August 25, 2011

Bioarchaeology of Women's Health in the Roman Empire

Rebecca Redfern's talk at the Museum of London was recorded and posted on Vimeo a few hours ago.  In it, she discusses what bioarchaeology can tell us, why we need to study skeletons even in an age that produced loads of historical records, and specifically how women's health was affected by living in the Roman Empire.  Unfortunately, it appears that the Museum couldn't show all the images, so the video is definitely lacking in interesting illustrations:

Redfern does great work on the bioarchaeology of Roman Britain, and I highlighted one of her articles in the 1st Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival.  Of course, I've also been critical of her interpretations about the health status of people living in Imperial Rome, as I talked about in my presentation at the Paleopathology Association meeting back in April.  In short, the disease ecology of Imperial Rome was quite diverse, with some skeletal populations showing high frequencies of diseases, and others showing quite low frequencies.  So we can't put all the blame for disease on urbanism, nor can we praise Roman toilets for excellent health.

I should note that this video appears to be at least a year old.  Redfern refers to "just in" data on the Ivory Bangle Lady, noting that she came from Rome, just after saying that there isn't any isotope work coming out of Italy.  This isn't true, of course, since Tracy Prowse did an oxygen isotope study at Isola Sacra in 2007 looking at migration, and I have already published one paper on migration to Rome based on the strontium isotopes from my 2010 dissertation, plus co-authored a paper on lead isotopes in Rome and Britain.  (And, yes, still need to get my Sr/O article out to a peer-reviewed journal...)

Still, it's a good primer on bioarchaeology and the kinds of questions Redfern, I, and others are currently asking about life in the Roman world.


Killgrove K. 2010. Migration and Mobility in Imperial Rome. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina. [PDF

Killgrove K. 2010. Identifying immigrants to Imperial Rome using strontium isotope analysis. In Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire, H. Eckardt ed. Journal of Roman Archaeology supplement 78, Chapter 9, pp. 157-174.  [PDF]

Montgomery J, J Evans, S Chenery, V Pashley, K Killgrove. 2010. “Gleaming, white and deadly”: lead exposure and geographic origins in the Roman period. In Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire, H. Eckardt ed. Journal of Roman Archaeology supplement 78, Chapter 11, pp. 199-226.

Prowse TL, Schwarcz HP, Garnsey P, Knyf M, Macchiarelli R, & Bondioli L. 2007. Isotopic evidence for age-related immigration to imperial Rome. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 132 (4), 510-9. PMID: 17205550.

August 24, 2011

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival II

I'm back with some Roman bioarchaeology related links from the last two weeks.  Not a whole lot to choose from for this carnival, so feel free to email me about recent articles.

