January 30, 2011

The Vampire of Venice Returns

It seems like every spring there is renewed coverage of a partial skeleton that was found on the island of Lazaretto Nuovo (one of two 15th-16th century leper colonies near Venice) in 2009. I've never covered it here, but since I was alerted to an airing of a documentary about the skeleton on Italian TV this week, I thought it may be time to track the progress of the so-called Vampire of Venice ("il vampiro di Venezia" in Italian, and not to be confused with a similarly named Dr. Who episode).

Immediately upon excavating this individual from what appears to have been a plague cemetery dating to 1576, archaeologists realized that something was very, very different about the burial treatment: there was a heavy brick placed in the person's mouth. [BBC news video clip, March 13, 2009] A photograph from National Geographic [March 10, 2009 news story] prior to complete excavation:

During the 16th century, as plague raged around Europe, many people were buried hastily, in mass graves. Without modern forensic knowledge, people didn't understand how the body decomposed. For example, as the bacteria present in the gut start consuming the internal organs, fluid can be produced and chest cavities can bulge and sink, making the bodies seem to sigh; as the skin dries out and recedes from the fingernails, they can appear to grow longer; and as the muscles go through stages of rigor mortis, bodies can seem to move. Mass plague graves were often reopened to inter more individuals, so seeing corpses that had changed since burial confused and scared the living.

The National Geographic article suggests that a plague victim who was buried in a shroud may have emitted some bodily fluids, staining and dissolving the shroud, making the undertakers think that the person was undead: a vampire who transmitted plague through this fluid. The way to prevent the vampire from continuing to spread the plague was to insert a brick or stone into the person's mouth. Archaeologists believe that this individual suffered that fate; however, it's unclear to me if the brick was placed at the time of burial or at a later time, such as on reopening of the grave to bury more people. [More photos of the excavation at KataWeb (labels in Italian)]

A year after excavation, the Vampire of Venice got her own documentary in the National Geographic series Mysterious Science, in an episode entitled "Vampire Forensics" (really, NatGeo? I expect more from you than this sort of pandering). You can actually watch the entire documentary in segments on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5. (Warning: Part 5 has some very graphic forensic images, which may be re-creations but which are even more graphic than what I normally show my forensic anthropology students.) Or you can watch this less gruesome preview from National Geographic's website:

Based on anthropological analysis, the Vampire of Venice was, surprisingly, an older woman in her 60s. Forensic specialists have reconstructed her face using her skull and the knowledge of her sex, age, and European ancestry [National Geographic, February 26, 2010]:

Using carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of a bit of postcranial skeleton, anthropologists discovered that she ate a lot of vegetables and grains, likely a lower-class diet. I'm assuming from reading between the lines of the NatGeo article that C/N isotope analysis of a rib was done, which would have given them information about the protein component of the diet and thus told them that she didn't eat a lot of meat or fish. Since it wasn't remarked on and since DNA analysis said she was European, I'm also guessing the C isotope analysis revealed C3 plant consumption (wheat and barley, e.g.).

The discovery of a skeleton of an older female in a 16th century Italian plague cemetery with an anomalous burial practice that correlates to superstitions about disease and the occult is extremely cool, whether or not she was "il vampiro di Venezia". Italian archaeologists and anthropologists are learning both about the biology of plague victims and about their cultural explanations for disease prior to modern germ theory. The analysis of this individual is an excellent example of using historical records and biological remains to understand what life was like centuries ago. I wish that National Geographic hadn't resorted to the "Vampire Forensics" title and that they hadn't resorted to blatant pandering and sensationalism in making the documentary, because there is some very good science behind the story. But perhaps it's the marriage of vampires and forensic science that explains why this story keeps surfacing in my news feed and why friends and colleagues keep sending me links to it.

Footnote (7/2/12) - Since I originally wrote this post, a bit of an argument has been kicked off in the academic literature about this burial.  The discovery was published in 2010 in the Journal of Forensic Sciences by Nuzzolese and Borrini, although the article seems to be a conference paper rather than a full-length explication of the find.  It's in this brief communication that Nuzzolese and Borrini lay out their argument that the community may have thought of and treated this woman (at least in death) as a vampire.

A few months ago, another group of Italian bioarchaeologists, led by Simona Minozzi, wrote a commentary about this also in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.  In essence, they argue that the brick in the mouth, the misaligned collarbones, and other aspects of Nuzzolese and Borrini's case are simply taphonomic - that is, normal processes that happen by chance after death and burial.  They also take issue with Nuzzolese and Borrini's interpretation of the historical record as well.  Minozzi and colleagues don't buy the vampire interpretation at all, and go so far in this LiveScience article as saying that Borrini is making it up to bring more attention to the perpetually underfunded state of Italian bioarchaeology.

