December 29, 2010

Art and Cultural Exchange along the Silk Road (Ackland Art Museum, UNC)

I headed over to the Ackland this morning to check out a newish installation called Art and Cultural Exchange along the Silk Road in order to write an assignment for my spring General Anthropology course. There were some nice pieces in the exhibit, but coming from an academic background that involved a ton of courses in the art history of the Mediterranean world, I left feeling just as underinformed about Indian and Chinese art as when I came in.

Since the title of the exhibit involves the Silk Road, I assumed that there would be a geographical breadth to the presentation of the objects with temporal specificity, but it was temporally and geographically broad. That set the overly-thematic tone for the rest of the exhibit. One interesting idea that was presented, for example, is the contrast between portable art (art that circulates among people) and immobile art (people who circulate to make a pilgrimage to the art) - but after a mention of this in one of the blurbs, the topic didn't seem to come up again. One artifact's blurb mentioned Manichaeism but didn't link this to cultural exchange, religious syncretism, object circulation, etc. There were a lot of opportunities, even with the few pieces in the installation, to explicitly connect ideas with objects and to show that both objects and people circulated in the past, but these connections weren't made.

There were aspects of the exhibit that made me think, though. The first section covered the Mediterranean and Asia in the first couple centuries AD: the Roman Empire, India, and China. Particularly interesting about the objects was the different purpose of all of them. The Roman objects that were on display were all utilitarian: glass vials for transport of perfume, etc. The Chinese objects were all from tombs: ritual or commemorative objects, such as replicas of houses and horses. And the Indian objects were all of a religious nature: votives, statues, and temple decorations. It made me wonder whether stereotypes about these three places led the museum staff to choose the pieces they did, or whether these stereotypes exist because these are the kinds of objects we find. For example, do Americans respond to the kind of Chinese art that comes out of graves (ritualized, intact, etc.), or is it that most of the examples of ancient Chinese art are found in graves? Do we think of the Romans as a utilitarian people whose art can be seen in their artifice? Are we more inclined to see art in everyday objects of the Romans while keeping the Chinese and Indians at a distance as an Eastern artistic tradition ruled by religion?

Second, I learned a bit about the history of the color blue, at least as it was used in art. Chinese porcelain, much of which has a distinctive blue used in its design, actually achieved this color through imported Persian cobalt. The exchange of this material led to a completely innovative ceramic style that is now quintessentially Chinese. Afghanistan has produced lapis lazuli for over 6,000 years; the stone was crushed and used as a paint. I'd never thought twice about the fact that the Virgin Mary is often depicted wearing a blue cloak, but according to the exhibit notes, because ultramarine had to be made from imported lapis lazuli, this blue shade was often used to represent a person of high status. It made me wonder if blue = high status has wormed its way into our culture as blue = male and helps explain why blue is so often chosen as a person's favorite color. (Purple was the high-status color for the Romans, so our blue-is-best mentality has to have its origins somewhere else.)

The Ackland's Silk Road exhibit runs through June 5, 2011. Check it out. It's convenient to campus and free of charge.

December 28, 2010

How many skeletons exist in the world?

Yesterday's New York Times article ("Unearthing Prehistoric Tumors, and Debate") presents a balanced and digested view of the current debate about the frequency and prevalence of cancer in antiquity. It's good. You should read it. What really caught my eye, though, is the report that Anne Grauer (head of the Paleopathology Association) estimated there are 100,000 skeletons in osteological collections around the world.

That's it?

If we look at the figures cited in the Global History of Health Project at OSU, we find that the researchers proposed collecting data on about 60,000 skeletons from the western hemisphere and that they think they can get height data from 100-150,000 people when adding in the grey literature. It could be that Grauer's 100,000-skeleton estimate was in some way geographically or temporally limited and wasn't reported as such in the NYT.

My interpretation, though, is that this figure demonstrates just how little bioarchaeologists share information, particularly with respect to their collections. My estimate of the number of skeletons curated in Rome by the archaeological superintendency is in the neighborhood of 10,000 (the cemetery at via Basiliano, for instance, generated over 2,000 skeletons alone). Add to this the 2,000 or more skeletons from other largish Italian collections (such as from Isola Sacra), and that's over 10% of Grauer's figure coming from Rome and its suburbs alone. The Peabody Museum at Harvard has either the largest or second largest collection of Native American skeletal remains in the U.S., at somewhere around 10,000. So now we're at roughly one-quarter of Grauer's figure - without adding skeletons from Peru, England (at least 17,000 at the Museum of London alone), Germany, and even the Parisian Catacombs (pictured above), where there are extensive collections of human skeletal remains.

It's unfortunate that we bioarchaeologists tend to know only about the major collections in our geographical/temporal area of the world. The cause of this ignorance is partly that most of us don't look further afield for comparative populations but partly that many of us aren't very forthcoming with information about our collections. Cultural patrimony is difficult to legislate (as we've seen in the past 20 years with NAGPRA in the U.S.), so I doubt that within my lifetime there will be a worldwide database of osteological material. Until something like this exists and is required to be updated, we'll have to continue to make our best guesses about the number of skeletons in the world's osteological collections. My guess? Grauer may be off by a factor of three or four. Still, considering around 100 billion people have ever lived (and died) in this world, we have a shockingly small number of their physical remains.