Excavations at the Tomb of the Queen
New Finds

Old Finds, New Analyses
Gary Staab making casts
  • The Sept/Oct issue of Archaeology magazine has a story on "Pompeii's Dead Reimagined."  Artist Gary Staab reinterprets the 150-year-old casts of four denizens of Pompeii who were killed in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
  • August 19 - In 2008, archaeologists discovered the tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus, the man who inspired the movie Gladiator, along the via Flaminia, near the Tiber River.  Last week, an essay was published in the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero by Fernando Acitelli, who complains quite poetically about the state of disrepair of the tomb and the lack of signage for tourists.
Varia on Roman Bodies
Hobnail footprint from Isca
(credit: @CaerleonDig)
  • August 18 - Quick Twitpic of a hobnail footprint posted by @CaerleonDig (Twitter feed for the excavation of Roman Isca in Britain).  I love footprints - from the ones made at Laetoli by Australopithecus afarensis to the ones found in fresh mud and wet tiles in the Roman world - and some day I dream of doing a bioanthropological study of the scores of shoes found at Vindolanda.  Footprints and shoes can tell you an enormous amount about a person's gait, and they're understudied in the Roman world, if you ask me.
  • August 20 - Caroline Lawrence, who writes the Roman history kids' books The Roman Mysteries, has a short piece on the ancient Roman approach to dieting.  Yes, body shaming was alive and well two millennia ago, and the 2nd century Greek philosopher Celsus recommended bulimia and anorexia among his tips for getting and staying slim.
Journal Articles
  • August 12 - I posted on this blog about a sulphur isotope study into the diet of Roman-era people in Oxfordshire, England.  If you missed it, you can find it here under "Weaning and freshwater fish consumption in Roman Britain."
  • October - The Journal of Archaeological Science has published an article on migration to Apollonia Pontica, a Greek colony on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria.  The study involves oxygen isotope analysis of skeletal remains from the 5th-3rd centuries BC, so this doesn't exactly fall under Roman bioarchaeology.  But the authors, Keenleyside, Schwarcz, and Panayotova (2011), do great work in the field of isotope analysis in the Greco-Roman world, so I wanted to mention this one.  They found that 5 out of the 60 people whose first and third molars they studied were from elsewhere, possibly further south in the Aegean region.  Of those 5, the authors found both males and females, suggesting migration to Apollonia Pontica involved children of both sexes, maybe as a family group, maybe as slaves.  They leave the possibility open for future strontium isotope analyses, which I for one would like to see.
Italian Archaeology
  • August 15 - In Italy, I am called an antropologa, simply an anthropologist, which is someone who studies the human body.  I think cultural anthropologist (which is what comes to mind when someone in the US says "anthropologist") is antropologa culturale or something similar.  So a bioarchaeologist is somewhat distinct from an archaeologist (archeologa) in Italy, at least in my experience.  Regardless, even though archaeologists are usually the ones in the field and anthropologists are the ones in the lab, they work together and face similar job prospects.  A brief news item posted last week by English-language Chinese news agency CNTV outlines just how dire the situation is for Italian archaeologists to find and keep a job.  In an area of the world with so much cultural heritage that needs to be dealt with as modern infrastructure encroaches on it, it's a shame that archaeology in Italy isn't better funded.  Watch the video here.

I'll be back in two weeks' time with another collection of links more or less related to Roman bioarchaeology. As mentioned above, feel free to email me anything you think may be of interest to the carnival!


Keenleyside, A, Schwarcz, H, & Panayotova, K (2011). Oxygen isotopic evidence of residence and migration in a Greek colonial population on the Black Sea. Journal of Archaeological Science, 38 (10), 2658-2666.

August 22, 2011

Secondary Burial and the Post-mortem Manipulation of the Dead

We here in the U.S. tend to think of death and burial as little as possible.  Someone dies, and we bury them.  Perhaps we visit the person's grave or other sacred space on occasion, but that's the extent of our interaction with the dead.  In other places and in other times, people weren't so squeamish about death and had a continuing relationship with the dead bodies of their compatriots.

Secondary burial is usually defined as anything other than putting a dead body in the ground/tomb and sealing it up (which is primary burial).  Cremation can count as secondary burial, as the dead body is manipulated (in this case by fire) and then disposed of.  But what's always been really interesting to me is the practice of post-mortem manipulation of the dead, the extended burial rituals that are generally held to indicate a sort of ancestor worship, for lack of a better term, or a way of honoring the dead and keeping them among the living.

Bronze Age mummy
(credit: BBC)
Monday's news brought word of prehistoric mummies from Scotland that show evidence of post-mortem manipulation.  Four bodies discovered in 2001 in the Outer Hebrides dating to the Bronze Age were deliberately mummified: an infant, a young female, a female in her 40s, and a male.  These sex and age estimations were based on the bones, but recent testing showed that one of the females (based on the pelvis) had a male skull and that the male mummy was also a composite of people.  Bioarchaeologists studied the bones further, and the extent of demineralization suggested the bodies were placed in a bog for about a year, then removed and manipulated, finally ending up in the flexed position we see in the photograph.  The BBC talked to Mike Parker Pearson, who literally wrote the book on the Archaeology of Death and Burial, who noted that "These could be kinship components, they are putting lineages together, the mixing up of different people's body parts seems to be a deliberate act."

