December 31, 2011

Best of Powered by Osteons - 2011

Somewhere in the middle of 2011, I totally revamped this blog.  It got a new name, a new URL, a new format... and I've also gotten more involved with science blogging - writing about scientific discoveries in the news, offering critiques, and discussing my own research as well.

This year, I've posted 145 times and have gotten over 110,000 page views. Since everyone else is doing an end-of-year retrospective, here are the top 10* posts of 2011:
  1. "Line on the left, one cross each": the Bioarchaeology of Crucifixion (November 4)
  2. Gay Caveman!  ZOMFG! (April 6)
  3. Cranial Vault Modification or Alieeeeens? (November 22)
  4. Ethnic Cleansing of Jews May Date to 12th Century (June 23)
  5. Witches and Prostitutes in Medieval Tuscany (September 23)
  6. Sickle-Cell Disease, Oxygen Isotopes, and Malarial Romans (June 15)
  7. Why is anthropology needed?  (October 11)
  8. Holding Hands into Eternity (October 21)
  9. Viking women immigrated to England, but were they warriors or wives? (July 22)
  10. QR Code for Academic Posters (April 3)
* The top 10 above doesn't include any Bones reviews.  The top Bones-related post is the Season 6 finale, which - surprise, surprise - I didn't particularly care for.

Some other popular posts of mine that I particularly like, which were posted here and elsewhere in 2011: 
So thanks, everyone, for reading Powered by Osteons this year!  In 2012, you can look forward to more Bones reviews, some updates on the Roman DNA Project, conference papers I'll be giving at the Paleopathology Association and American Association of Physical Anthropologists meetings, the Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival, and of course reports and critiques of biological anthropology in the news.  

Happy new year!

December 29, 2011

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival XI

It's been predictably sleepy leading up to Christmas.  Just a couple items of interest...

  • 15 December.  More on the reopening of the Tomb of the Scipios at ArcheoRivista.  The Scipio family, of course, was famous for their fighting in the Punic Wars, and the tribunes of the plebs, the Gracchi, were also related.  The underground tomb is now open to the public on Saturdays by guided tour only (cost: 8 euro).  It hasn't been seen by the public since 1992.  It's a pretty cool-looking columbarium; I'll be sure to check it out next time I'm in Rome:
Tomb of the Scipios, via ArcheoRivista
  • 18 December.  An annual presentation on the excavation at the site of Castello di Piombinara is summarized at ArcheoRivista.  This site is near Colleferro, a small town not far from Rome.  The necropolis at the site boasts 68 graves with more than 100 individuals of all ages and both sexes, dating from the Late Roman through the Medieval periods.  The graves seem to have many artifacts in them, which is useful for dating, but there isn't any further mention of the anthropological analysis beyond the range of age and sex.  There is, however, a picture of at least three skeletons (one young-ish adult or teenager at the bottom, a child in the middle, and a probable adult at the top):
Burials at Castello di Piombinara, via ArcheoRivista

December 28, 2011

Oedipus Rex and the Plague of Athens

A new article out in the January 2012 edition of the CDC's Emerging Infectious Diseases is called "The Plague of Thebes, a Historical Epidemic, in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex" (Kousoulis et al. 2012).  The authors' goal was to try to tease out whether the plague described in the play was an actual historical event, whether it was the same kind of plague known in historical records as the 5th century Plague of Athens, and which pathogen was the cause of this plague.
Plague of Thebes
by C.F. Jalabeat

Following a close reading of the ancient text, the authors conclude that the most likely causative agent was Brucella abortus, which causes brucellosis, a zoonosis that is easily passed to humans.  It has low mortality rates - as evidenced by the fact that brucellosis can show up on the skeleton - so the authors suggest that perhaps this strain of Brucella was more virulent than previously known, or perhaps the plague referenced was actually multiple diseases affecting the Thebans in Oedipus Rex (and the Athenians in history) at once (leptospirosis, listeriosis, and salmonella, e.g.).

Since Sophocles is known as a realistic tragedian and since Greek tragedies were often placed within real historical frameworks, the authors believe that the plagues referenced in Oedipus Rex in Thebes and in historical Athens are one and the same.  Their conclusion reads (p. 156):
The critical reading of Oedipus Rex, its comparison with Thucydides’ history, as well as the systematic review of the existing historical data, lead us to strongly suggest that this epidemic, for which the name Plague of Thebes may be used, was an actual historical fact, likely caused by B. abortus. With the deadly plague, which struck one of the most historic Greek cities, on the one hand and the tragic fate of a character who has become among the most recognizable in world theater on the other, Sophocles masterminded a dramatic frame and offered a lyrical, literary description of a lethal disease. As the protagonist approached his tragic catharsis, the moral order much desired by the ancient Greeks was restored with the end of the epidemic.
I'm not big on ancient-historical epidemiology, particularly in cases where there's not likely to be any skeletal data, since it means there's no good way to further an argument based on a close reading of a text.  This is one of those cases.  Brucellosis can cause bony changes, but it can take years.  People who died quickly of brucellosis in a plague situation would not have had time to develop skeletal lesions.

The other line of evidence that can back up an historical-epidemiological hypothesis is pathogenic DNA.  In 2006, a group of researchers did a DNA analysis of dental pulp from skeletons found in what is thought to be a mass plague grave dating to the 5th century in the Athenian Kerameikos cemetery (Papagrigoriakis et al. 2006).  They isolated Salmonella enterica from the skeletons, concluding that the Plague of Athens was likely typhoid fever or a related disease.  Some have questioned this research (Shapiro et al. 2006) and the study may need to be redone, but as the recent sequencing of the Y. pestis genome has shown, clearly DNA/skeletal analysis is the way forward in ancient epidemiology.

