September 30, 2010

Bones - Season 6, Episode 2 (Review)

The Couple in the Cave

Episode Summary

This is the second episode of the season in which the reset button was hit so that the team could all come back together. But we didn't meet Booth's new girlfriend in the last episode, so she has to show up in this one. Otherwise, we're still playing a bit of catch-up/reestablishing relationships tonight: Angela is still pregnant, Hodgins is still mooning, Cam is still useless, Booth and Bones are still pretending they don't like one another. For the first 10+ minutes of this episode, there was a lot of exposition about the interpersonal relationships of the show. *yawn*

The forensic mystery is a pair of skeletons that were found in a cave in a national park somewhere outside of D.C. Brennan quickly identifies them as female and male, both in their late 20s/early 30s. The fracture patterning appears to be blunt trauma, which she interprets as bludgeoning. Angela quickly finds a match through DMV records for her facial reconstruction of the female skull, but can't get anything on the male skull because it was badly broken. Since the female victim's identity is known, most of the forensic work centers on the male victim. Hodgins finds pollen on the bodies and cross-references with the park's pollen count to determine they died on the 13th. He also finds eggs from sternorrhyncha aphididae on the male skeleton, suggesting he was recently at a higher, windier altitude than the cave. The park ranger leads Booth and Brennan to some cabins, where they find the couple's initials carved into a post. In order to figure out more about the male individual, Dr. Edison (who has returned from his random job in Chicago owing to a lack of promotion) decides to do a strontium isotope analysis on the individual's teeth. This analysis tells him that the victim spent the first 20 or so years of his life in Central America. Brennan notes that, based on the oxygen isotope analysis, this man was from Guatemala originally. Dr. Saroyan finds nicotine residue on the man's tissue, and Brennan concludes that he was a migrant worker who picked tobacco. The relationship between the female (a white American marketing manager) and the male (a Guatemalan migrant worker) is an anthropological anomaly according to Brennan, as crossing class boundaries is rare. Dr. Edison finds a connection when he counts the skeletons' osteons and notices osteoblastic activity and changes in their bone mass. Both of these bony characteristics indicate the individuals had osteopenia, which can result from alcoholism, so the team makes the connection to AA. The female showed more bone growth than the male, suggesting she was his sponsor. A quick trip to AA finds that the female used to take people to the park, and Angela works up some nifty topographical overlay that shows them precisely which rocks killed the couple, whose blunt trauma resulted from falling to their deaths rather than being bludgeoned. Finally, Dr. Saroyan finds capsaicin in the tissue around the eye of the male, suggesting he had been pepper-sprayed. Booth and Brennan confront the park ranger, who admits to having killed the couple in an attempt to frame a recently released ex-con who because the man bought his underage niece liquor and contributed to her drunk-driving death.

As for the dramatic element of the plot, Booth's new girlfriend shows up and Brennan is all weird about it and blah blah blah. It gives Sweets something to do, I guess. And Dr. Edison breaks character and does care about the leads' romantic relationship. Just when I was starting to like him. Generally, the murder mystery is at least interesting and distracts me from the horrendous will-they-won't-they drama, but the entire forensic plot was telegraphed from the very beginning with the giant smoking Chekhov's gun that was the park ranger.