deBry's engraving "The Tombe of their
Werovvans or Chieff Lordes" based on
Thomas Hariot's 1590 book on Algonkinans
in Virginia.  (Credit:
The secondary burials I've worked with are of Native Americans from the Late Woodland period (c. 800-1600 AD) in North Carolina (Killgrove 2002, 2009).  Among the Algonkians of the northern coastal plain, people of high social standing (called werowances in the ethnographic writing of the day) were typically skinned, cleaned, and stuffed to resemble a corpse, then placed on a wooden scaffold within a temple or tomb.  The common people were generally placed in ossuaries - large burials mounds - but archaeologists generally see a mix of primary and secondary burials in them (Ward & Davis 1999).  The Tuscarora occupied the inner coastal plain of North Carolina in the Late Woodland, and we have a detailed description of their burial ritual from John Lawson, the British Surveyor-General of North Carolina, at the turn of the 18th century.  One day after death, the body was wrapped in reeds.  Mourning took place over a few days' time.  Tuscarora village chiefs were then treated similarly to the Algonkian chiefs: being placed in a quiocosin, a mortuary or charnel house like the Algonkian one pictured.  Lawson also recorded the burial practices of the Siouan groups on the southern coastal plain of NC, in which the deceased was placed on a scaffold, the body was anointed and covered in bark, and eventually the flesh was removed and the bones were cleaned.  All the bones eventually made it to a quiozogon or ossuary-type burial mound.  Later, Siouan burial style switched to accretional ossuaries, with primary burials stacked up and covered with sand.

Skulls of the Toraja
(credit: National Geographic)
Post-mortem manipulation of the dead is an ancient practice but one that extends into the present day as well. In Indonesia, many anthropologists have studied the Toraja, a group that lives in the mountain region of the island of Sulawesi.  High-status individuals in this culture may not be buried until months or years after death, until a massive funeral can be held.  Eventually, when enough money has been raised, a large feast occurs and the dead is conveyed to the burial site in a specially-carved casket, interred in a cliffside grave, and represented by a statue.  In many cases, the dead are revisited after several years.  Their corpses are cleaned and dressed in new clothes, and the statues or effigies are also attended to.  In central Sulawesi, among the Pamona people, corpses are buried but later unearthed, with their flesh removed by ritual specialists.  The bones are wrapped in bark, put in baskets, and dressed and fed as if they were dolls (Hutchinson & Aragon 2002).  After a week of feasting, the jewelry, masks, and clothes are removed from the bone bundles, which are reinterred. National Geographic has several nice clips of Toraja mortuary ritual - such as here and here.  Another excellent movie is Borneo: Beyond the Grave with anthropologist Anne Schiller, formerly of NC State and now at GMU.  I've shown it in class before, but it's quite difficult to find (I think I got it as a bonus feature on NatGeo's Bali: Masterpiece of the Gods).

It's been quite a long time since the extended funeral was a part of American burial tradition - since we switched from displaying the bodies of loved ones in the parlor for a viewing and making memento mori photographs to a mechanized form of burial that distances us from the pollution of death (nicely critiqued in the first episode of HBO's Six Feet Under, when Nate refuses to use the sanitary dirt shaker on his father's grave, preferring to get his hands dirty).  And yet just as there is a movement in this country to bring birth back into the home, there is a movement to bring death back as well, as shown in A Family Undertaking, a 2004 PBS movie I showed one semester to my Bioarchaeology class.

Various cultures' continued relationships with the dead fascinate me and many other anthropologists, and it's important to remember that our own Western, Judeo-Christian views about death likely influence our interpretations of funerary practices around the world.  Learning about practices in other cultures, especially seeking out ethnographic parallels in contemporary funerary practice, will help bioarchaeologists interpret secondary burials and post-mortem manipulation of the dead.

UPDATE 9/19/11 - A new find in Stone Age central Sweden (roughly 6,000 BC) has revealed 11 individuals whose skulls had been mounted on stakes.  Archaeologists think it may have been battle-related but aren't ruling out secondary burial treatment.  Oddly, the site also boasts the world's oldest dildo.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for
Hariot, T (1590).  A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.  [Available at Documenting the American South.]