December 25, 2010

Christmas Blintzes

We all have our own holiday traditions, those things we do or make or become once a year. The end of the year, however arbitrary it may be, seems a natural time to reflect on what has happened and what is to come. Perhaps this is why traditions persist in everyone's family at Christmas/ Hannukah/ Saturnalia/ Holiday: we pay homage to those things that shaped us in some way but that we don't necessarily carry with us every day. The combination of ethnic heritage and food is a common theme in many Americans' holiday traditions.

When I was growing up, my mom made stuffed blintzes every Christmas morning, from a recipe she'd cut out of a box of Aunt Jemima buckwheat pancake mix in the early 80s. Blintzes (or блины in Russian) were not specifically part of her family's holiday food tradition, not like cream cheese cookies (kolachki) were. But with two parents whose first language was Russian, my mom ate her fair share of blintzes over the years. They are deceptively simple to make: pancake mix (3/4 c), milk (1 c), eggs (3), oil (2 T). Dump 1/4 c into a skillet and cook a few seconds. Although I consider myself a decent cook, crepes are definitely not my strong suit. I went through three-quarters of the batter before figuring out the right pan (one was too big, one was too small, one was juuuust right) and the right temperature (stupid electric range), and was eventually able to eke three crepes out of the remaining batter.

A trip to Trader Joe's was necessary for the procurement of additional eggs, and I whipped up another batch, with my muscle memory finally kicking in and allowing me to flip the crepes without ripping them. The second part of blintz-making is easy: fill the crepes with dollops of a mixture of ricotta cheese (2 c), cream cheese (3 oz), sugar (1/4 c), and vanilla (1 t). Roll, tuck in ends, and place in a 13x9 buttered glass dish. Bake at 375 for 20-30 minutes. Top as desired. My blintzes aren't exactly food magazine photogenic, but they are tasty - warm and slightly crispy around the edges, sweet and creamy, with just a hint of sour cream.

For me, blintzes are like a family-level revitalization movement, a syncretic Russian-American-Killgrove tradition. My mom's sister got the recipe a couple years later, and she makes blintzes for her family every Christmas. Now I do too. It's a way of remembering our Russian heritage, even if none of us goes to church anymore and we all now celebrate Christmas on December 25th rather than the Eastern Orthodox date of January 7th. Every year, blintzes connect me to my mom through a shared frustration with crepe-making and to my brother and late father through a shared love of sweet cheese-filled deliciousness. They remind me of childhood Christmases that were sometimes lean but always full of love. This connection to my past - to the family that supports me, to loved ones who left this life too early, and to generations of ancestors I never met - is important to me, as my past shaped who I am today and where I am going in the future. What better way to honor the past and greet a new year than with a hearty breakfast of blintzes?

Merry Christmas and
Христос родился!

December 24, 2010

Merry Googlemas

I find shopping for Christmas presents more difficult every year. Next Christmas, my plan is to put everyone's name into Google shopping and buy something from the first page of results...

For my brother, George Clinton's The Greatest Funkin' Hits and Bill Clinton's creepy countenance:

For my mom, Gail Pettis' Here in the Moment or Gail the Giraffe:

Not a lot of interesting choices for Patrick, who gets Patrick Watson's Wooden Arms or the Harry Potter soundtrack:

Chickpea, of course, gets a pound of garbanzo beans or maybe a Japanese stuffed animal:

I could go a little further afield for Juline and get her an expensive bottle of eponymous wine or the Handbook of Consumer Behavior (whee!):

My mother-in-law can channel her inner Coal Miner's Daughter while my father-in-law channels his namesake Pauly D from Jersey Shore (and Craig gets one of a long list of CDs):

My sister-in-law can ferment, and my brother-in-law has a choice between Starship and Airplane:

Last but not least, for my soon-to-be-sisters-in-law, a reclinable racing seat for Megan and super-sexy red high heels for Yesenia:

Not sure why no one else has thought of doing all of their Christmas shopping this way!

December 17, 2010

The Origin of Bioarchaeology

Google just launched a new feature called Books Ngram Viewer, which allows you to track the frequency of words in books published (in English) in the last several centuries. I decided to check out a few terms related to my research: osteology, bioarchaeology, and palaeopathology. The resulting graph of all three terms, going back to 1800, is pretty cool:

Osteology as a term has been around a long time. I'm assuming that most of the usage in the mid-19th century is related to animals rather than humans. My guess is that the giant spike around 1840 represents the foundations of evolution - a time when naturalists were heavily invested in understanding where humans (and modern animals) came from. Since that high point, osteology has declined in frequency, but with a slight bump starting in the 1960s, presumably with the origins of academic archaeology in the U.S.