Forensic Comments
  • I'm always annoyed how Angela's re-creations look so damned much like the deceased, down to the eye color, hair color and form, nose shape, etc. It was not at all explained how she got a "hit" from the DMV - I guess she somehow ran her sketch through the NCMA (possible trigger warning - some autopsy photos)?
  • Between the pollen and the insect activity, Hodgins could very well have made a fairly precise time of death; one specific day still seems a bit too precise to me, though (but perhaps I'm questioning it solely because it was convenient to the plot).
  • The couple's injuries are consistent with a fall from a height. I would have expected to see more injuries to the man's hands (if he indeed was falling face-down, he would have braced for impact and may have sustained Colles' fractures to his radii). I didn't rewatch the episode, though, so perhaps I missed a discussion about it?
  • Angela used special topographical software to map some rocks? I guess it'd only been two weeks, but those rocks were small and could easily have been moved by scavengers and/or carnivores roaming the area.
  • Dr. Edison attempted strontium and oxygen isotope analysis of the man's teeth in order to figure out where he grew up.
    • I'm glad that they added the oxygen (because the combination of the two is much more useful than just one, as I've briefly discussed here in reference to my own research).
    • I honestly don't know if Sr/O are useful in a forensic context, though. We get our water from a huge variety of sources these days (e.g., bottled water, imported fruit and vegetables), so I would expect that to complicate identifying the specific homeland of an individual. Still, I think it's possible that O could have narrowed down his origin to at least Central America from the first and second molar. (If he started working in his teens, though, his third molar isotope values could reflect a mixture of his homeland and his destination.)
    • Why did Dr. Edison test multiple teeth? And which teeth did he test? He reported to Dr. Brennan that the man spent "the first 20 years or so of his life in Central America." The third molar (the wisdom tooth) may erupt around the age of 20, but it forms between the ages of 12-16. So saying the strontium isotope value represented the first 20 years is just kind of sloppy.
    • As with last week, wouldn't DNA have been faster and cheaper than Sr/O from multiple teeth? I don't think DNA is much more than $100, and Sr/O from three different molars (representing the ages 0-16) would be closer to $300. DNA likely would have indicated the male was not a white American, but I don't know if there are specific markers that would have given them Guatemalan.
    • Dr. Edison, "strontium" is NOT that hard to say. Practice it with me: strON-tee-um.
  • Dr. Edison also finds the connection between the two skeletons: osteopenia.
    • For the love of the dictionary, I beg the director of this show to LOOK UP how to pronounce words. It is not osteo-pee-NEE-a. It's osteo-PEE-nee-a. Poor Dr. Edison looks like a moron this episode, even if he effectively did the heavy lifting of the forensic part.
    • Osteopenia can be caused by drinking too much, but it can also be caused by smoking too much (and lack of exercise, asthma meds, hormone issues, etc.). With the tobacco residue(?) on the man's hands, I didn't immediately jump to the conclusion that they were both alcoholics.

Dialogue
  • Brennan refers to a possible relationship between the white American marketing director and the Guatemalan migrant worker as an "anthropological anomaly." Even if we buy that crossing class boundaries is rare (especially when the man is of the lower class), what anthropologist would refer to any interpersonal relationship in statistical terms?
  • Angela says about Booth's girlfriend, "She is hot." To which Brennan replies, "Yes, she's in Afghanistan. The temperature is frequently over 100 degrees." Puh-lease.
  • When Booth and his girlfriend talk about how they first met, when he saved her life, Brennan responds, "You're implying that you showed your appreciation sexually." No one is that clueless about social norms. Right?
  • Finally, Brennan notes that "If we don’t look after ourselves, nothing else matters." Apparently the Best Physical Anthropologist in the World has never heard of altruism.

Ratings
Forensic mystery - C- (as with last week, there was too much interpersonal drama and not enough forensic drama to make the mystery all that compelling)

Forensic solution - C+ (this week the team at least did isotope analysis and looked at pollen/bugs to ID one of the victims)

Drama - D+ (ugh, please stop with the Bones/Booth tension - or at least make it more believable, relatable, or interesting; otherwise, it detracts from the forensics)

[Stray comment: is it just me, or does the actress who plays Booth's new girlfriend talk strangely? She's apparently Canadian (Toronto), so my assumption she has a slight accent is probably not right. Maybe it's just the way she talks, but it sounds like she's swallowing some phonemes, like /l/ and /r/.]

September 29, 2010

Ocular Degeneration

My esteemed classical archaeologist colleague Kathy McDonnell pointed me at the newly-redesigned cover for the Roman archaeology bible, the Oxford Archaeological Guide to Rome. In today's episode of Photoshop Disasters - Ancient Rome edition:


I'm guessing the conversation over at Oxford University Press went something like this...

Simon: Nigel, here are some photos for the cover.
Nigel: Aw, man, stupid ancient ruins. There's a ginormous hole in the roof just to the left of where the title should be.
Simon: I know. You'd think the Italians could have fixed that by now. It's been two thousand damn years. But Berlusconi is running the country into the ground.
Nigel: See here, a little cloning, a little smudging... Crikey, it looks good as new!

There's a bigger version over at Google books, with even more awful Photoshop artifacts. I have not personally confirmed that this image appears on the printed version of the book, but my esteemed colleague said that, if anything, the printed image looks even worse. She alerted people at the press about this issue; no word on whether or not they're planning to do anything about it.