Hutchinson, D., & Aragon, L. (2002). Collective Burials and Community Memories: Interpreting the Placement of the Dead in the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic United States with Reference to Ethnographic Cases from Indonesia Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, 11 (1), 27-54 DOI: 10.1525/ap3a.2002.11.1.27

Killgrove, K (2009). Rethinking taxonomies: skeletal variation on the North Carolina coastal plain. Southeastern Archaeology, 28 (1), 87-100. [PDF]

Lawson, J (1709).  A New Voyage to Carolina.  [Available at Documenting the American South.]

Parker Pearson, M.  (2000)  The Archaeology of Death and Burial.  Texas A&M University Press.

Ward, HT & RPS Davis (1999).  Time Before History: the Archaeology of North Carolina.  University of North Carolina Press.

Further Reading:

Chesson, M, ed.  (2001)  Social Memory, Identity, and Death: Anthropological Perspectives on Mortuary Rituals.  Archeological Papers of the AAA.  [Library-restricted access here]

Rakita, G, JE Buikstra, LA Beck, SR Williams, eds. (2005)  Interacting with the Dead: Perspectives on Mortuary Archaeology for the New Millennium.  University Press of Florida. [Amazon] [Introduction via]

Silverman, H & D.B. Small, eds.  2002.  The Space and Place of Death.  Archeological Papers of the AAA. [Library-restricted access here]

August 17, 2011

Solving the Mystery of Conjoined Twins at Angel Mounds

Conjoined twinning is a rare congenital abnormality.  We know of old historical cases, of course, like Chang and Eng, whose birthplace gives us the term Siamese twins.  Going back further, Moche ceramics seem to depict conjoined twins as early as the turn of the first millennium.  But even though conjoined twins undoubtedly existed in antiquity, no conclusive bioarchaeological evidence has ever been found.

In 1941, an archaeologist named Glenn Black and his crew of WPA workers uncovered an unusual single burial of two infants, both about three months old, at a Middle Mississippian site (11th-15th c AD) called Angel Mounds near Evansville, Indiana.  Because of the positioning of the skeletons, Black suggested the burial might be that of conjoined twins.

Diagram of skeletons W11A60 and W11A61 from Angel Mounds

In order to shed light on this mystery, Charla Marshall, Patricia Tench, Della Collins Cook, and Frederika Kaestle undertook aDNA analysis, with the idea that conjoined twins would share mitochondrial genotypes because they have the same mother.  In a brief communication to AJPA, Marshall and colleagues (2011) report that their DNA sequencing clearly showed no maternal relationship.  It is still possible the infants were related, but they were not twins, conjoined or otherwise.  The question remains: why were these two infants buried in this manner?

This study, of course, would have been more interesting had the authors found conjoined twins, but they showed that certain interpretations about burials are now better made in a laboratory setting through the addition of chemical analysis of osteological data.


Marshall C, Tench PA, Cook DC, & Kaestle FA (2011). Brief communication: Conjoined twins at Angel Mounds? An ancient DNA perspective. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Early View. PMID: 21834072.

August 13, 2011

Participant-Observation, Illustrated

If anthropologists produced videos like this on participant-observation and ethnography, would we entice more students?  Gorgeous series of videos by Rick Mereki, Tim White, and Andrew Lees, commissioned by the Australian branch of STA travel.

August 12, 2011

Weaning and Freshwater Fish Consumption in Roman Britain

In the September issue of Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, O. Nehlich and colleagues use sulphur isotope analysis to investigate the diet of 83 individuals from three Roman-era sites in Oxfordshire, England.  Their hypothesis was that sulphur isotopes, in combination with carbon and nitrogen isotopes, would reveal an additional facet of the diets of people in the area.  Sulphur isotopes have started to gain in popularity, as they're useful for separating marine and terrestrial protein (much like nitrogen isotopes are), for indicating freshwater resource consumption (which C/N isotope analysis can miss), and for tracking migration (in a similar manner as oxygen isotope analysis).  Nehlich and colleagues also wanted to apply sulphur isotope analysis to infants.  It is well known that nursing infants have dramatically different nitrogen isotopes than adults, and there is growing evidence that carbon, oxygen, and strontium isotopes are also affected by nursing.