Taking osteology out of the chart and zooming in to the last half century of bioarchaeology and palaeopathology shows that the latter was in use long before the former. This surprised me, as I had assumed that palaeopathology didn't arise until after bioarchaeology was coined as a term and research specialty. Also surprising is the sharp downturn in palaeopathology and concomitant uptick in bioarchaeology around 2003:

However, the Americans tend to spell it paleopathology (for reasons I'm not at all clear on, since almost all of us now use archaeology rather than archeology - and almost no one spells it bioarcheology). So putting in bioarchaeology, palaeopathology, and paleopathology gives us this graph:

No matter how you spell it, palaeopathology shows a definite downward trend in the last decade. But it is still used more frequently than bioarchaeology - it just has two different spellings. Interestingly, if we assume that paleopathology represents American work and palaeopathology represents British (and ESL work), the Brits have stayed more or less consistent in their palaeopathology work, whereas it represents a large fad in American work, peaking at the end of the 20th century. Alternatively, the explanation could be that it's British journals (such as the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, where they Britishize your Americanisms) that are more balanced in the kinds of research they publish, whereas American journals gave in to a pathology fad. (These data may change with the new International Journal of Paleopathology, though, if the -e- spelling takes off.)

It's also interesting to zoom in on the word bioarchaeology. Bioarchaeology has been attributed to British archaeologist Grahame Clarke, who used the term in 1972 to describe the study of animal and human bones from archaeological sites. Across the pond, though, we attribute bioarchaeology to Jane Buikstra, who used the word in 1977 to describe the practice as it's known in the U.S. today: the study of human skeletal remains from archaeological sites. What does Google have to say about this? According to the Ngram Viewer, the first use of the word was in 1969, before either Clarke or Buikstra had published their definitions:

Unfortunately, it's not possible to click on the chart and get a list of the books in which the search term was used. That would be an especially awesome feature.

This Google gadget is super fun - and you should try it. Some other recommended search terms: great jargon words like "liminal" (peaked in 1999) and "transnationalism" (peaked in 2002). Post any words you find with interesting graphs in the comments!

December 10, 2010

Trashed Gladiator from York

The Daily Mail (yes, I know, not the most stalwart of British publications) posted an article today headlined: "Workmen discover body of 'huge' gladiator who was 'stabbed 6 times and thrown out with the rubbish." That caught my attention. Reading further, the skeleton was found in York, an area with a history of odd Romano-British burials, as I've blogged about before. Curious to see how tall this person was, I read beneath the caption of the first picture that he stood around 5'10" and that the average for "people" at that time was 5'3". The Romano-British may have been different from my Romans, but Roman men stood on average 5'6". Still, 5'10" is only one standard deviation from my average Roman male, and perhaps two if the Romano-British mean is correct. What I'm saying is that 5'10" was not "huge." And I'm saying that their "average" figure may not have separated people by sex.

Requisite shot of Russell Crowe, and we get to a bit of explanation of the analysis of the skeleton. Some osteologists apparently love occupational markers (so much so that the rest of us are forced to use the term musculoskeletal stress marker - which, yes, has the acronym MSM - to differentiate real osteological analysis from the stuff you see on TV), and "physical evidence reveals he was a swordsman." I'm guessing it's because of the deltoid tuberosity (which isn't actually all that large, and happens to be on the left)? The article curiously does not mention that only the upper half of the skeleton was found; I'm reading between the lines that the lack of a pelvis forced them to use "degeneration of his joints and wear to his teeth" to estimate age (at 35-45). And yet there is no mention of how they figured out sex - did they use size and robusticity (which are terrible metrics)? The attributes of the skull (but the eye orbits are sharp and rather female-looking)? Further, the researchers are quoted as saying, "you can tell height by measuring a long bone like a thigh or shin bone." These bones are not present, so it's unclear what they based their stature estimate on - the broken humeri? (I'd probably go with the broken left humerus if I were forced to estimate stature; but it's bad practice to estimate stature from fragmentary or broken remains.)

All of these issues were making me seriously question where the Daily Mail author got the osteological information from, as well as the professionalism of Andrew Morrison, the curator of archaeology at the Yorkshire Museum who posed with the skeleton. And then I saw the last picture. It is the most stunning example of shoddy osteology I have ever seen; the laying-out of the remains was clearly done by someone without even a rudimentary knowledge of the human skeleton. The untouched photo can be found here, and below is my GIMP-ed up version. See if you can figure out what's wrong before scrolling down to the legend...

1. The scapulae are switched - left and right are in the wrong places. (The spine and acromion process of the scapula are dorsal, towards the back, not pointed into the rib cage.)

2. The humeri are also switched - our elbows don't bend that way. (The olecranon fossa of the humerus receives the olecranon process of the ulna; this connection means that we can extend our arm at the elbow and lock it.)

3. Most of the ribs are pointed the wrong way. (The narrow end of the rib articulates at one or more points with the transverse processes of the vertebrae, while the wide end of the rib articulates at the sternum or sternal cartilage in the anterior of the body.)

4. These are pieces of the clavicles or collarbones, which definitely do not belong in the lower arm. (Clavicles have a distinctive S-shape that reinforces the shoulder girdle and disperses force on the shoulder.)

5. These are pieces of the radii, the lateral (towards the thumb) bone of the lower arm. In the photograph, the proximal radii (the parts that articulate with the humerus) are turned upside down and used to represent the distal portion of the ulnae. It can be possible to confuse these bones if they are just shafts, but these radii include clear heads and radial tuberosities.