For non-classicists, here's what the ceiling of the Pantheon actually looks like, with the oculus in place:

September 24, 2010

Bones - Season 6, Episode 1 (Review)

I watch Bones. I could say it's because I frequently assign students in my Human Osteology, Bioarchaeology, and Forensic Anthropology classes to watch and critique it, but even when I'm not teaching, I watch Bones. It's a guilty pleasure. The drama of the show is pretty bland and the forensics tends to be far too slick for reality. But mostly it's a kind of academic schadenfreude - I wait for the writers, prop people, and actors to slip up. And they always slip up. I sometimes read a blog in which a doctor critiques House, M.D. With a hat tip for the idea, here goes... some (semi-)regular analysis of the forensics of Bones. (Feel free to post in the comments if I missed something!)

The Mastodon in the Room

Episode Summary
Overall, this was one of the worst episodes in recent memory. The season opener has a lot of work to do. When we left the team, they were all headed for different places: Brennan and Daisy to Indonesia to search for Homo floresiensis fossils, Booth to Afghanistan to train the locals in military practices, Angela and Hodgins to France for some reason I don't recall, and Sweets apparently to play at a piano bar because Daisy dumped him. The conceit that gets them all back is that Dr. Saroyan, the pathologist and medical examiner for D.C., is in trouble. She can't conclusively identify the remains of a child that were discovered three months ago as those of a missing boy. Miss Julian, whose job is fairly elusive, calls the team back from their sabbaticals abroad to help save Dr. Saroyan's job.

Upon their return, the team figures out quickly that the skeleton and the missing boy do not match up. Saroyan first notes that all she can tell is that the skeleton is from a boy. Brennan discovers Harris lines in the tibiae, and Intern Guy notes porotic hyperostosis of the cranial vault, which add up to malnutrition. Angela pokes her head in and says that the eye orbits are really round, and Brennan exclaims that she definitely sees that the skull is brachycephalic. They conclude the child was Asian. Hodgins estimates a much earlier time of death that doesn't fit in with the disappearance of the missing boy. Later, Brennan sees a hyoid fracture on the x-ray, and Hodgins finds a sliver of wood embedded in the bone. Coupled with damage to the sternum, they conclude it was likely an accidental death (from a toothpick or something similar) and failed CPR/Heimlich maneuver. Based on the finding that the twine used to wrap the child's limbs was industrial-strength thread and the analysis of the jacket, which was made from a fabric only manufactured in North Korea, Brennan and Booth look for an industrial sewing operation. They find the only North Korean in the place and confirm that the 3-year-old child choked on a wooden crib nail and CPR did not work, so the mother and great-grandfather buried the boy. To round out the episode, Booth and Brennan find the missing boy, who was with his father all along.

Forensic Comments
  • Why didn't Dr. Saroyan do a DNA analysis of the skeletal remains? If the case was so high-profile, surely she could have gotten the funding to test the kid's DNA. This would have told her that the child was male and, more importantly, that he was Asian, thus saving her job and not needing the rest of the people to come back.
  • Cam inexplicably said she knew the skeleton was male, but unless the field has progressed significantly, she has about a 50/50 chance of knowing this from skeletal remains. Brennan did not question this assessment. (However, see here for some new research coming out of neighboring NC State in this regard.)
  • Harris lines that are evident on xray show arrested growth of long bones, and porotic hyperostosis is related to iron-deficiency anemia (which can be caused by a host of things, such as malaria, parasites, and nutritional issues). These two issues do add up to malnutrition. The team probably should have noted whether or not there were enamel hypoplasias, which are also generic indications of a disease or nutritional issue.
  • Angela's estimation of Asian for the race of the skeleton is pretty ludicrous. Again, I'm not up on the latest research, but a forensic anthropologist's ability to estimate ancestry from the remains of someone so young is marginal at best. The subadult skeleton just has not matured enough for the typical ancestry characteristics to be seen. If anything, they should have looked at the incisors; shovel-shaped incisors could be seen in the deciduous dentition and would indicate Asian or Native American ancestry better than the eye orbits.
  • Physical anthropologists don't use the cephalic index anymore. (Side note: I just discovered that Wikipedia's page for cephalic index cites me. Odd.) Brennan's comment that the skull was brachycephalic can refer to the general shape, but again, estimating ancestry in a child is very difficult. DNA analysis would have been a much better way to go here.
  • Intern Guy pointed out the lesions on the skull but claimed that he forgot what they were called. No self-respecting graduate student of physical anthropology would forget in the last 7 months what porotic hyperostosis is: it's common and easy to identify, so Intern Guy would have had a lot of experience with it. It was especially unbelievable because he busted out "Harris lines" and "histological profile" immediately after that.
  • Speaking of porotic hyperostosis, someone should have coached Emily Deschanel how to say it. I laughed out loud at her attempt, which was something more like, "porotic hyperostotosis." There was definitely an extra syllable in there.
  • Is it just me, or was that child skeleton super fakey fake? Was the production budget of the show cut?
  • Finally, why were Brennan and Daisy looking for fossils? I think last season the explanation was that Brennan is the best physical anthropologist in the world. But she's not a palaeoanthropologist - she's actually kind of the opposite. She appears to be trained to figure out cause of death, not to do comparative anatomy of hominids. I'd love to find some H. floresiensis bones, but I don't have the training to know what to do with them.
The dialogue in this episode was really quite atrocious too. Brennan is always on a continuum - sometimes the writers make her the most socially-stunted and ridiculous-sounding person in the world (as in the episode in which she attempts to flirt with a fellow forensic anthropologist in England), and sometimes she seems like a typical academic. Last night was somewhere in between. The episode's drama was a bunch of anti-drama: all the characters acted in the way you would expect. Booth found a girlfriend, Brennan was weirdly socially stunted, Angela and Hodgins moon over one another, Lance and Daisy look forlorn, Saroyan is a mix of confused and bemused.