It's unclear to me why Kousoulis et al. don't discuss the DNA study at all.  They simply mention "historical medical literature" when citing it.  There is an interesting Technical Appendix to the article (which I just found), which does mention typhoid fever.  Was the Papagrigoriakis et al. article really so flawed that it shouldn't be engaged with and that typhoid fever shouldn't be considered a possibility for the Plague of Athens?  Kousoulis et al. talk about the need for "historical verification" but don't mention the need for scientific verification - there are skeletons, and bioarchaeologists can look for pathogenic DNA in them.  Close reading of Sophocles won't give us the answers we're looking for, although it could give us a way to start developing new hypotheses.

Update (1/2/11) - Fixed my initial conflation of typhus and typhoid fever.


Kousoulis AA, Economopoulos EP, Poulakou-Rebelakou E, Androutsos G, & Tsiodras S (2012). The Plague of Thebes, a Historical Epidemic, in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 18 (1), 153-157.

Papagrigorakis MJ, Yapijakis C, Synodinos PN, & Baziotopoulou-Valavani E (2006). DNA examination of ancient dental pulp incriminates typhoid fever as a probable cause of the Plague of Athens. International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 10 (3), 206-214, PMID: 16412683.

Shapiro B, Rambaut A, & Gilbert MT (2006). No proof that typhoid caused the Plague of Athens (a reply to Papagrigorakis et al.). International Journal of Infectious Diseases, 10 (4), PMID: 16730469.

December 19, 2011

Is anatomy different in Peru?

Time once again for my favorite game: "What's wrong with this skeleton?"  Today's contestant comes from an NPR piece "Finders, Not Keepers: Yale Returns Artifacts to Peru".  I'm guessing NPR itself didn't take the photo - likely someone at Yale did - but the errors are egregious.  See for yourself:

Photo by Tim Moran (found at
Have at it, commenters.  How many things can you find wrong with this picture?

Once you're done with that, see previous episodes of "What's wrong with that skeleton?" - here courtesy the Daily Mail, here from Staffordshire University, and here from Bones.

December 15, 2011

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival X

This is a wee bit late, since I just finished grading for the semester and am cleaning out my office (since I'm headed back to Chapel Hill on Saturday).  There are a bunch of interesting links this week, so let's get started...

  • 5 December.  A pre-Roman cremation necropolis (1200-1000 BC) and two Roman houses (one with an oven) were found in Bolzano.  Coverage is in Italian via ArcheoRivista.
  • 8 December.  In 2008, Megan Perry and colleagues published an article in the International Journal of Palaeopathology on a possible parasite recovered from a Late Roman burial from Aqaba, Jordan.  A reanalysis of the object was published in IJOA this week by Della Cook and R.R. Patrick, who think that it may instead be a fossil marine invertebrate rather than human tissue or a human parasite.
  • 8 December.  A second necropolis in Vatican City will be opening to the public in spring 2012 (ignore the fact that the article mistakes Pompey for Pompeii).  The necropolis runs along the ancient Via Triumphalis and consists of over 40 grave structures and over 200 individual tombs, dating to the 1st-2nd centuries AD.  This find is significant and important, particularly for those interested in grave types in the Empire, and I think this is the one published in The Vatican Necropoles, which is an astounding book (in English!) with the best pictures of Roman grave structures I have ever seen.  Now if only I could get my hands on all the skeletons...
  • 9 December.  Julio Martinez Florez claims to have found the earliest evidence of trepanation that was practiced for medical reasons, in late 5th-mid 6th century Spain.  The skull comes from a man of about 40-50 years old, and Martinez Florez diagnosed the man with a brain tumor.  There's only one good picture of the skull, and it doesn't look anything like a trepanation to me.  It looks like some sort of lytic lesion.  It's entirely possible that the hole we see is the direct result of a brain tumor.  I'm not at all sure what his evidence for surgical intervention (trepanation) is.  Trepanations typically have very well-defined edges - it's been practiced for centuries, and in most societies there are high survival rates, evidence of healing, and evidence that the surgeon knew what he was doing. This hole in the skull looks like it could be the result of a disease process (hell, it could be post-mortem for all I can tell from the picture).  Anyway, until a peer-reviewed article comes out on this, I'm very skeptical.
Skull that reeeeally doesn't look like it was trepanned
(credit: ArcheoRivista)
  • 12 December.  A nice piece by Reuters discusses Spain's prehistoric burial chambers, which date back 5,000 years.  In 2007, a burial chamber was found with the skeletons of one man and 19 women arranged in a circle.  The thought is that the drank poison to accompany the man into the afterlife.  Now, experts are suggesting that Spain generate tourist dollars from displaying the dolmens, but the Spanish are also concerned with preserving their heritage.
  • 13 December.  Real Roman gladiators suffered broken noses and bruises.  Now you too can make your body look like that of a gladiator - by joining an "authentic" gladiator school in Trier (Germany).  The first rule of Roman Fight Club is, you do not talk about Roman Fight Club!
Possible skulls of Boudica's rebels (credit: London Evening Standard)

December 8, 2011

Bones - Season 7, Episode 5 (Review)

I have to confess that I didn't have much patience for Bones tonight.  This morning, I took my Human Osteology class to Vanderbilt's spiffy gross anatomy lab.  We got an awesome tour of the lab space and got to poke around (and in) the cadavers that the med students are studying.  And we got regaled with stories by the lab manager, who studied forensic anthropology at UTK and worked at the Body Farm.  My hands still kinda smell like latex, but it was totally worth it.  Anyway, on to the show...

