where the offense is, let the great axe fall. - Hamlet IV.v
  • I can no other answer make but thanks and thanks. - Twelfth Night, III.iii
  • How far that little candle throws his beams, so shines a good deed in a naughty world. - Merchant of Venice, V.i
And that, kids, is what you may be able to do some day with your English lit degree: write throw-away dialogue for a TV show.


Forensic Mystery - A-. The mystery of how the victim got encased in concrete was pretty good, and there was sufficient misdirection about the murderer. Because there was no real drama surrounding the victim (e.g., family, lover, etc.), I have to dock this a bit.

Forensic Solution - A. Between the barium-sulfite slurry and the 3D printer and the fancy fungus, plus lifting very latent fingerprints, this was a stellar forensic solution. Well, except that most of the solution was not of the anthropological variety - the bones really just IDed the person.

Drama - F. So the drama of the forensic part was pretty good, although I wasn't that interested in the victim because he's not shown as having anything that he was living for (e.g., family, lover, job). But the Hannah parts were interminable. I thought that I had no connection with the victim, but I have even less connection with her. I cringed every time she showed up on the screen. The writers have done very little to make me care about her, to make her a real person, or to make her relationship with Booth seem realistic. In an episode that was supposed to hold some drama about Hannah's life, I was not feeling it. At all.

Overall, though, I really liked this episode. There was good forensic science, and the plot moved along quite nicely. The writers made me smile when the statue broke character (oh, how I miss the sphinges along the Via dei Fori Imperiali in Rome!) and made me come around to the dark side of loving an episode of Bones with "An honest tail speeds best being plainly told." With episode 5, Bones is (I hope) finally hitting its stride.

Comical Archaeology

If I had any drawing skills at all - other than the ability to create precise balk profiles - I would definitely draw archaeology comics. In the past month, in completely different searches, I came across three different types of archaeological comics:

1. The slightly animated forensic archaeology true story from the Smithsonian:

Be sure to click through to the "behind the scenes" page, which features some excellent pictures of the actual skeleton that informs this story.

2. This graphic novel of the excavation of the Cheney House on a Flickr photostream:

3. And an old SAA Archaeological Record (vol 5, no 5, November 2005), an issue devoted to comics in archaeology. My favorite is the professor who chronicles having drawn his PhD dissertation:

The "traditional" line-drawn comic and the graphic novel are from early- to mid-decade, while the Smithsonian offering was produced in 2009 for the Written in Bone exhibit (that I really need to go see, the next time I'm near D.C.). I wonder if the SAA issue sparked more interest in creating archaeological comics? Are there other examples of "comical archaeology" out there that I'm missing, particularly in other countries' discourses? Is it purely an American phenomenon?

November 1, 2010

The Feminine Peacock

I'm currently reading The Artificial Ape for possible adoption in my spring Intro to Anthropology course. It's an interesting book, although the argument is not terribly linear. The author brings up several times the concept of sexual selection, as it is possibly tied to the evolutionary increase in humans' brain size. Perhaps the most well-known example of sexual selection, though, is the peacock's tail. Taylor writes (pp.105-6):

"The peacock's tail is costly in terms of nutrition and maintenance, inefficient for flight, and it visually attracts predators. Because of all these disadvantages, the shimmering fantail signals to a peahen that its possessor has overcome all adversity and is a super-fit prospective mate. (And desipte recent controversy over exactly which part of the overall display attracts the female--gaudiness, the number of eye-spots, or the accompanying calls during the mating dance--the males with the brightest feathers are measurably fitter than their brethren, as judged on a standard measure of the level of parasitic infection they carry.) A peahen eyeing up a male with a massive fantail is considering mating with a super-fit survivor; it will have no downside in terms of the size of egg she will have to lay."

A couple weeks ago, I was perusing the racks of toddler costumes at Old Navy and found a lone peacock costume. The tiny peacock head at the top of the costume has a bright purple bow, and the price tag had a picture of a little girl posing in the outfit. A quick google image search for "peacock costume" shows elaborate - and decidedly feminine - outfits. Searching for "peahen costume" provides far fewer results. Yet this awesomely outfitted couple proves that a peacock can be a masculine costume. I'm trying to think of other male animals that are coopted as costumes for female humans, but I'm drawing a blank. Maybe it's just the peacock, whose fantastic tail reminds us of modern displays of femininity, such as a Vegas showgirl or a flamenco dancer. Happily, the peacock costume I found at Old Navy was in my daughter's size - but the question remains whether I bought it because it triggered my enculturated ideas of femininity and adorableness or because it triggered my knowledge of sexual selection and ideas of gender transgression... probably a bit of both!

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