Ratings
Forensic mystery - D (dead child is sad but not interesting)

Forensic solution - C (the team did an adequate job, but DNA would have been better, and it should have been done months prior)

Drama - D (too much recap, replacing people in their old roles)

(See also the A.V. Club's review of this episode. I don't think they normally do Bones, though.)

September 23, 2010

The Headless Romans of York

I've decided to start a new and hopefully recurring blog post - not as exciting as Taphonomy Thursdays from my dissertation data collection and a whole lot more egotistical - reviews of articles that cite my work.

"The 'Headless Romans': multi-isotope investigation of an unusual burial ground from Roman Britain" by Gundula Muldner, Carolyn Chenery, and Hella Eckardt of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading was recently accepted by the Journal of Archaeological Science. (UPDATE - 10/28/10, National Geographic took notice of this article and interviewed the first author about it.)

It represents one of the first scientific publications of the cemetery whose unusual burial population has been covered a few times over the years by the mainstream media. In the midst of a large 2nd-4th century cemetery in York (a city known to the Romans as Eboracum) were found 80 inhumation burials and 16 cremations. Osteological analysis showed that all of the individuals whose sex could be confidently assessed were male. Further, at least 46 of the 80 inhumed men had been decapitated, with their heads placed on their torsos or between their knees. In the Roman world, decapitation could be used as punishment, but it isn't known if that was the case here or if this was some sort of ritual act. (Also interesting is that one of the individuals was found with heavy iron rings around his legs, suggesting he was shackled - possibly as a prisoner or as a slave.)

The researchers did strontium and oxygen isotope analysis on the fourth premolar of 18 of these skeletons (12 of which had been decapitated), as well as carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis from the ribs of a much larger sample. They also analyzed the collagen in the premolar roots of the same 18 individuals, thus obtaining C/N information from both their bones and their teeth, giving them an idea of what these 18 people ate between ages 7-13 (formation of the fourth premolar) and the last few years before death.

One of the important contributions of this article is the discussion of combining isotope analyses. Taken independently, there were 7 people who were nonlocal based on Sr and 2 based on O. Of the people whose Sr and O cannot exclude them as locals, though, three have C or N values that are dramatically different from the overall population. One individual has a higher C value than average, indicating a diet with a significant contribution of C4 foods; one has a lower C value, indicating an exclusively C3 diet; and one has a very high N value, probably as a result of greater consumption of seafood than average. I'm actually not entirely clear how these numbers add up since I didn't completely pore through the attached data tables, but based on the combination of the isotopes, the authors found that 13 out of the 18 people sampled came from geographical areas inconsistent with the York area of England. (This isn't necessarily a criticism; I know first-hand how hard it is to juggle samples of different sizes that do not completely overlap. They do seem to have done Sr/O and C/N of both bone and dentine from 11 individuals, though.)