I don't know if Minozzi or others have been able to take a look at the skeleton itself, but I'm not sure it would help since most of the vampire interpretation lies in the context of the burial rather than in the biological elements.  And as we all know, as soon as you excavate something, you destroy the context forever.  We may never solve the mystery of whether or not this woman was considered a vampire, but the arguments about the interpretation indicate that researchers need to be meticulous and seek additional input from knowledgeable colleagues before committing on paper to an interpretation as dramatic as "vampire."

January 27, 2011

Bones - Season 6, Episode 11 (Review)

The Bullet in the Brain

Episode Summary

The Gravedigger (Heather Taffet, a lawyer turned serial killer from seasons 2, 4, and 5 who buried her victims alive) is being transported to the courthouse in an attempt to appeal her conviction for murder. Dr. Sweets is with her in order to give her the psychological counseling she requested. But Gravedigger wants to rattle Sweets so that he will give faulty testimony on the stand. She asserts that "if you testify at my appeal, I'm gonna walk" and "we all know who's the weakest link in the chain," referring to Dr. Sweets and his use of psychology to help the FBI find and catch criminals. Just after Gravedigger and Sweets get out of the prison transport van, a gunshot comes out of nowhere, powerful enough to completely destroy her head. The gathered protesters scatter, except for James Kent, a father of two of Gravedigger's victims, who was standing in the crowd with other victims' families, filming the event. Shortly thereafter, Brennan shows up at the scene and she and Booth find the bullet, which was shot with such force that it was embedded in a marble balustrade.

Brennan orders the cranial fragments to be collected and sent to her team at the Jeffersonian. Dr. Saroyan explains to Brennan's weekly assistant, Wendell Bray, that when a faster-than-average bullet hits the brain, the shock wave can cause an explosion: hydrostatic shock. Brennan gives Wendell a paper on reconstruction of gunshot injuries to help him reconstruct how the head exploded. Angela and Hodgins discover that the bullet was copper with only traces of lead and work to restore its original form based on its weight and the properties of the metal.

At the FBI, Booth draws up a list of suspects, which includes James Kent and Brennan's father, Max Keenan. Angela's reconstruction is sent to Booth, who recognizes the bullet as a 338 Lapua Magnum based on Angela's use of the Sears Haack aerodynamic profile. Booth realizes that he didn't hear a gunshot because this was a professional hit.

Wendell reconstructs the skull, and he notes that there was a clean entry wound to the left parietal, 2 cm above the suture. The exit wound was most likely in the right parietal, but it was hard to tell. Based on the trajectory of the bullet and the Gravedigger's height, he and Angela reconstruct the path of the bullet. Angela also uses D.C.'s ShotSpotter system to attempt to isolate the location from which the shot was fired. She picks up a gunshot on two microphones and uses a Venn diagram to find the overlap between their ranges. From this, she gets Booth an address.

Booth and Brennan show up at the address Angela gave them; it's the apartment of a prostitute, Tracy Levec. There, they discover that a table has been moved towards the window, which would have allowed a sniper to get a reasonable, if long, shot at the Gravedigger. While looking through the apartment, Brennan finds a bathtub with garbage bags taped over it. She and Booth open it to reveal a partially skeletonized woman. It turns out that this victim was not placed in lye but rather in a tub full of Drano. Hodgins estimates time of death as 144 hours (6 days) before. Brennan and Wendell discover that Levec's atlas was fractured and a knife was used to sever her spinal cord. At the FBI, Brennan says that the killer used his left hand, twisting counter-clockwise, to inflict the fatal cut to the spinal cord. Based on the characteristics of the kill, Booth thinks he is looking for Bill Preston, a sniper he knew in Afghanistan.

Booth questions Preston, but Preston denies he made the kill and instead points a finger at Jake Broadsky, who was Preston's mentor for a decade. Broadsky has been missing for some time. They discover that, under the alias Gary Gray, Broadsky cashed a check for $2 million from James Kent a day after the murder of Gravedigger. Kent admits to having paid someone to kill Gravedigger; he used the money he'd raised to ransom his boys before she killed them. But Kent does not know who the sniper was; in fact, the sniper called him and offered to kill Gravedigger for $2 million. Booth then discovers that Broadsky purchased land outside of D.C. in the name of Seely Booth.

Booth confronts Broadsky on his property. Broadsky doesn't admit to killing Gravedigger and puts sufficient doubt in Booth's head that he can't just take a shot at Broadsky. Booth does chase Broadsky - he doesn't need a warrant since the land is in his name - but Broadsky blows up an out building, and Booth sprains his ankle and dislocates his shoulder. He has the chance to get a good shot at Broadsky but doesn't take it.

On the drama side of things, Sweets is rattled by what Gravedigger said to him in the prison transport vehicle, and he keeps replaying it on a small tape recorder. Eventually, Miss Julian steps in to snap him out of his funk: she admits that she was terrified when she saw Gravedigger get killed (she even "messed" herself) and points out to Sweets that it's all over. Angela is annoyed that Hodgins seems happy with the fact that Gravedigger is dead, even though he was buried alive by her. And Brennan's father comes back to prove his innocence.