The Twist in the Twister

Episode Summary

A dead body with a stake through it is found on a campground that hasn't been used in two months.  Brennan concludes that the victim was male from the pelvis and in his 30s from dental wear.  There is obvious penetrating trauma, but there are additional compound fractures to various bones.  With the body back at the Jeffersonian, Hodgins estimates time of death at 5 weeks ago.  Saroyan finds that the penetrating trauma did not kill him, since there is no hemorrhagic staining in the wound.  Fisher thinks that the victim may have been in a tornado that came through about 5 weeks ago, and he finds three instances of blunt force trauma to the right parietal. Hemorrhaging in the skull later confirms this.  The murder weapon - which was cylindrical - left orange paint in the wound.  Angela reconstructs the victim's face, and he is identified as Scott Braley, a storm chaser.

Braley's brother is brought in to the FBI for questioning, and he asks about Scott's "mini moho" - an expensive, tricked-out motor home Braley used to chase storms.  Booth locates the vehicle in North Carolina and heads down with Sweets after lying to Brennan about his involvement in the expedition.  They find the mini moho, which Nolan - Braley's assistant - is living in.  Braley owed Nolan money, but Nolan did not kill him.  Booth also finds out that the National Science Federation awarded a $500,000 contract to Toni Lawrence to film tornadoes.  Toni and Scott had a rivalry, so Booth and Sweets track her down while she's filming a tornado.  As they're questioning Toni and her crew, the tornado comes closer.  They all duck into a cellar - and Brennan shows up.  Sweets questions a variety of people on the crew - Misty, who loves rainbows, and Wes, her ex-boyfriend who films tornadoes - but they claim to have alibis for the date of Braley's death.  Toni notes that Braley was yelling at someone about money shortly before his death.

Angela somehow manages to narrow down the location of Braley's death through a combination of particulate density ratios and a probability index ('cause those are real things).  She and Hodgins decide to go to southern Virginia to investigate, leaving their son with his grandfather.  They find Braley's tornado probe, as well as glass with colored paint and blood on it.  It's a rainbow-patterned bottle, so Booth calls in Misty for questioning.  She admits to having seen the mini moho before, but she slept with Nolan, not Braley.  Seems her boyfriend Wes found out (after seeing her water bottle in Braley's vehicle) and killed him.  The team proves that Wes doesn't have an alibi because he has footage of a tornado spinning clockwise, which is rare in the northern hemisphere.

Also, Booth is overprotective.  But not really, because Brennan does some stupid shit this episode.

Forensic (and Plot) Comments
  • There was a severe lack of skeletal material in this episode.  Mostly, the team talked about things like xrays, trauma, blood staining, but they were never shown.  That made for poor television.
  • While we do get tornadoes in my home state of Virginia and my now-home state of North Carolina, they're really quite minor.  Here's a news story from April about 7 tornadoes that touched down in central VA - and two houses were damaged.  That's a far cry from the destruction shown in this episode.  Now, a hurricane - that can do some damage to the Southeast.
  • The footage of the storm was also horribly, horribly fake.  I mean, we are expected to suspend disbelief for this kind of thing - no one's going to wait for a weather phenomenon to occur just to film an episode of Bones - but wow, their special effects budget has dropped in the past couple of years.
  • And then Brennan showed up in the cellar through the magic of teleportation apparently. Which made me write this in my notes: "W.T.F??!?!?!?! Bones?" Followed quickly by, "Seriously, is there no one who thinks of time continuity? NC is 4. Hours. Away. Fuck." Booth told Brennan that the mini moho was in NC. He and Sweets get there, find the truck, have lunch, and find Toni. Brennan decides - when Booth is almost to NC - to come down herself and gets there in less than half the time it should take (after finding him through a cell tower ping and a gratuitous shout-out for Vincent Nigel-Murray). Then she leaves Booth and Sweets at the storm site... to drive back 4 hours. I realize she's supposed to be pissed, but that's some passive-aggressive shit right there. She gets back by dinnertime, as does Booth, because time doesn't matter. 
  • To continue with the lack of continuity... Angela and Hodgins tell her father that they'll be gone "a couple of hours" to work a scene in southern VA. Which is at least 3 hours from D.C. They get back in time for bed (although ZZ Top said that the kid had been asleep for 4 hours). 
  • Angela and Hodgins work a destruction scene that looks pretty recent.  But the tornado in question happened 5 weeks ago.  Are we supposed to believe that there has been absolutely no attempt at cleanup in that time?  In what was clearly a neighborhood in Virginia?  I don't buy it.
  • And in 5 weeks, the blood hasn't washed off the waterbottle?  There's probably been some rain.
  • Oh yeah, so why did Hodgins have the baby in his lab? Saroyan cracked down on that a couple episodes ago. And the baby is in daycare. 
  • Who let ZZ Top in to the uber-protected, super-safe Jeffersonian lab? I hate how people can just walk in and out and around the lab with no one asking questions, signing them in, making them wear a visitor pass, etc.
  • National Science Federation?  Really?
  • Fisher thinks he and Dr. Brennan might end up "on the cover of the journal."  'cause there's only one journal.
Forensic Mystery - D.  Did not care at all about the victim.  We knew nothing about him.  The killer was a guy who had less than a minute of screen time and didn't say anything when confronted with evidence, just gave a hang-dog look.  Lame.

Forensic Solution - D+.  The age/sex of the victim was glossed over, as usual.  Angela's miraculous facial reconstruction (which we don't even see) ID'ed him.  The numerous traumas were mentioned, as were methods for figuring out directionality of wounds, etc., yet never shown.  Writers: please show, don't just tell.

Drama - D-.  I really, really didn't care about this episode.  The woman who loves rainbows was an offensively dumb character.  The "overprotective" storyline sucked because, well, Brennan is being an idiot about her pregnancy and a massive tool to Booth.  This is quite possibly the worst episode of the show I've seen yet (but I'm too lazy to check through the archives to see last season's grades).

December 6, 2011

Ruins of the 19th Century Maya

As part of the #SciFund Challenge, John Gust, a doctoral student in anthropology at UC Riverside, is looking for a small amount of funding to finish his research.  I read about John's RocketHub project - Send John to the Jungle - but wanted to know more about his research goals and the importance of his work.