6. The ulnae are reversed, left for right. (The radial notch of the ulna points towards the radius, and therefore points laterally. In the photo, the radial notches are pointed medially, meaning they were switched.)

If you all can find more issues with this photograph, feel free to post in the comments. I can't look at it anymore; my brain hurts. Yorkshire has some amazing bioarchaeologists - why wasn't one of them consulted before this photo was taken? Maybe I'll contact Mr. Morrison, just to make sure that the public display of the skeleton (as noted in the article) is not this egregiously wrong.

Update (12/11/10) - In my original post, I was a bit careless in how I described York Osteoarchaeology. It was not my intention to impugn their reputation based on my reading between the lines of a Daily Mail piece. As noted in the comments, what I should have said is that it is unfortunate that this kind of sensationalism by the media can reflect poorly on trained osteologists. Even people writing in the comments section of the Daily Mail article have picked up on how much the author of the piece has bent, stretched, and outright fabricated the "facts" about the skeleton - presumably to gain readers. The director of York Osteoarchaeology, Malin Holst, was cited in the article but responded in the comments below that she was never directly contacted for this piece. I have definitely learned something about how the Daily Mail operates and that their journalism cannot at all be trusted. I still hold, however, that the Yorkshire Museum should better vet its press releases and photographs in order to protect their reputation. I always love to read about Roman(o-British) skeletons and would prefer to do it devoid of sensationalism and without having to read between the lines of an article in a popular rag. Links, papers, bibliography, etc. are therefore always welcome!

Update 2 (12/11/10) - My colleague Nivien Speith at Uni Bradford pointed me at the BBC coverage of the find, which makes a lot more sense than the Daily Mail article and doesn't include any ridiculously error-filled photographs.

December 9, 2010

Bones - Season 6, Episode 9 (Review)

The Doctor in the Photo

Episode Summary

The episode opens with Bones throwing a dinner party for her coupled friends - Booth & Hannah and Angela & Hodgins (but apparently Daisy & Sweets didn't make the cut). Brennan of course is an expert on zoology as well, so she notes that the pelvic diameter of the chicken suggests female, the strong muscle markers indicate it was free-range, and a hairline fracture to the tibial tarsal bone shows that the chicken struggled while her feet were restrained before she was decapitated. After dinner, Booth and Brennan are called to inspect a dead body, whose skeleton has a dogwood tree growing through it in a park in Woodland. Brennan determines the skeleton is female, but the team has trouble pinpointing time of death. From the skull, Brennan finds a high, narrow nasal root and a straight (nasal) profile, indicating the woman was Caucasian. Good dental work indicates she wasn't poor. At a glance, Brennan estimates she stood 175-180cm, or 5'8"-5'9"; she had an athletic frame and was about 63kg (143 lbs). The woman also wore a dolphin ring very similar to Brennan's.

The entire tree with the skeleton is taken to the Jeffersonian. Brennan finds a longitudinal fracture to the right temporal bone, which could represent the fatal blow. A (perimortem) night stick fracture to the left ulna indicates the victim was holding her hands up when she was hit. Further, bony growths on the 3rd and 4th medial phalanges (of her right hand) are occupational markers that Brennan and Saroyan tie to a seamstress, artist, or medical professional. Meanwhile, Hodgins has used dendrochronology to determine that the time of death was last November. Based on the physical description, the possibility of an occupation, and the time of death, Hannah (using a laptop and Bing, she claims) finds out that Dr. Laura Eames went missing at that time and was never found.

When Brennan gets Dr. Eames' records, though, she starts to have a bit of a breakdown: the doctor looks just like her, talks just like her, and is similarly rational and empirical. Brennan can't sleep and comes into the Jeffersonian at night, chatting up the night watchman, Micah (Enrico Colatoni). She finds that the victim was stabbed in the ribs, but that they had healed 4 to 6 months prior to her death, when she was killed by a blow to the head. After talking with the medivac pilot and Sweets, Brennan catches up with Hodgins, who determines that the particulates in the victim's head wound include a reflective paint or other material. Brennan suspects the father of a boy who needed a heart transplant, Dworsky, but he has an alibi. Everyone suggests that the doctor was in Woodland buying drugs; Brennan refuses to believe it. To prove this, Hodgins puts a piece of clothing (skin? tissue?) from the victim into mysterious liquid, and it turns purple, indicating the presence of heroin. Brennan continues her conversations with the victim after hours and discovers that she wasn't hit on the head, rather she was thrown onto her head. The psych evaluation of the doctor that Sweets does reveals she was logical and detached in order to deal with so many people around her dying. He further suggests that she put herself into dangerous situations out of despair or a desire to feel something different, which the medivac pilot corroborates.

In the end, Brennan figures it all out. Dr. Eames went to Woodland to speak with the Whalings, whose son was brain-dead but who wouldn't allow his organs to be donated. She wanted to convince them to donate his heart to the Dworsky boy. Dr. Eames bought heroin for the heck of it, apparently, and had it on her when she was accidentally hit by a car. She hit her head on one of those raised reflective plastic pieces in the road; and Brennan assumes that the hit-and-run driver buried Dr. Eames in a shallow grave in the park.