From the forensic side, I can't think of a more disappointing episode. I gather that there is some attempt to work up interest in the FBI side of things for a possible spin-off involving one of Booth's sniper friends, but I don't tune into Bones for the police work.

Forensic Comments
  • There was so little forensic anthropology work in this episode that I don't really have much to say...
  • Wendell notes that the entry wound was "2 cm above the suture." But that's not terribly precise; I think he meant "2 cm superior to the squamosal suture."
  • Is it really that easy to buy property in someone else's name? I've bought and sold a couple houses, and it's a giant pain in the ass.
  • How does Max just walk into Brennan's lab in the Jeffersonian? Is there no security there?
  • Why is Booth doing crowd duty in the opening scene? Aren't there other people who work at the FBI?

Nothing sticks in my mind from this episode. I was hoping that the Sweets storyline would turn into a clue - i.e., something in what the Gravedigger said would lead them to her killer - but there wasn't a payoff there. I honestly don't know why Sweets would be terribly riled by Gravedigger; is there some history there I don't remember?


Forensic Mystery - D. There wasn't a forensic mystery in this episode. Gravedigger was killed by a long sniper shot. Reconstructing her head from a million little pieces didn't help anything. Tracy Levec was positively identified by dentals, I assume. There was no question about who was killed or really even by whom.

Forensic Solution - A. Since one person died in plain sight and the other was partially fleshed (and owned the apartment in which she was found), there wasn't a lot of forensic anthropology work to be done. The few forensic elements that were in the episode were fine, though, and the information about the weapon and method for killing Levec did help track down the sniper.

Drama - C. For most of the episode, I was terribly bored. But the opening scene when Gravedigger was killed was super dramatic, and about half-way into the episode there were some good dramatic elements. Still, since Booth ruled out quickly that the sniper's goal was to kill Gravedigger and no one else was in danger, there was only manufactured drama (like Sweets' mini-crisis and Angela's harping on Hodgins).

Ugh, nothing like a crappy episode to make me feel bad for Gravedigger - she could have had a better swan song.

January 25, 2011

An African in Avon?

The BBC just published a short article reporting on the discovery of the skeleton of an African man who died in what is now Stratford-on-Avon during the Roman period (4th century AD - and a slightly different report here). It was discovered in 2009, and it seems that archaeologists "now believe the man may have been a Roman soldier who chose to retire in Stratford after serving in an African unit." This is really exciting news, adding to the finding of people of possible African and Roman descent in England, whose skeletons are beginning to come to light through the use of isotope and DNA analysis. (Image at right from the BBC; I assume it's the actual skeleton.)

The problem with the BBC article (and with much media coverage of bioarchaeological remains) is that it infuriatingly gives no details at all on how it was determined that this skeleton represents that of an African man: isotopes, DNA, morphology? (The article also incorrectly refers to Malin Holst as "he." Hope this is changed soon.) Even worse, it publishes inferences without any sort of real data to back them up. Osteological examination "revealed the man was heavily built and used to carrying heavy loads. He had suffered arthritis in one of his shoulders, his hips and lower back." That's pretty interesting, but if this was an older man (as the article suggests), it's not terribly unusual to see osteoarthritis in the skeleton. By "heavy loads" I'm guessing the vertebrae had Schmorl's nodes, which are fairly frequently found in skeletons. Archaeologist Stuart Palmer is quoted as saying, "He could have been a merchant, although, based on the evidence of the skeletal pathology it is probably more likely that he was a slave or an army veteran who retired to Stratford." Granted, slave, soldier, and merchant were the main classifications of men who moved around the Roman Empire. But there were certainly free civilians, students, and others (like women and children) who circulated in this large geographic space. Additionally, slaves could (and were often) freed, so the ideas of social class and free/slave are quite mutable in the Roman Empire. Adding up the pathologies and coming to a conclusion of slave or soldier is not much more than a guess. Plus, without comparison with a larger population, we can't really say how unique this skeleton is (i.e., whether or not he was "heavily built," since that's sex- and population-dependent).

The main problem with media reports of skeletal finds is that the media wants to present the individual in the vein of forensic anthropology - as an individual - rather than in the vein of bioarchaeology - as a member of a population. While this individualizing of the dead grabs the public's interest, it leaves researchers like me wondering what the comparative population is. Individuals make sense only in relation to the population, and we can only understand populations by studying individuals. When the media reports on individual skeletons and takes them out of this feedback loop (and when archaeologists take a wild stab at what makes the skeleton unique without first putting them in the context of the population), the general public gets a one-sided view of what bioarchaeologists do and what life was like in the past.

I hope a bit more information comes out about this skeleton soon, as I'm very interested to read more in-depth about it. There is a lot of excellent research coming from my British colleagues, particularly related to physical mobility and circulation in antiquity (some of which I've blogged about here, here, and here), so I continue to follow their discoveries as closely as possible.