John works in the Yucatan Peninsula studying the remains of the indigenous Maya in the 19th century.  Since people (me included) only ever hear about the Classic-period Maya civilization (c. 250 to 900 AD), I asked John to tell me more about what he expects to learn.  Following are my questions and his responses (edited a bit).

Tell me about the Historic-period Maya.  What are your research questions?
The larger project of which this is a part is looking at extractive industries in northern Quintana Roo, about 20 miles south of Cancun. In 1847, the lower classes, mostly Maya, initiated a peasant revolt against the government known as the Caste War.  Within about 10 years, the war was over and the Maya were defeated.  Some settled with the government and received relative autonomy, but were subject to raids by the hold-out rebels into the 20th century. 
In addition to social unrest, at this time in Mexico, the first age of globalization got going.  Foreign capital, ideas, images, and goods were being funneled into even very remote areas as the resources were being harvested for export.  Yet the area of Mexico in which I work is very hard to farm mechanically due to thin soils.  I am interested in a number of questions, such as: What effects did this area's resources have on the destinations of the exports, and vice versa?  Did the eventual failure of the agricultural industries relate strictly to environmental problems or was it affected by continuing Caste War violence?
What will this project contribute to anthropology?
Globalization continues today, and it's important to understand its beginning to fully understand current processes. A particularly germane aspect of globalization is the movement of people. Although Cancun is a quickly-developing tourist area, the Mexican state underfunds the Yucatan Peninsula.  The government projects that are funded tend to focus on natural pools known as cenotes and cultural wealth, such as the large-scale archaeological sites of the Classic-period Maya civilization. 
This focus on large-scale cultural patrimony ignores the last several centuries of Mayan history.  Following the Classic period, the Maya have lived in settlements of various sizes - some large, some smaller - but without the monumental architecture that is seen as a hallmark of the Classic period.  Up to the 1970s, many people made their living through extraction of mahogany, dyewood, and chicle (natural chewing gum base). These industries were spread out on the landscape and lacked large concentrated factories, meaning travel and transportation were important to the livelihood of the Maya. The routes the Maya used tended to follow ancient roads because they were the best paths. 
As the tourist industry grows, though, these ancient routes are being expanded for automobiles, destroying the old roads and narrow-gauge railroad lines. With destruction of these routes, the possibility of understanding the last centuries of the area goes with them. The people who worked in chicle production in the 1970s are aging, which means that one of our major sources of oral and written history will soon disappear.  Doing archaeology in this region will preserve this history, but it is imperative that the research be done now.
We hear a lot about Classic-period Maya, of course.  Why focus on this particular time period?
Ruins of a sugar processing facility at Xuxub
(credit: John Gust)
As you know, there has been a longstanding bias pretty much worldwide towards larger sites with elite contexts, and that continues in some ways today in the Maya area. In terms of the Historic period, there has been little archaeology in Mexico generally.  The archaeology that has been done is problematic - much of it has aided reconstruction of large, primarily Spanish or otherwise white-owned settlements.  There has been basically no research focused on the lives of the non-elite - the average Maya. Past historical archaeology projects, for example, have told us what a building looked like 300 years ago but do not tell us about the people forced to build it. 
My project is important because it looks squarely at the common people in the area - people who worked at sugar plantations and whose life histories are otherwise lost.  Archaeology will help us tell their stories.
How John accesses the ruins
(credit: John Gust)
The fact that John's project focuses on the commoners is particularly compelling for me, since my own bioarchaeological research deals with understanding the non-elite of a civilization that was large and understood through the eyes of the elite.

If you're interested in funding his research, he needs just $200 more to finish his dissertation research.  For a $40 contribution, you get your very own pint glass with the logo of his research team on it.  And, be honest, every archaeologist could use another pint glass!  John notes that funding beyond his goal will go towards the costs associated with the project - namely, costs associated with traveling to and accessing the field site.

December 1, 2011

Bones - Season 7, Episode 4 (Review)

The Male in the Mail

Episode Summary

At the post office, Saroyan, Brennan, and Booth find a series of boxed packed with human remains.  From the wear on the lower incisors and the mandibular angle, Brennan notes the victim was a male in his early 20s.  His head was dismembered at an unspecified cervical vertebra, and there are other marks of dismemberment on the acromion processes of both scapulae.

At the Jeffersonian, Hodgins uses a fancy-pants eye surgery laser to cut open the cardboard box.  Once they get out all the bones, Edison notes that the victim had a sesamoid bone at the second metacarpal of his left hand.  The weapon that was used to dismember him was a blade that was uniform with vertical striations.    Angela traces the label on the boxes to a Ship-n-Print in Hyattsville, MD.  As Booth and Brennan head over there to check it out, Edison finds a hit in dental records for an Oliver Lawrence, who worked at the store.

B&B interview the front desk guy, Tony Dunson, but quickly ask to speak to the manager, Connor Trammel.  Trammel notes that Oliver was a good employee and went missing a while back.  There was also a bunch of staff turnover around the same time, as he and a group of employees - Sheila Burnside, her husband (Hugh?), and Ralph Berti - won the lottery.  He no longer speaks to them, though, since he's still working at the copy shop and they've squandered their riches.  Hodgins and Edison finally work out the weapon that dismembered Oliver - a guillotine best fits the profile of the weapon, and Brennan realizes that the industrial paper cutter in the shop matches pretty well.