After several days of being personally affected by the victim and failing to remain objective, Brennan confesses to Booth that she thinks she made a mistake in rejecting him. To his credit, he is firm with her and says that Hannah is not a consolation prize. Brennan has indeed missed her chance. Back at the Jeffersonian, Brennan looks at the case file with fresh eyes and realizes that Dr. Eames doesn't look exactly like her. A combination of sleep and distance from the case made her realize what was really in front of her.

Forensic Comments
  • I thought the "tibial tarsal" bone in animals was normally called the astragalus, but I'm not up on my avian zoology.
  • Estimating race from the nose alone is probably not the most reliable way to figure this out. What about the eye orbits, cheekbones, etc.?
  • I'd love to have Brennan's super power: estimate a skeleton's height and weight at a glance. No annoying regression equations needed!
  • Is there a reason that Brennan never bothered to estimate age at death? That is a lot easier to do at a glance than height/weight and would have added another thing that Brennan and the victim shared.
  • Damnit, the Bones writers made me learn something. I'd never heard of a night stick fracture before. Props to the prop people this week, as they laid out the entire skeleton correctly on Brennan's lab table.
  • The Bones writers are rather obsessed with so-called occupational markers. These are not at all reliable indications of occupation (especially not in the first world, where we use computers, sewing machines, etc.), and I wish their ID of the victim wouldn't rely so often on these (e.g., the ballet dancer from episode 5).
  • A bit of research tells me that Hodgins' magical purple test is called a Marquis test, which is a solution of 2% formaldehyde in sulfuric acid. The liquid (reagent) turns purple in the presence of heroin, morphine, and opiates.
  • Brennan finds the exact same raised reflective road thingy on which the victim hit her head over a year ago. And it still has blood on it. What are the odds?

Pretty good this week, honestly. The back-and-forth between Brennan and Dr. Eames started off normal, then went to kind of creepy, then settled on a middle-ground between over-emotional and over-analytical. A random extra gets in a line from T.S. Eliot: "I will show you fear and a handful of dust." Brennan and Micah make good foils for one another, paralleling the Brennan-Booth (and Dr. Eames-Medivac Guy) relationships. Brennan notes that "if there is no such thing as objectivity, there's no such thing as measurement, which means empiricism is meaningless." Micah later insists again that "there's no such thing as objectivity." For the most part, the struggle within Brennan to balance objectivity (as a hallmark of science) and emotion (as a hallmark of humanity) was nicely written and - at least for television writers - subtle. Well, until the end of the episode, when Brennan has a breakdown in Booth's car and confesses that she regrets having missed her chance with him. It's not the worst dialogue in the world, it's just the most expected (and thus rather cliche).

I am left wondering, though, if Micah is real or not. Booth didn't seem to know who he was, so I think the writers left it kind of vague. ( tells me that he has not shown up as a guest star before and that his name is Micah Leggat. Which is an anagram for... Magic Leg Hat? I've got nothing.) Thoughts?


Forensic Mystery - B. We are drawn into the victim's story because Brennan is drawn into her story. The fact that the victim had absolutely nothing to lose (Brennan's words - because, you know, being the best cardiac surgeon on the east coast isn't worth anything if you don't have a man in your life?) actually made her more compelling. Points taken off, though, for the probable misogynist undertones to a lonely, workaholic woman.

Forensic Solution - B. The science was actually believable tonight, except for the way Brennan could tell height/weight at a glance. Points taken off for that and the discovery of the very reflective road thingy that killed the woman with blood still on it.

Drama - A-. The Bones writers made me care about this episode. In spite of the fact that I knew the victim would end up not looking like/sounding like Brennan, I enjoyed how the writers got there. Points docked only because I think the writers tried to humanize Brennan too much in this episode: screwing up FBI work, relying on intuition, and throwing herself at Booth. Had they extended it over two episodes, I think it would have worked better.

Sex Lives of the Rich and Dead

There's an upcoming program on BBC2 called Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town, hosted by one of the world's renowned Pompeii scholars, Mary Beard. Blurbs about historically-based shows always kind of annoy me with their sensationalist overtones, but I recognize it's important to get people to watch the program. Unpacking the summary:
Pompeii: one of the most famous volcanic eruptions in history. We know how its victims died, but this film sets out to answer another question - how did they live? Gleaning evidence from an extraordinary find, Cambridge professor and Pompeii expert Mary Beard provides new insight into the lives of the people who lived in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius before its cataclysmic eruption.

So far, so good. We've situated the program at Pompeii (where Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD) and asked what people's daily lives were like.

In a dark cellar in Oplontis, just three miles from the centre of Pompeii, 54 skeletons who didn't succumb to the torrent of volcanic ash are about to be put under the microscope. The remains will be submitted to a barrage of tests that will unlock one of the most comprehensive scientific snapshots of Pompeian life ever produced - and there are some big surprises in store.

Oh, so the program is actually about Oplontis, not technically about people from Pompeii itself. Oplontis was similarly a wealthy resort town (although some may argue that it was a suburb of Pompeii) and quite close to Pompeii, yet it was actually on the Gulf of Naples, so life could have been dramatically different, particularly in terms of diet and activities (e.g., fishing). (My research has shown, for example, that people buried in Rome and people buried in Ostia, 25km apart, ate different things, had different frequencies of disease, etc.)