UPDATE - When I read Rosemary Joyce's reaction to this news, I noticed in the Archaeology Daily News report that Stuart Palmer is quoted as having said, "Currently there is no evidence to suggest whether he was born here, Africa or anywhere else." What the hell? How can someone submit a press release that says this man was from Africa? It's not that the media didn't report on the way his African ancestry was discovered, it's that someone just guessed that he was African, based on... I dunno, his "heavy build"? This is all rather ridiculous, and I hope there is a good explanation for how "African man in Avon!" got out.

UPDATE 1/26 - The (original?) Sunday Mercury story has the "no evidence" line, so it appears the BBC wantonly disregarded Palmer's note that they don't actually know where the individual was born. Silly me for assuming that the BBC would have the full story. Presumably, the BBC did this to make better copy. Now, of course, there's a news echo chamber going on, with subsequent reports flashing fancy graphics of a Roman soldier and a map of the Empire (Daily Mail).

UPDATE 2/8 - The Stratford Observer just picked up on the article, which it seems to have reprinted from in toto from another site (not the BBC, as it contains the "no evidence" line).

January 23, 2011

Membership Has Its Privileges

Every January, I renew my membership in the Society for American Archaeology and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. I really value these memberships because both come with a stellar publication: SAA has American Antiquity and AAPA has the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The AAPA member site even has free access to all AJPAs ever published. As a student, I could join both organizations for a total of $130. Since I graduated last year, I renewed my SAA membership at $130 and applied for regular membership to the AAPA for $130. In choosing my new category, I noted that both organizations had a "lifetime member" category on the renewal screen. The cost for a lifetime membership in AAPA is $1,600 - which would be worthwhile if you plan to be in the field for more than 12 years. As soon as I get a tenure-track job, I will seriously look into this option, as I'm pretty sure it's tax-deductible. The SAA lifetime membership cost, though, blew me away: $26,000! What the heck? I don't plan to be alive for the next 200 years. Does SAA lifetime membership come with some sort of benefits I'm unaware of? A free trip to the meetings each year? An endowed fellowship? A gaggle of graduate students to do your bidding? $25,000 in cash?

January 20, 2011

Bones - Season 6, Episode 10 (Review)

The Body in the Bag

Episode Summary

The episode opens with 20-something Brody going to surprise his lover, Paisley Johnston, in the shower at her lavishly-appointed house. He finds the shower running, steam everywhere, then slips and discovers a decomposing body that looks like Swiss cheese. At the scene, Brennan suggests that the bore holes in the necrotic soft tissue are a function of the high water pressure. Booth notes that the water meter suggests the shower had been running for three days, and Saroyan says the water heater was set at 105 degrees. From the remains of the sacrum, Brennan decides the victim was female, and from the pubic surface she estimates early to mid 20s for age. The skull indicates the victim sustained a Le Fort fracture, which caused her facial bones to fragment; many were then washed down the drain. Because of a severe hair clog in the drain, Hodgins thinks that he can recover the bones using a drain snake. Through poor communication, Booth is standing directly over the drain when Hodgins dislodges the clog, and bone, tissue, and fluid spray all over him, Brennan, and Saroyan.

At the Jeffersonian, Dr. Edison concludes that the victim died from an epidural hematoma resulting from a depressed fracture to the occipital bone. However, there's still a large chunk of occipital missing, so Edison cannot figure out the weapon that was used. Additionally, much of the skull "south of the eye orbits" is missing, so finding a conclusive ID cannot rely on dental records. Edison does find, though, that the victim had mild scoliosis.

Meanwhile, Booth and Sweets check out Paisley Johnston's not-very-veiled Facebook page. Sweets diagnoses her with a narcissistic personality disorder, and they note the prominent pictures of her chinchilla Chichi on her page. Sweets interviews Paisley's friend Nicole, who had recently defriended her because of a gift of a knock-off Chanel purse.

Back at the Jeffersonian, Edison and Saroyan are still trying to confirm that the victim was indeed Paisley Johnston. Her driver's license says she was 5'4", but so are many women. Apparently the height Edison gets from the femur doesn't match the rest of the skeleton. Scoliosis wouldn't affect the length of the long bones, and the only explanation Edison can think of is that Asians have shorter femora in proportion to their bodies than Caucasians. Paisley Johnston is not of Asian descent, so Edison and Saroyan conclude that the victim was someone else.

Hodgins finds a piece of paper with Chinese characters on it in the drain. From this, Brennan deduces that the victim had a special Taoist fu, or charm paper, to help her scoliosis. She and Booth track the paper scrap to Ming Tsao, who made it for his fiancee, Jenny Yang. Ming was upset with Jenny, who had started to run with a bad crowd: one full of spoiled, rich, American women like Paisley and Nicole. He points them to Mama Liu, whom Jenny worked for. When Booth and Brennan tell Mama Liu that Paisley sent them, she leads them immediately to a store room filled with knock-off designer accessories, and Metro Police burst in to arrest her. The lead in the case, Eric Anderson, tells Booth and Brennan that counterfeiting perpetuates child labor and can lead to terrorism, etc. Brennan notes that "status symbols are signifiers of the position one has in a social network," which is why counterfeiting designer goods is so lucrative. Jenny Yang had tipped off Metro Police to Mama Liu's operation.