Back at the Jeffersonian, Edison notes that there were microfractures to the victim's third and fourth left ribs, as well as his left radius, leading Brennan to conclude that there was a fistfight.  There are also different weapon marks - this time, there are kerf marks, on the right scapula (acromion), humerus (greater tubercle), and ulna (olecranon).  The victim was hit on the shoulder and elbow with a tiny saw.  Meanwhile, Hodgins is still boiling the boxed body and comes up with a sternocleidomastoideus muscle for Saroyan, who sees a piece of tape embedded in the muscle.  This suggests that the victim was killed when his right subclavian artery was severed.  Edison thinks the weapon may have been a tape gun and has Angela compare the blades of the guns used at the Ship-n-Print to the marks on the bone, and one matches.

One of the last jobs that was run on the company's printer was of a woman sitting on the copier, with a man's hands cradling her butt.  Based on the distance between her ischial tuberosities, Brennan thinks the woman was Sheila.  Based on the slight deformity of the left second finger, Brennan thinks the man was Oliver.  Because of this evidence and because of the location of the injuries on the victim's right side, Brennan thinks the killer may have been Hugh, Sheila's husband.  But the Jeffersonian team finally finds the smoking gun: a fragment of bone embedded in the victim's muscle.  This bone, however, came from the Buddhist necklace that Tony Dunson always wears.  He was shipping psilocybin mushrooms to clients, and Oliver found out.  Tony didn't mean to kill Oliver, but it just happened.

Oh, and Booth's father died.  I actually missed the first few minutes of the show (stupid DVR), so I didn't get the explanation.  But lots of the show was about encouraging Booth to mourn for the father who beat him and whom he had cut out of his life 20 years ago.  His grandfather rightly chastizes Booth for being so callous that he (the grandfather) lost a son, and gives him a box full of his father's mementos.  Booth squints through fake tears at the benches he took from the baseball stadium in last season's power-outage episode, and he has a bunch of misty watercolor memories.

Forensic Comments
  • As always, the mandibular angle is a terrible way to estimate sex and dental wear is a terrible way to estimate age-at-death.  Both are hugely error-prone, and even given the sparse remains Brennan had to work with initially, she could have used more accurate methods to assess sex and age.
  • Sesamoid bones occur in the hands and feet all the time.  (A sesamoid bone is one that forms within a tendon, like the patella or the pisiform.) In addition to the two large sesamoid bones everyone has, most of us have one or two sesamoid bones at the toe end of our first metatarsals.  I'd think a hand sesamoid bone was interesting, but I wouldn't expect to see any deformity in a living person and certainly wouldn't use it as a positive ID on a person.
  • There's no way the antiquities department at the Jeffersonian would let Hodgins and Edison whack the crap out of fake bones with their ancient, priceless weapons.
  • Ischial tuberosities are not like fingerprints in your pants.
  • The location of injuries on a victim doesn't necessarily correlate with the handedness of an assailant.  Many of us southpaws use our right hands just as often as we use our left hands.  Then again, I guess I would use a tape gun left-handed.
  • The only pregnant-Brennan mention this week comes with her adjusting her bra excessively, so there wasn't much cheesy dialogue in the forensic side of the plot.
  • Actually, the show was pretty much all business this week, except for the Booth's-dead-father plot, so there isn't much dialogue to comment on.
  • Oh right, and there's that new FBI agent, Genevieve Shaw.  She was suck-uppy, which is not a good trait for an FBI agent to have.
Forensic Mystery - C-.  The writers threw so many red herrings at us I got a mouthful of caviar.  The mystery felt rather clumsy.

Forensic Solution - B+.  The forensics seemed reasonable.  Brennan's portable xray was fancy but not unrealistic, and even Angela's re-creation was within the realm of normal possibility.  Other than the usual odd choices for sex/age estimation, the forensics were alright.

Drama - C+.  Maybe it's because I missed the first few minutes, but killing off Booth's father (whom we've never actually met) seemed like a cheap ploy to pad out the drama this episode.

Next week:  Oh man, are we only up to episode 5 next week?  I know this season started late, but it seems loooong already.

November 30, 2011

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival IX

Not much on offer for this carnival as we head to the cold, rainy season punctuated by holiday merriment.

New Finds

One of the Cirencester skeletons (photo credit)

  • 17 November.  A Romano-British cemetery was recently discovered in Cirencester, dated based on pottery to about 70 to 120 AD.  The significance of this cemetery is that it may very well be the earliest example of an inhumation cemetery in Roman Britain.  Inhumations aren't common until after 200 AD, so the cemetery is quite interesting (although I would argue that just because cremation was the "norm" doesn't mean there weren't plenty of people inhuming their dead for religious or financial reasons).  Earlier excavations at the site in the 1960s revealed several dozen cremations, suggesting a change in burial tradition from inhumation to cremation over time.  There are a ton of interesting details in the news reports about pottery and jewelry, and excavators even found a decapitated skeleton, with its head between its feet.  I can't wait to hear more once the analyses are complete.
  • 15 November.  An Etruscan tomb dating to the 6th century BC was found near the archaeological park of Vulci, apparently just ahead of some tombaroli who wanted to loot it.  There's a neat video at the link above (an Italian news report) as well as a bunch of pictures of the pottery recovered from the tomb.  No skeletons or bone fragments, though.


Individual 15A.
Copyright Natural History Museum 2011 (found here)

  • 17 November.  The Manchester Museum is running an exhibit until March called "Grave Secrets: Tales of the Ancient Nubians."  One of the specimens on view is the skull of individual 15A, whose healed wounds suggest he was knocked down, but he got up again (you're never gonna keep him down!).  Also on offer is a giant-cell tumor of a humerus, a rare instance of cancer identified in skeletal remains.  The remains were uncovered at the turn of the 20th century by Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, an anatomist and early proponent of the study of palaeopathology, but there's no indication in the brief news blurb about when specifically the skeletons date to.
  • 22 November.  Seen over on one of my favorite blogs, Street Anatomy, photographer Thom Atkinson got permission to photograph some very interesting medical artifacts from the Wellcome Collection in London, including preserved tattoos, a wax model of a decomposing body, Charles Darwin's walking stick, and these assorted Roman votive offerings (below).  One of these days, I want to write a post on Roman body part votive offerings and disease.  Until then, check out Thom's work at

Assorted Roman Votive Offerings.  Copyright Thom Atkinson.
Beyond the Romans

  • 18 November.  Over on History in an Hour, Liam A. Faulkner writes about the Plague of Athens (430-426 BC).  It's a short summary of our understanding of this disease epidemic based on the writings of men like Thucydides and Plutarch, as well as the Hippocratic Corpus.  One day, we may start finding more cemeteries in the Greco-Roman world whose skeletons yield evidence of various plagues and help us reconstruct history better than the eyewitnesses who didn't understand germs or disease ecology.