Skeletons can't succumb to anything; people can. But these people from Oplontis were not directly covered by ash, they were killed by the heat (which may have basically melted their nerves and fried off their skin in a matter of seconds).

The remains will also "be submitted to a barrage of tests." You know, just for fun, just to see what's there. Not because someone has a hypothesis. This kind of explanation for the relevancy of a research method would sound quite pejorative in the Americas, where destructive analysis often cannot be performed on skeletal remains, particularly those of Native Americans. Sure, you could argue that a television blurb doesn't have room for a proper hypothesis. But if the public doesn't understand that we are scientists and we set up scientific hypotheses and experiments (we don't just willy-nilly test all the skeletons we can find for whatever we can think of), how will they understand what our research is for and why we would like to be funded by public grants through organizations such as the NSF?

Using the latest forensic techniques it is now possible to determine what those who perished in the disaster ate and drank, where they came from, what diseases they suffered, how rich they were, and perhaps, even more astonishingly, the details of their sex lives.

Forensic techniques? I'm pretty sure that archaeologists first realized the application of stable isotope analysis to human skeletons, not forensic anthropologists. Determining what they ate (and drank?) is done with C/N isotope analyses. Where they came from - Sr and O (possibly even Pb or S) isotope analyses. What diseases they suffered - a standard osteological examination should reveal that. How rich they were - uhm, because of their good diet and low disease load? Because of advanced age or height? Not sure what the "forensic" metric is for "wealth." And, yes astonishingly, the details of their sex lives - wait, what? Are we talking about leprosy or some other communicable disease? Or DNA analysis showing familial relationships? For this reason alone, I want to see the program - which I suppose is the point.

The way the remains were found in the cellar already provides an invaluable clue about the lives of the people they belonged to. On one side of the room were individuals buried with one of the most stunning hauls of gold, jewellery and coins ever found in Pompeii. On the other, were people buried with nothing. It looked the stark dividing line of a polarised ancient society: a room partitioned between super rich and abject poor. But on closer examination the skeletons reveal some surprises about life in Pompeii.

Reveal some surprises because... the stunning haul of gold on one side of the room is related to taphonomy? Are we to assume that people were buried with their slaves? But domestic slaves in Oplontis may not have been as bad off as "abject poverty" - they may have had a better quality of life than agricultural slaves in Italy, for example. Just because a skeleton isn't found with gold baubles on it doesn't mean the person was poor.

At any rate, the 54 Oplontis skeletons (referred to as an "extraordinary find") were found years ago. I'm not entirely sure how long ago, though. There is an Oplontis Project that has been excavating recently. But there is a picture of the 54 skeletons in the Field Museum's Pompeii exhibition, which ran from 2005-06. Why did they decide to test the skeletons now? More importantly, am I missing the peer-reviewed publication that reports the results of the chemical analyses? I know that the peer-review process can take a long time (witness my 2002 MA thesis, which I ended up publishing as an article in 2009), but I'm not very comfortable with public presentation of data until it has gone through some sort of review process. If anyone knows about any articles on the Oplontis skeletons that I didn't find, I'd be interested to read them.

A dissection of the blurb demonstrates just how sensationalistic this kind of writing can be. I am hoping that the actual program adds more nuance and corrects some of the misconceptions in the summary blurb. Unfortunately, BBC2 won't let me watch the program online, so I may have to wait and see if I can get a copy on video. But if any of you in the UK are so inclined, tune in on Tuesday. And then let me know what Prof. Beard says about these skeletons!

December 6, 2010

Race and African-American Skeletons

W.W. Norton has a series of interviews with sociologists about important topics that are also highly relevant to anthropologists and other social scientists in their You May Ask Yourself series. (Full disclosure, I've done some writing for this publisher, so I'm not the most unbiased user of their resources.) The clip below, an interview with Columbia sociologist Alondra Nelson about the idea that race is a social construct, is particularly interesting as I think about my spring Anth 101 course.

Nelson takes the hard-line stance that race is purely a social construct. Whereas Nelson argues that biology becomes part of the process of constructing the race concept, I teach race as a social construct that is partly rooted in biology. There is a vast range of clinal variation in the world, and if you walked from the North Pole to Antarctica, for example, there wouldn't be the stark differences in skin color we think of as a racial marker. But if you take individuals from these populations (and individuals are the subject of, for instance, forensic anthropology), there can be large differences in one's external appearance (phenotype) based on ancestry.

Interestingly, Nelson mentions Rick Kittles, who worked on the African Burial Ground Project in New York City, excavating and analyzing the largest cemetery of Africans (slave and otherwise) in the U.S. I was surprised that she pointed out the possible issues in using genetic analysis on skeletal remains: namely, that we can't be sure of the accuracy of this analysis on ancient/historical material, and that these people cannot be informed of their results and (importantly) cannot contest them. That is, DNA can tell us about an individual's genotype, but race is largely constructed based on one's phenotype (which is affected by the environment as well as genes). Although we seem to disagree on how much biology contributes to the race concept, it's great to hear a sociologist present an historical perspective on race. I guess I had assumed that conversations about the "race" of ancient skeletons were going on only between bioarchaeologists and forensic anthropologists.