Back at the FBI, after Sweets delves into both Jenny's and Paisley's Facebook pages, he realizes that Chichi the chinchilla has low-jack on her collar. This leads Booth to Paisley, who was holed up in a hotel drinking and taking pills. She had no idea why Jenny was dead in her shower. Paisley suggests that they look for the camera hidden in her teddy bear, which she suspects her boyfriend Brody may have taken from the scene.

Meanwhile, Dr. Edison is reconstructing the skull. He determines that Jenny was killed by blunt force trauma to the occipital. The bone fragments were likely jammed into her brain, killing her. Brennan points out that the depressed fracture has lines radiating away from the point of impact, meaning the weapon had a low mass and impacted with great force. A hammer or baton would fit, but the angle of the blow fits better with the theory that the victim was picked up and smashed downward, probably onto one of the fixtures of the shower.

Brody brings the teddy bear cam to the FBI, and Sweets and Booth realize that it captured Jenny Yang having sex with someone whose face we don't see. Angela tries to measure the man's legs in the hopes that they can get an ID. Edison has identified some extraneous bone that turns out to be rhinoceros horn, a male aphrodisiac. Ming Tsao admits to having given Jenny the rhino horn but insists he did not kill her. Brennan measures his lower leg, to compare it to the one on the video. The leg measurements don't match either Ming or Brody. From the video, Angela isolates the images from all the reflective surfaces in the room. When she creates a composite, the face that is reconstructed is Eric Anderson's.

Booth confronts Anderson at the FBI with the news that the team at the Jeffersonian has placed him at the scene of the crime, having sex with the victim on the night of the murder. Anderson comes clean. He and Jenny grew close as she was his informant on the Mama Liu counterfeiting case. On this particular night, Jenny took him to Paisley's house and expressed reservations about her role in bringing down Mama Liu. She asked that Anderson arrest Paisley instead. When he refused, Jenny threatened to tell Anderson's boss that they slept together, which would cost him his job and his family; so Anderson killed Jenny Yang.

Forensic Comments
  • Necrosis happens to the tissue of living people (premature cell death), so I'm not sure why they refer to the victim as having "necrotic soft tissue."
  • If Brennan had the pubic symphysis (which they changed to "surface" for some reason) for figuring out the age at death, she could have also figured out sex. The Phenice method is much more reliable than the morphology of the sacrum.
  • The shower drain was clogged so badly that it trapped bone and adipose tissue, but the shower didn't back up and overflow the bathroom? Does a water meter really give you a daily report of water usage? I'd imagine Booth could tell that the recent water consumption was higher than normal, but can you pinpoint days?
  • Dr. Edison would be more likely to use proper anatomical-directional terms and say that the victim was missing the skull "inferior to the eye orbits."
  • If Hodgins could recover teeny tiny pieces of bone from the skull fracture, why didn't he come up with any of the roughly 32 teeth that the victim would have had? Where the heck did the teeth go? When Edison reconstructs the skull, there is definitely a maxilla, and there is a mandible when he and Saroyan are looking at the skeleton on the table.
  • Scoliosis is a pretty complicated condition; a variety of factors could very well have caused the femur to have a slightly different morphology, which would throw off stature estimates. Not sure why Edison dismissed this so quickly.
  • Tonight in "Bones made me learn something, damnit": I was incredulous about the whole "Asians have shorter femora" statement, particularly because Edison uses borderline racist terminology (like calling the victim "an Asian") and thinks the plural of femur is femurs rather than femora, but apparently this is done in forensic anthropology. A recent article (and some follow-up research), though, suggests that it's possible to discriminate African-American ancestry from European/Asian ancestry using this technique; it doesn't suggest, though, that you can tell European from Asian ancestry. I guess it still makes some sense; I often teach about Allen's Rule, after all (and will be again in a couple weeks).
  • As always, the prop people need to switch the radius and ulna to reflect anatomical position (in which the radius is lateral); this error was made in the scene between Saroyan and Edison.
  • Apparently, all Brennan needed to determine ancestry was a possible inconsistency in femur length. No one bothered to do any other measurements, look at any other morphological characteristics of the skull, or do DNA analysis. Seriously, why don't they ever do DNA analysis on this show?
  • I don't understand how the Le Fort fracture was caused. The victim was killed by a downward thrust to the back of her head. Are we to assume that the murderer let her fall or threw her down so hard onto the shower floor that her face fractured? From the angle of the body in the shower, I guess it would have to be a Le Fort III fracture, with impact at the zygomatic.