November 22, 2011

Cranial Vault Modification or Alieeeeens?

As usual, a Daily Mail article caught my attention with its first line, "A mummified elongated skull from Peru could finally prove the existence of aliens."  The purpose of this kind of opener, of course, is to get people to read the tripe the Mail peddles.  According to the article, "three anthropologists agree: it is not a human being."  Well, if three unnamed Spanish and Russian anthropologists agree, then it must be an alien.

Alien?  Uh, no.  (Photo: The Nation)
Without even reading another line, though, I knew the subject of the article: cranial vault modification, a common practice around the world but particularly associated with ancient peoples of the Andes.  And yet headlines from not particularly good news sites range from "Mysterious, triangle-shaped alien skull found in Peru" to "Malformed mystery mummy stuns world!"  Cranial vault modification (CVM) is a pretty easy thing to accomplish, though.  By applying continued pressure to certain areas of the still-forming skull, the bones of a child's head grow in a certain direction.  Common methods of producing CVM include putting pressure with a board or other flat object on the occipital region (back of the head), the frontal region (front of the head), both occipital and frontal regions, and along a transverse axis.  These methods generally result in flattening of the skull.  Another method involves encircling the head with bands of fabric, which results in an often dramatic elongation of the skull as seen in the Peruvian mummy in this news this week.

An example of CVM from Cuzco (Credit)
Although the practice used to be called "cranial deformation," it has been renamed in light of the lack of evidence for any sort of pathology associated with it.  That is, there may be minor anatomical abnormalities associated with CVM, but the practice does not seem to have interfered with brain growth or functioning in any way (Ortner 2003).  CVM wasn't limited to the people of ancient Peru - the history of the practice has been traced back to the Old World, where a female skull with an annular CVM was found in Iraq dating to the 5th millennium BC (Gerszten and Gerszten 1995) - but it is perhaps best known in the mummies from the Andes.  Theories as to the purpose of the practice range from reshaping heads to look more god-like (e.g., the maize god of the Mayas or the pathologically deformed head of the Egyptian ruler Akhenaten) to indicating a certain status or kinship, as shown in the following historical documentation of the practice by Martín de Murúa among the natives of the Colca Valley (Peru) in 1590 (quoted in Cook 2007: 13):
The Collas…still use the practice of forming the heads of children in diverse manners or figures with much superstition, and in some places they make them very long that they call cayto uma, making them thin, and making them come to the form of a narrow and long bonnet that they call chucu; in other places they make the heads flat and wide in the front. That is called paltauma; of these they are generally from Cabanaconde…
Photo: ANDINA/Percy Hurtado
So let's take another look at the new child mummies found in Peru.  The best coverage - and the best pictures (see right) - of the Andahuaylillas mummies that I found comes from the Peruvian news agency Andina.  Anthropologist Elva Torres, head of the anthropology service at Cusco, studied both mummies. One isn't very well preserved and represents a child of less than one year old.  The "alien" mummy is actually that of a 3- to 4-year-old child with a classic annular type modification, and Torres even notes that it's possible to see traces of the deforming pads on the skull.  As a result of the modification, the child's eye orbits are larger than normal and the fontanelle (soft spot) hasn't yet closed.  The rest of the skeleton, though, has evidence of normal growth.  My Spanish isn't great, but it seems from the article like Torres is blaming the museum's director, Renato Davila Riquelme, for telling the press that the mummy is non-human.  (Davila is indeed the one quoted in the Daily Mail story.)

Why are we so fascinated by cranial vault modification (CVM)?  After all, we do weird things to our bodies and have for at least thousands of years - from the tattoos of Oetzi to the Chinese practice of foot binding to piercing our skin, most of us have modified our bodies in a permanent way.  What's interesting about CVM, though, is that it was performed on young children who had no choice in the matter.  Rather than a marker of personal identity like a tattoo or a piercing, CVM indicates that a person belonged to a certain group, it's a way of marking someone as belonging to you and your community.  And that just doesn't sit well with contemporary American ideas of personal agency and choice.

Can you see the "deformity" on the left? (Credit)
The thing is, we still do reshape our childrens' heads.  Anything other than a perfectly round, perfectly globular head is pathologized as Positional Head Deformity (PHD), and I'm sure many of you have seen small children wearing these head-shaping helmets at the park.  PHD is on the rise because doctors have discovered that placing infants only on their backs to sleep is safer.  Without the ability to roll over, many infants who lie on their backs will develop a flattened occipital bone.  It's unclear from my quick review of the literature whether this condition is associated with an actual pathology, like muscular torticollis.  But it's clear that PHD can cause facial asymmetry, perhaps severe enough that the child's bones would not eventually reshape themselves once the child became mobile and able to hold up his own head.

Adorable child with a "cranial remodeling orthosis" (Credit)
There's honestly little difference between the ancient practice of cranial vault modification and the contemporary practice of modifying positional head deformity: it's done for primarily cosmetic reasons.  If an ancient Inca child didn't have a modified head, he may not have been accepted as part of his social group.  If a modern American child doesn't have her PHD corrected, she may not grow up to uphold the impossible standards of bodily perfection we enforce on our population.