The geographical origins of the nonlocals that these researchers found were quite diverse. Interestingly, there seems to be no correlation between being nonlocal and having been decapitated. Considering the press that Inca burials and mummies have gotten over the years based on the finding that many of the sacrificed were nonlocals (a fact renewed this week by another in-press JAS article), I suppose I was surprised that these headless people were not necessarily foreigners. Locals and nonlocals were equally likely to have been decapitated. Thus it would seem that, if this represents a particular burial ritual, it was not one that was linked to ethnicity or geographical origins. Nor does it seem that, if this represents a particular punishment, that nonlocals were more likely to be executed than locals. Even with all the information now available on these men, it's still unclear who they were, why they died, or why they were buried where they were and, especially, in the way they were.

Although the presentation of data from multiple isotope systems is complicated and can be cumbersome, this article does an excellent job of demonstrating the importance of balancing the information obtained from one isotope with data from one or more additional isotopes. In the Roman period in particular, the circulation of people, objects, animals, water, and food significantly complicates isotope analysis in a way that researchers in the New World don't usually see. It has become increasingly clear through this article (and the previous work of these researchers) that multiple isotope analysis is now a necessity in understanding the bodies of people who lived in the Roman Empire. I discovered this fact as well with my own dissertation research. Strontium analysis alone gave me perhaps half a dozen immigrants out of my 100+ individuals, meaning about 5% of the population was nonlocal. The combination of Sr and O, though, (which I had to do on a subset of people owing to funding constraints) gave me a percentage of around 33% for the nonlocal population. The difference when the isotope systems were combined was amazing. I also added C/N on some of the people, and there was at least one person whose C value was so high it prompted a colleague at a conference to comment that if he didn't know better, he would have said the guy was eating a lot of corn.

I look forward to seeing more information come out about these so-called headless Romans. The authors note that they found at least one individual who appears to have changed diet between childhood (7-13 years old) and adulthood, but they don't seem to have reported on any other dietary changes in either the locals or the nonlocals.

Where my work is cited: The authors cite an article (on which I am a coauthor) about lead isotope analysis of skeletons from Britain and a few of mine from Rome. They note that one of the men from this cemetery in York, a middle-aged male who was not decapitated, had a Pb isotope signature indicating he was likely nonlocal. The article they cite on lead is forthcoming in the volume Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire, JRA Supplement 78, as "'Gleaming, white and deadly': the use of lead to track human exposure and geographic origins in the Roman period in Britain," by J. Montgomery, J. Evans, S. Chenery, V. Pashley, and K. Killgrove.

September 20, 2010

Urbanism and Disease

My original dissertation idea was to look at the way that living in urbanized Rome in the Imperial period affected people's skeletons. Although I eventually narrowed my research focus to migration, which was an important part of urbanization, I did collect pathological data in an attempt to see what the disease load was of the urban Roman population. I haven't yet read the full article, but mainstream media has picked up on the implications of research linking urbanization and resistance to tuberculosis published in an article in Evolution entitled "Ancient urbanisation predicts genetic resistance to tuberculosis." It seems that, although the introduction of cattle farming played a role in humans' developing genetic resistance to TB, those people who lived in long-term, permanent, urbanized settlements had a much higher likelihood of possessing the necessary alleles for resistance to TB (and the related disease leprosy, both of which are caused by Mycobacterium) than did people not from urbanized areas.

This result is pretty cool in that it suggests that the complete lack of evidence of TB and leprosy in the Roman populations I examined may not be unusual. By Imperial times, Rome had been urbanized for centuries, and people had been coming from all over the Empire, bringing in new diseases but also new alleles, so possibly new resistance to endemic diseases. I've said before that I'd love to do some sort of disease ecology study in Rome, particularly with respect to malaria. The study cited above appears to have used DNA analysis of modern people, so I'm wondering if there is a possibility of doing the same kind of study on ancient people (aside from the fact that aDNA analysis is ridiculously expensive).

September 15, 2010

Athenian plague victim?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

September 10, 2010

In which a computer program tells me I'm female. And ten years younger.

If you click over to URLAI, you can have your blog analyzed in terms of the gender (sic) and age of the author, and the mood and tonality of the posts. Here are the results from this blog:

Other than being annoyed at the prominent grammatical error, I'm surprised it thinks I'm younger than I actually am. It's also surprising that my tone is more personal than academic, as it looked at my last 10 posts, all of which were at least partially related to my job or my research. I wonder why it thinks I'm female? It clearly didn't pay attention to the title of the blog, or I think it would be at least 99% sure of my sex.

September 9, 2010

Probate

Frankly, these are the only things I expect to get from any family members in a will. (From the Married to the Sea web comic.)

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