The Booth-Hannah-Bones love triangle is annoying me greatly. Really, Booth would discuss it openly with Sweets at the FBI gym? And then tell Hannah everything? The less said about this plot line, the better. Similarly, although I like Hodgins and Angela, I can't be bothered to care about where they live or how much pudding she eats or how often they ultrasound their baby to watch it high-five Angela's uterus. The Hodgins-Angela-fetus love triangle is similarly bland. I am also hoping Dr. Edison goes back to normal at some point.

Brennan had some good lines tonight, though, notwithstanding her ineptitude at reading social cues in Hannah's behavior. She made a good anthropological point about status with the counterfeited bags (the exact same point I made a few days ago in my intro class, when talking about the Nacirema), and she bragged about her high tolerance for alcohol, like any good anthropologist (well, maybe it's just us archaeologists). Even though she misread Hannah's signals, Brennan was a basically normal - yet still endearingly awkward - person in this episode, and that pleased me because it pretty much describes every anthropologist I know.


Forensic Mystery - A-. It took me a while to catch on to the cop as the murderer, as I was sufficiently distracted by the fiance and the counterfeiter, and keeping Paisley missing for so long added to the drama. There was a lot going on in this forensic plot; I'm surprised they managed to squeeze any subplots in there.

Forensic Solution - B-. Ruling out a missing person as the victim based on one long bone measurement and an assumption of ancestry is just poor forensic science. If we assume, though, that there were other tests done to come up with positive IDs (DNA, or finding teeth), the rest of the forensic work was pretty interesting.

Drama - D. Not one but two love triangles were the primary dramatic focus this episode. Boo.

Next Week: Gravedigger returns!

January 17, 2011

Rome if You Want To: How Skeletons Reveal Immigrants in the Empire

Next Wednesday, I'll be giving a talk at Davidson College. I'm excited to head over to Charlotte (IKEA trip!), to visit Davidson for the first time, and especially to meet up with my friend and colleague Hilary Becker, who organized the talk and generated interest in it from three different departments - classics, anthropology, and chemistry. From the Davidson campus events calendar:

Dr. Kristina Killgrove, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will deliver a lecture entitled, "Rome If You Want To: How Skeletons Reveal Immigrants In The Empire," at 7:00 pm on Wednesday, January 26, 2011, Belk Visual Arts Center 117. A reception will follow the lecture which is sponsored by the Central Carolinas Society of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Davidson College Departments of Classics, Chemistry, and Anthropology.

Dr. Killgrove will discuss how throughout Roman history millions of people came to the capital city. Some voluntarily sought out new experiences, but many were brought by force. The lives of the vast majority of immigrants are basically unknown, since historical and epigraphic records tend towards the wealthy, literate elite. This talk details the relatively new technique of strontium and oxygen isotope analyses, carried out on over one hundred human skeletons recovered from two Imperial-era cemeteries in the Roman suburbium. Integrating isotope data with osteological and historical information can illuminate the lives of slaves and foreigners at Rome, adding valuable information about the ancient Romans.

January 15, 2011

Quality of Life in Classical Antiquity

The American School of Classical Studies at Athens has posted a video of Walter Scheidel's talk entitled "Quality of Life in Classical Antiquity." It's quite interesting, and the last 20 minutes or so summarize some of the bioarchaeological findings to date, particularly in Rome. I'm pretty sure the sites I studied were name-checked in the slide on health in the Empire, but the quality of the video isn't great. Scheidel is amazing at this sort of synthetic analysis across time periods and cultures; it's exhilarating to see the broad picture of health trends in the Roman Empire but also humbling to know that I've produced only a small fraction of the data that went into this.

My one comment is on the same slide about health in the Empire - Scheidel seemed surprised that the Britons, living in the backwater of the Empire, had a lower frequency of porotic hyperostosis than did people in Italy and Egypt. Italy and Egypt had malaria; Britain did not. Rome was densely populated; Britain was not. The disease ecology of Rome was complex - there were hills and marshes and volcanoes; they had flush toilets but probably also endemic malaria - and to an extent, I think that showing trends in frequency of diseases with increasing distance from Rome glosses over the ecological complexity. At some point, I'll write an article on this, perhaps sooner rather than later, as disease ecology will be in the discussion portion of my PPA talk in a few months.

January 14, 2011

PPA/AAPA Meetings

Anyone else out there headed for the meetings of the Paleopathology Association and American Association of Physical Anthropologists this April? I got word this week that I get to present a paper at the PPAs and a poster at the AAPAs. In case you want to come and harass me there, I don't have the schedule for the PPAs yet (4/12-13), but my poster at the AAPAs will be up in session 42 (4/16). Titles and abstracts follow.