Insisting that the skeleton of an Inca child is "non-human," "otherworldly," or "alien" demonstrates a complete lack of ability to think critically about one's own culture.  The things we do to our bodies today are not natural - they are cultural.  The way we dress, the way we talk, the actions we perform are all external indications of "self" - humans are a fascinating mix of biological and cultural traits, and we constantly and often subconsciously signal to anyone and everyone our most salient features, a short-hand for who we are and what we want.  Body modification is an important concept in understanding the relationship between the individual and the group, and it would be nice if journalists recognized that CVM is simply one of many things humans have found to assert their identity.


Biggs WS (2003). Diagnosis and management of positional head deformity. American Family Physician, 67 (9), 1953-6. PMID: 12751657.

Cook, ND (2007).  People of the Volcano: Andean Counterpoint in the Colca Valley of Peru.  Duke University Press.

Gerszten PC, & Gerszten E (1995). Intentional cranial deformation: a disappearing form of self-mutilation. Neurosurgery, 37 (3). PMID: 7501099.

Ortner, D.  (2003).  Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains.  Academic Press.

(Special thanks to Matt Velasco for his interesting lecture on cranial vault modification in my Health and Disease in Ancient Populations class on 11/17/11.  This post is a mixture of his summary of the practice, my notes, our lengthy discussion after class, and additional source material.)

November 21, 2011

Let's Talk about Evolution

Back in June, teh internetz were ablaze with criticism for the Miss USA contestants, who had a chance to respond with a prepared comment to the question "Should evolution be taught in schools?"  And they horribly, horribly failed.  I wrote about the story in my post "Miss USA Contestants Are Idiots," but my favorite coverage was a satirical video called "Should Math Be Taught in Schools?"

A few months ago, I was invited by the members of the SCOPE project to contribute a short talking-head video about the importance of evolution, and the 6-minute end product has now been posted.  The SCOPE Team notes that:
This video was produced to allow scientists to explain, in their own words, the importance of evolution to science -- and the related importance of teaching evolution in schools. Our goal is to convey the fact that evolution is an amazing, uplifting discovery that has served as the genesis of countless advances in many fields of science. We also wanted to highlight female role models in the science community.
Each individual video will be posted to the SCOPE project's YouTube channel soon, and you can view my full 2-minute video here. You can catch me in the project's video, though, around the 5-minute mark.  Fair warning: I am not an actress, but I say neat things.

November 17, 2011

Bones - Season 7, Episode 3 (Review)

The Prince in the Plastic

Episode Summary

Two antiques dealers are scrounging through a trash dump for treasure when they stumble across a body wrapped in plastic.  The Jeffersonian team determines that the sun probably fused the polyethylene plastic to the body like a sausage casing, trapping the moisture and decomposing tissue.  Brennan, Saroyan, and Daisy drain the package before cutting it open to reveal the body.  From the skull, Brennan determines the victim was a female, and the state of cranial suture closure indicates she was in her 30s.  She was also buried with a Prince Charmington doll.

Hodgins doesn't get any bugs or larvae, but decomposition puts the victim's time of death at about two weeks prior.  Daisy looks into the skeleton and notes that the victim had remodelled perimortem and postmortem injuries, including compound fractures to the 7th thoracic vertebra, spine of the right scapula, posterior aspect of the humerus, and anterior aspect of the left ulna, suggesting she was beaten.  Further, she had healed fractures of the patellae, femoral necks, pelvis, and most of the ribs that likely occurred when she was a child.  Brennan notes bilateral Colles' fractures of the radii that occurred perimortem, indicating the victim fell before her death.  Based on some skin traces on the plastic, Angela discovers that the victim is Debbie Cortez, who was reported missing by her brother.

Booth and Sweets bring in the brother for questioning.  He explains that Debbie and their parents were involved in the crash of a small plane when she was 9.  She was the only survivor and spent a year convalescing from her injuries.  Booth also visits Debbie's work, a toy company called Dillio, where she was a vice president in charge of toy development.  He questions Bianca (Morgan Fairchild!), who owns the company, and Lawrence, a VP who was jealous of Debbie's success.

Back at the Jeffersonian, the team finds a small piece of metal lodged in one of Debbie's vertebrae.  They reconstruct Debbie's position at death, finding that she was likely face down on concrete when she was struck.  Based on Angela's reconstruction, Brennan guesses that Debbie wasn't hit by a bludgeon that someone was wielding, like a bat or a 2x4, but may have been hit by something quite large that caused all the perimortem fractures at once.  At Dillio, Booth and Daisy discover a partly damaged door in the prototype lab and traces of blood on the floor, guessing that Debbie was killed when the door fell on her.  The shard of metal in her vertebra is the same as in the door, which was propped open with a car jack.

Daisy does an autopsy on the Prince Charmington doll, which leads her to notice that his leg had been ripped off.  This doll was a collector's item and was worth around $10,000, plenty of motive for murder.  Angela discovers that Debbie has been emailing with someone about selling stolen toys on eBay.  The IP address is traced to her brother, who admits to stealing and selling the toys but denies killing his sister.  He recognizes the Prince Charmington doll as the last thing their mother gave Debbie.

Hodgins finds a piece of the victim's nail and some glue attached to it.  There are epithelial cells between the nail and the glue, which are DNA matched to Brock Vorback, who plays Prince Charmington in real life.  He and Debbie were in a relationship that they kept secret from Bianca, who didn't like workplace dalliances, and Debbie was planning to leave Dillio.  But Hodgins also discovers the material that caused the chemical burn to the Prince Charmington doll: lead sulphate from a car battery.  He does an isotope analysis of the berber wool fibers, which indicate the material was made in Modena, Italy - specifically, a trunk liner for a Maserati.  Booth and Brennan confront Bianca, who owns a Maserati, and find traces of blood in her trunk.  Bianca explains that Debbie's leaving would have caused Dillio's stock to drop.  When she confronted Debbie, she tripped and fell and the door came down on her.  But Brennan points out that Debbie didn't die immediately - she was suffocated, and Bianca didn't try to help.