Addendum (12/9/10) - Didn't want to give it a whole post, but this OUP blog post from the author of a new Cleopatra biography gets it all wrong. (He uses loaded words like "pure" and doesn't separate phenotype from genotype - not that he knows what Cleopatra's genotype was.) Would chucking the race concept fix something like this, though? How many generations would it take until people gave up on questions like "what was Cleopatra's race"?

December 2, 2010

Bones - Season 6, Episode 8 (Review)

The Twisted Bones in the Melted Truck

Episode Summary

Apparently one of the Bones writers had to kick around a bunch of science project ideas with his kid, since that's the theme running through tonight's astoundingly boring (but interestingly scored) episode. We open with a blue sky, a rainbow, and the strains of Grant-Lee Phillips' Good Morning Happiness playing as we zero in on a truck with a seemingly asleep driver. Suddenly, the truck catches on fire and explodes. Bones and Booth are called to the scene, where the arson investigator can't find a point of ignition. Bones bags some mysterious white powder to bring back to the lab, and the mangled truck is opened to reveal a melted and twisted skeleton.

Back at the Jeffersonian, Dr. Saroyan notes that the skeleton is so warped that they "haven't been able to determine gender." A bullet is found lodged in the sternum, leading the team to conclude that was cause of death. The state of the bones means that it is impossible to do a facial reconstruction or get a dental match. Hodgins identifies the white powder as magnesium oxide, produced from the combustion of the magnesium that was apparently in the truck. Magnesium burns hot and fast, Daisy explains, so if the skeleton had been exposed to a magnesium fire for between 15-45 minutes at 500 degrees Celsius, the biogenic composition and structure of the bone mineral would crystallize and the bone would appear to be melted.

Based on the partial VIN and the make and model of the truck, Booth traces the vehicle to a body shop, where the owner, Jesse Wilson, says that one of his employees/friends George Liferd was hauling magnesium scraps to the recycling center. Wilson also owns a German luger, the type of gun that uses the 9mm bullet found in the victim. However, the team soon realizes that the bullet was not the cause of death, it only looked that way because of the warped bone. The bullet also was not shot at the victim; the striations on the bullet indicate it had never been fired, so Daisy and Hodgins set out to show how the magnesium fire could have caused the bullet to become lodged in the victim's sternum. Meanwhile, Booth starts to suspect the victim's wife, Kathy, a high school teacher. Kathy has been buying Star Wars trading cards on eBay at an outrageous markup. She eventually admits to having an affair with a student, Randy Seminoff, which was witnessed by another student, Paul Lennato, who then blackmailed Kathy through the eBay trading card markup.

Back at the Jeffersonian, Angela decides to use a series of equations from 16th century Italian mathematician and anatomist Girolamo Cardano to virtually reconstruct the mangled skeleton into something more resembling a person. This technique shows that there are marks on the ilium and a nick to the mandible. If the nick represents the severing of the carotid artery, Bones muses, that could be the cause of death. She has Hodgins check the bone for residue, and his SEM analysis found that the knife used to make the cut was forged from steel prior to 1964, as it was made from carbon steel that was laminated in silver. This was a special knife, a Damascus blade that had been hand-forged and commissioned by Hitler as presents for his top men. During WWII, Patton's 3rd Army came into their possession, and one fell to Jesse Wilson, whose grandfather was in the German theater of WWII. His collection of Nazi memorabilia, however, had been stolen six months prior.

Bones and Daisy reexamine the skeleton carefully for any additional evidence (to what I think is Blakroc's What You Do To Me). Bones notes that there are markings on the right ilium, a faint sequence of dash marks. Daisy identifies them as the impressions from a zipper that has been ripped open, bending the teeth. This finding leads the team to suspect Randy's girlfriend, Amber. She stole Jesse Wilson's memorabilia when he cut Randy's pay. When she found out that Randy was sleeping with Kathy Liferd, she decided to tell her husband George. And then suggested they get back at their respective cheating significant others by sleeping together. When George rejected Amber, she killed him.

In the B and C plot lines, Hannah is worried about whether Parker will like her. He eventually comes around, after telling her about his volcano science project, and they become BFFs by the end of the episode. Daisy asks Sweets for answers to the FBI's psychological evaluation so that she can pass and be allowed to work unsupervised at the Jeffersonian.