Unsanitary urbanism?: Rethinking pathology in Imperial Rome
K. Killgrove, UNC Chapel Hill

The historical record of ancient Rome depicts city life as crowded, unsanitary, and violent, especially for the lower classes. It is reasonable to assume that, with a high population density and significant influx of people from around the Empire, the inhabitants of Imperial Rome would demonstrate elevated frequencies of pathological conditions, particularly as compared with skeletal populations from the countryside. Contrary to this expectation, however, are the human remains from the lower-class cemeteries of Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco in Rome. This presentation details as a case study the paleopathological analysis of 183 skeletons from these two Roman cemeteries.

Neither population produced conclusive evidence of infectious diseases (e.g., tuberculosis), and only one individual presented with osteomyelitis. The pathologies reported most frequently in past Roman bioarchaeological literature include porotic hyperostosis, trauma, osteoarthritis, and enamel hypoplasias. Both study populations had significantly lower frequencies of these issues than did previously-published populations. The frequency of cribra orbitalia, for example, is 14-18%, compared to 50-80% in other Roman populations, and enamel hypoplasias affect only 2% of the studied teeth, whereas reported frequencies from other populations consistently exceed 35%.

The people buried at Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco present very few indications that their health was adversely affected by life in a large urban center. The dramatically lower frequencies of porotic hyperostosis and enamel hypoplasia in particular suggest that the people of Rome were not homogeneous in their exposure to pathogens, physiological stress, and health outcomes.

Dietary differences between immigrants and locals in Imperial Rome
K. Killgrove, UNC Chapel Hill; J. Montgomery, U Durham; R. Tykot, USF

Although the general diet of people in Imperial Rome consisted primarily of grain, olives, and wine, historical sources indicate that dietary practices varied based on age, sex, and social class. Recent paleodietary work in the Roman countryside and at Italian ports has shown that different food webs were utilized in spite of the proximity of these sites to one another and to the sea. To date, no other study has examined the extent to which the diet of immigrants (both free and slave) affects dietary reconstructions of the population of Rome.

In order to investigate the alimentary resources used in Rome during the Imperial period, we subjected the teeth and bones of 35 individuals from the Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco cemeteries to carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis, as well as strontium and oxygen isotope analysis. Although there were no statistically significant differences between the perimortem diets of locals and immigrants, 15% of the immigrants to Rome had significantly different childhood diets. These individuals' much higher carbon isotope ratios suggest consumption of a diet with comparatively more C4 plants. Further, those individuals whose childhood diets were statistically different from the local diet apparently consumed a local diet after immigrating to Rome, as their perimortem carbon isotope values fall within the local dietary range. We conclude that there is a wide variation in the diets consumed by people in Imperial Rome and that part of this variation is likely related to the presence of immigrants in the population.

January 8, 2011

A Second Death for the Neonates of Frizzone?

A recent article circulating in the Italian news – variously titled "The Neonates of Frizzone Risk a Second Death" and "Lucca: Appeal for the Little Dead from 2,150 Years Ago Discovered in Frizzone" – by two Italian anthropologists discusses the discovery and seeming lack of restoration/curation of an infant cemetery dating to the late Republican period. In 2006-07, the archaeological superintendency of Tuscany excavated a site along the via del Frizzone, outside of Lucca. The report states that near a wooden building that may have housed a wine press, excavators in 2006-07 found a complex of graves with numerous (the article doesn’t say specifically how many) infant skeletons, a complete dog skeleton, various potsherds, and an architectonic terracotta of Dionysus with dolphins. The implication of the authors is that the artifacts have been studied and conserved but that the skeletons are at risk of being destroyed by neglect.

An archaeologist on the project, Michelangelo Zecchini, notes that the infant skeletons have high scientific potential and may help them answer questions about, at the very least, the cause of death (e.g., sacrifice, natural causes, abortions). He states that there is ample funding for conservation and study of these skeletons – which he estimates would cost a few hundred of the 45,000 euro that the project apparently boasts in funding – but that the funding has presumably gone to conserving pottery rather than skeletal remains. Francesco Mallegni, an anthropology professor at the University of Pisa, says that he is baffled by the treatment of the skeletons, which represent a biological archive: "I would have expected that, after excavation, they would have been assigned to one or more specialists. Instead, it seems that they have been abandoned for years in a warehouse of archaeological materials, awaiting restoration and subsequent study, and are likely to be discarded and then lost forever." Mallegni notes that he always tells his students about the importance of skeletal collections, again using the term "archivio biologico," and he humbly offers his services - which would not cost much, he asserts - to properly study and conserve the skeletons in order to discover more information about health, status, and burial ritual in the Roman past.

I don't know the ins and outs of the archaeology system in Tuscany or Italy as a whole, having only been associated with the Superintendency at Rome. It's curious to me that both the archaeologist who excavated the skeletons and a well-respected professor who wants to study the remains have felt compelled to air these issues in a public forum. Is the timing of this news piece (press release? op-ed?) related to the recent controversies surrounding the collapses at Pompeii and the charges of financial malfeasance associated therewith? That is, does this piece represent simply a simmering (perhaps interpersonal) issue in the (bio)archaeology of Tuscany? Or are Mallegni and Zecchini capitalizing on the worldwide news coverage of Pompeii to shed light on other caches of archaeological material that need better funding and better oversight? What is their eventual goal in writing this, and whom do they need to convince?