On the drama side of the episode, Sweets wants to get licensed to carry a gun, but Booth isn't sure he's cut out for it.  Sweets puts in time at the shooting range and eventually passes a test, gaining the respect of Booth.  Angela spends the episode talking about baby toys - first trying to get Brennan to play with dolls, then trying to put together a walker for Michael.  Brennan ends up going to the toy store with Angela and Michael, and she picks up two foam-ball-shooting guns, rounding out the episode playing with Booth in his apartment.  While I appreciate when TV shows have thematic elements and call-backs, the toy/gun/toy gun subplots were all too neatly tied together.

Forensic Comments
  • Cranial sutures are a terrible way to tell age at death.  They usually return an age that's too old.  Brennan should have confirmed with the pubic symphysis.
  • Yes, Daisy actually notes that the victim had "remodelled perimortem and postmortem injuries."  I rewound and listened to it three times.  Perhaps the script read "unremodelled" and Carla Gallo just flubbed the line and no one noticed (except me)?
  • Daisy doesn't describe the location of the victim's fractures very well. For example, "posterior aspect" of the humerus is the whole back side of a very large, very long bone.  
  • If Debbie's fractures at age 9 had remodelled, it is weird that Daisy could tell they were specifically "impact fractures."
  • What kind of isotope analysis would tell you the source of berber wool fibers?  I guess perhaps Sr, if it's in sheep's wool, but isotope values are not nearly precise enough (or unique enough) to source organic material.
  • Angela is skilled at reconstructing bodies and other three-dimensional objects, but she can't put together a baby walker?  That's just weak writing.  Also, doesn't Brennan know Chinese?  Why didn't she help Angela put together the toy?
  • Is it just me, or is the new Bones title sequence really weird?  And rather cheesy.
  • I'm with Brennan - playing with dolls is weird.  (I never got the hang of it and have no clue what I'll do when my daughter wants me to do something other than put her doll to bed.)
  • I'm also with Brennan on the charms of the mixed-breed plush dogs: I could see using them to demonstrate genetics somehow.
  • Lawrence, the Dillio VP, told Booth that "my wife and kids were in Florida with their inlaws."  Did he mean "with my inlaws" or "with my parents"?  
  • Brennan's baby's calcaneus is kicking her spleen.  (Been there, probably described it like that, actually.)
  • At the end, Brennan is reading "The Childrearing Habits of South Asian Tribes in East Indian Literature," which is a cute take on the titles of cultural anthropology books and a fitting book for Brennan to be reading.
  • It still strikes me as odd that Booth calls Brennan "Bones" and that Angela calls her husband "Hodgins."
Forensic Mystery - C.  Fingerprints ID'ed the victim quickly.  She was clearly important and powerful, so there was no real mystery about why someone would want her dead.  The brother, boyfriend, and other VP were obviously not the murders.  The special guest star clearly was from the minute her name flashed in the credits.

Forensic Solution - B-.  The forensics were more or less reasonable, although cranial suture closure is a crappy way of figuring out age.

Drama - C+.  I didn't like the writers' attempts to beat us over the head with toys and guns this episode.  But I did like the way Brennan was written today; she wasn't too robotic and was just the right amount of social awkwardness, cluelessness, and anthropologist.

Next week: Clark and ischial tuberosities (which Brennan pronounced wrong in the brief preview)!

November 16, 2011

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival VIII

I'm surprised at the lack of skeletons found in Italy this month.  It's the rainy season, so perhaps there's not as much excavation going on, but at the same time, rain has a way of unearthing skeletons on its own.  At any rate, most of the news for this carnival is from yours truly...

Santa Croce Camerina skeleton
  • Nov 9 - MIT's William Broadhead has developed a new theory about the Roman Republic, namely that it must have been pretty demographically diverse.  I addressed Broadhead's theory with some Sr/O data from Republican skeletons in my post "Demography of Republican Rome."
  • Nov 11 - In Calabria, excavations at Santa Croce Camerina revealed a 6th century AD skeleton near the Byzantine church of Pirrera.  The skeleton appears to be male.  Oddly, they also found three skulls in or near the burial.  The news item doesn't specifically say that the skulls were human, and since they were found near an amphora I'm going to guess they were faunal.
  • Nov 11 - My newly launched Roman DNA Project got covered on CNN and Forbes because of the "99% of ancient Rome" angle.  I was thrilled to get the attention, and the pilot phase of the project is now fully funded.  Over on the project's blog, I put up a post about our research goals.  We'll start analysis in January, hopefully getting results before summer.
New Analyses/Summaries/Articles
Evidence of crucifixion
(Maslen & Mitchell 2006)
Field Schools

November 11, 2011

Roman DNA Project Funding Success!

Thanks to an amazing piece at the CNN blog Light Years by Ed Yong, the outpouring of support for the Roman DNA Project today has been astounding! 

In financial news, we have actually exceeded our $6,000 goal, after just 10 days. That goal was to fund analysis of at least 20 individuals (the immigrants to Rome that I found through Sr/O isotope analysis). Of course, we are accepting donations through mid-December, so additional funding will be put to good use – studying more ancient Romans!

And I’ve received a dozen or more emails today from people as excited as I am about this project, offering their encouragement, lab services, expertise, and knowledge about the ancient world. I will respond to all of them, I promise, but it might take a few days!

Again, thank you – all of you reading this – for making this project a reality!

[Cross-posted from the blog of the Roman DNA Project.]

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