Forensic Comments
  • If the truck fire in the opening scene was magnesium-related, it should have had white flames rather than yellow-orange like a normal fire.
  • Dr. Saroyan notes that they haven't been able to tell "gender" when in actuality they haven't been able to estimate sex of the victim.
  • There was no chance for facial reconstruction or dental ID (but see below), and the remains were so mangled that they couldn't even figure out sex (even, apparently, given some rather large sections of ilium and skull) - how did they confirm the ID of the skeleton? Sure, Liferd supposedly was driving the truck; but the forensic team got absolutely NO basic demographic information from the skeleton that could prove it was that of George Liferd. This would not stand up in court.
  • Bones and dental enamel are not the same. Teeth survive much longer in the archaeological record and with fewer taphonomic changes than bone because of their chemical composition. They are much more likely to survive a fire intact than bones are. There was insufficient explanation for why the teeth couldn't be used for an ID.
  • The writers forced me to do some (admittedly curt) research on magnesium and how it could cause the bones to "melt," but I still have no idea. I watched this part of the episode twice to make sure I hadn't missed the explanation for how this could happen, but I did not miss it. Daisy and Hodgins determine that a magnesium fire would alter the "biogenic composition and structure" of the bone; the mineral would crystallize and the bone would appear to be melted. I don't pretend to be a chemist, so I'm not sure how this works. OK, so a mild acid could dissolve the calcium in a bone, which makes it rather bendy, and some sort of re-crystallization through the introduction of calcium (or something that substitutes for calcium) could harden the bendy bones into strange shapes. But magnesium is an alkaline earth metal, not an acid, although it does react with acids. Seriously, if anyone knows more about chemistry than I do, please tell me whether the writers came even close to a possible scenario here. It's bugging me.
  • I tried to look up Girolamo Cardano but found no clear references to equations or algorithms for reconstructing a human body. And even if this were true, even a magical 3D imaging machine couldn't accurately reconstruct small nicks on bone (as there would be lots of artifacts in the reconstruction from standard errors in the equations, I would imagine).
  • As usual, the FreeDictionary agrees with Bones' pronunciation of "ischial." I'm beginning to rethink whether I deserve my higher degrees in classics now.
  • Why would Daisy need psychological clearance from the FBI to work in the Jeffersonian? Or is it on FBI-related cases? And in what world are there "right" answers to a psychological profile such that she'd want Sweets to give her the answers?
  • The writers have been consistent this season in their ability to discuss both sharp and projectile trauma. Maybe it's time to hire a consultant who has other expertise, though?
  • A random aside: I once worked a forensic vehicle fire case. He was half-flesh, half-bone and there were tons of pieces of burned seat cushion bagged with his bones (as they really did look like calcined carpals or phalanges). The guy was not melted to the dashboard, but the fire didn't involve magnesium, just normal old accelerant.

Brennan had some great lines tonight, like "teenagers are dull-witted and very difficult to talk to" and "you've probably been menstruating for several years." I do not buy, however, that she wouldn't catch the "big brother" reference. Temperance Brennan has undoubtedly read 1984. At the end of the episode, Brennan affirms her belief in the structure of our society, saying that the teacher should be prosecuted because, even if a 17-year-old would be considered able to consent to sexual relations in another culture, he's not in ours. I was thinking this week about how Brennan is actually one of the best representations of an anthropologist in the mainstream media, and her dialogue tonight cemented that for me. But I'll have to save a more thorough analysis for another blog post.

Sweets similarly got in some cute but groan-worthy puns, first in giving an impression of Anthony Daniels' C-3PO: "Don't call me a mindless philosopher, you overweight glob of grease." And "What are you driving at, Miss Daisy?" Sweets is quickly becoming my favorite character. He's consistently nerdy and earnest, he's got an interesting yet not fully told back story, and his relationship with Daisy is believable.

Hannah, on the other hand, has got to go. Weird affectation/speech issue aside, she is a decent actress. Today's episode, though, highlighted one of my least favorite tropes of all time: the clueless single woman who has no idea how to talk to a child, but when she finally attempts a conversation, she realizes that she had mothering instincts all along. I'm sure there's a name for this ridiculous portrayal of a woman and I'm sure it's pretty anti-feminist, but I am too tired to look it up right now. (It came up on last week's episode of House [also on Fox] where Wilson's ex-wife did the exact same thing, but with a kid cancer patient.)


Forensic Mystery - D. The majority of the plot points were telegraphed early. Did anyone really not suspect that Kathy was sleeping with a student? Or that the student wouldn't have committed the murder? There were kind of a lot of people and a lot of weapons as well (knife, bullet/gun, magnesium, etc.), and considering how much extraneous dialogue/plot points were in this episode (not to mention the songs), it all seemed a bit confused and curt.

Forensic Solution - D-. I can't get over the magnesium solution. I just don't understand what the writers think happened or if it is even possible. Plus, the murderer was too many degrees removed from the victim to believe that it was a crime of passion. On the whole, the forensics in this episode were sorely lacking. I mean, come on, no age/sex/ancestry for a positive ID, even with the aid of the 3D reconstruction?

Drama - F. Nothing was compelling about this episode. The victim's wife was trying to have a baby, so that part was supposed to be sad, I guess. But she was clearly having an affair, and the students were all just warm bodies, not integral to the plot at all. I cared more about the melted bones, which weren't sufficiently explained. The B plot of Hannah and Parker was eye-rollingly terrible. Between the magnesium fire (who didn't watch their chem teacher in high school set Mg on fire?), the talk of the potato clock and the volcano, and Hodgins' botched ballistics experiment (Daisy: "We didn't take into consideration Newton's third law of motion"), one of the writers clearly had to help a kid with a science project recently. I hate Hannah more and more each week, especially now that she's the clueless-about-kids-until-her-maternal-instincts-kick-in woman on the show. The C plot of Daisy and Sweets was sweetly benign.

NEXT WEEK: We get some navel-gazing and possible Booth-Brennan developments as the team has to deal with a victim who was very similar to Brennan.

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