I really only read the article, which showed up in my news feed, because of the picture and the title; 'The Neonates of Frizzone Risk a Second Death' is quite catchy - no one wants to think about the death of a child, much less think they are forgotten even to history. But there was no mention of the MNI of the infants - are we talking 5 or 500? - so I'm not clear on how large this cache of infants is. Its importance, though, isn't really in question because we don't have a lot of physical evidence of infants, infant mortality, abortion, stillbirths, infant burial ritual, etc., especially from the Late Republic.

It's great to see Italian archaeologists advocating so stridently for the timely analysis of skeletal remains. As many of the discussions of Pompeii have noted, though, Italy is rich in heritage but severely underfunds the study and conservation of that heritage. So it's also disheartening to see that these scholars need to advocate for the importance of the skeletons from Frizzone. This "biological archive" - a phrase I love because it's so Foucauldian - is important because burial ritual is, after all, a discursive formation within the archaeological record.

UPDATE (1/16) - I got an email today from Prof. Zecchini, thanking me for directing more attention to the Frizzone infants through my blog post. (I, in turn, should thank David Meadows for including the post in today's Classicarnival over at Rogue Classicism.) Zecchini pointed me at an additional article published yesterday that he co-authored with Prof. Mallegni about the issue. What I gather from this response is that Giulio Ciampoltrini of the archaeological superintendency of Tuscany has more or less said (perhaps in print?) that skeletons should only be studied when they are deemed to be of considerable anthropological importance. Zecchini and Mallegni counter that all human remains are important because "come archivi biologici, raccontano, a chi sa interpretarli, la storia di una vita, e molti scheletri raccontano la storia di una popolazione" - that is, the skeletons form a biological archive and can share their secrets with those who know how to listen; one skeleton tells us about one life, many skeletons tell us about a population. This is, of course, a point that I harp on in all my courses: anthropology takes the individual as its subject but wants to understand the collective.

Again, an interesting read (for those who know Italian) - including the anxiety couched as a joke that archaeology may devolve into "cocciologia" - which I guess in English we could render as "sherdology." And interesting for a bit of paleoanthropology that I wasn't aware of: the discovery of a calvarium in 1994 in Frosinone that has apparently been dubbed Homo cepranensis, which Mallegni has published on. I've emailed Zecchini back, asking for links to Ciampoltrini's statements. I've definitely gotten only one side of this discussion and am curious what Zecchini's and Mallegni's articles are responding to.

UPDATE (1/18) - I received a reply from Zecchini, who pointed me at an article in Obiettivo Tre on the "controversy" over the restoration of the infant skeletons. Zecchini, of course, feels that the infants (he told me by email there were 6, four of which were relatively well-preserved) are important for understanding funeral ritual at the site. Ciampoltrino, the superintendent of archaeology for Tuscany, spent 45k euro on the Museum of Capannori, which opened on January 8. The museum chose not to display the skeletal remains, he said. However, he adds that the skeletons, among many other artifacts, are being studied in the lab and that there is a clear priority for which are conserved first. There are several sets of skeletal remains that are ahead of the Frizzone infants in the queue, including the tomb of the Guinigi family, the tomb complex at the baths at Lucca, and a lombard tomb found in Lucca in 1988 that has dozens of bodies. Ciampoltrino is quoted in the article as having said, "Sono dell’idea che i corpi, anche se di età passate, dovrebbero rimanere sottoterra e non esposti, a meno che non ci sia una notevole rilevanza antropologica" - "I am of the idea that the skeletal population, even though it is from the past, ought to remain underground and not exposed, unless there is considerable anthropological importance." This seems to be what Zecchini and Mallegi picked up on: the idea that Ciampoltrino doesn't want to deal with the skeletal remains that were uncovered and, by inference, that he thinks bioarchaeology should not be done in Tuscany; the dead should be left alone.

It's been interesting following this story and trying to piece together who said what to whom in what forum. I'm still not sure that I know quite what is going on. Zecchini suggested that Ciampoltrino reported to the press in December that 45k euro were being spent on the museum and that the analysis of the skeletons was not being funded. Zecchini says that Ciampoltrino further said specifically that the conservation and analysis of the skeletons was not provided for within his budget. December was when Zecchini and Mallegi first made their bid for these infant skeletons to be handed over to Mallegni. I didn't find the December articles, though... or maybe they were emails?

This article does make Ciampoltrino sound like he's blocking anthropological research on the six skeletons only because he doesn't think they should ever have been excavated. I hope that the infants do get studied, and I believe that there are numerous fabulous bioarchaeologists in Tuscany who can do it. It will be interesting to learn how this "controversy" turns out.

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