The carbon and nitrogen isotope data from these Roman Oxfordshire populations were previously reported by Fuller and colleagues (2006), showing that the people got most of their protein from herbivores and possibly also from freshwater resources, and their carbohydrates from C3 plants (e.g., wheat).  Nehlich and colleagues perform a sulphur isotope analysis on the same individuals Fuller and colleagues used, and they find that sulphur can indeed distinguish between terrestrial and freshwater aquatic resource consumption:

d34S values of bone collagen of animals and humans from Oxfordshire
(credit: Nehlich et al. 2011, Fig. 3)
It's not a particularly surprising result, since some of these individuals lived along the Thames River, but sulphur provided the researchers additional information about diet that the carbon and nitrogen isotopes couldn't tease out.

While the C and N data show a linear
pattern with age, the S data don't; they
may, however, be more like a curve.
(credit: Nehlich et al., 2011, Fig. 5)
The really interesting finding in this article, though, is that sulphur isotopes can provide additional information about patterns of breastfeeding and weaning.  The original study by Fuller and colleagues had found 13C-depleted values for infants in the range of 2-4 years, which the authors interpreted as a unique weaning diet composed mostly of C3 plants and terrestrial meat, and surprisingly variable d15N values suggesting weaning was a gradual process.  Sulphur, like nitrogen, has a small trophic effect, meaning infants consuming their mothers' tissues (in the form of breastmilk) typically have higher isotope values than the adult population.  However, Nehlich and colleagues didn't observe any striking patterns in 34S enrichment.  They conclude that the pattern Fuller and colleagues saw is actually the result of consumption of freshwater fish or other foods influenced by freshwater hydrology - such as grains that grew near freshwater sources.  Nevertheless, they also found that kids 8 years and older have more 34S-enriched values, suggesting they were eating mostly terrestrial protein.

As I just finished up the (hopefully) final draft of my article on carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses of the Imperial Roman diet, this sulphur study has been on my mind.  I've written before about the problem of aquatic resource consumption in the Roman diet - sometimes fish were seen as the lowest form of food, and sometimes they were highly prized (e.g., in the form of garum, a fish sauce).  Neither of my populations lived particularly near the Tiber River, but the people buried in the St. Callixtus catacombs also weren't that close.  The Callixtus palaeodiet reconstruction by Rutgers and colleagues (2009), though, suggests freshwater resource consumption because of the comparatively low carbon and high nitrogen isotope values.  The Callixtus skeletons would therefore be an ideal place to start a sulphur isotope study in Rome.  It might also be useful to do a sulphur isotope study on the infants buried in Isola Sacra, whose skeletons gave Prowse and colleagues (2004) quite a bit of information about weaning and diet.  Interestingly, the ages at weaning in Roman Oxfordshire and in Portus Romae seem to differ a bit: while Fuller and colleagues think weaning took place from 2-4 years old, Prowse and colleagues found that kids were fully weaned by 2.5-3 years of age.  Analyses of carbon and nitrogen isotopes are increasingly showing us that there was no monolithic Roman diet, and that consumption of resources varied by age, location, time period, and (probably) status and religious/ethnic group.

Isotope analysis isn't perfect, but it is a powerful technique for looking at palaeodiet, and I hope that these bioarchaeological findings start being incorporated into general treatises on the ancient Roman diet.  For example, the recent book Taste or Taboo (Beer, 2010) is excellent but mentions no biochemical analyses of the Roman diet.  Part of this disconnect between anthropology and classics is the fault of bioarchaeologists.  After all, we publish in journals that further our careers, like the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Journal of Archaeological Science, and Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta.  These aren't top on the list of journals that classicists want to read, and the language of the latter two is generally highly technical, which can be problematic when a classicist does attempt to delve into the scientific data (as I've written about here in the Journal of Roman Archaeology).  One of my goals for this blog is to widely disseminate bioarchaeological work and get it noticed by classicists, anthropologists, and the public alike.  But the classicists interested in diet, migration, and burial would also do well to start perusing anthropology journals, contacting article authors if the paper is too technical, to really understand what we can contribute to the study of the ancient Romans.

Beer, M.  (2010).  Taste or Taboo: Dietary Choices in Antiquity.  Prospect Books.

Fuller BT, Molleson TI, Harris DA, Gilmour LT, & Hedges RE (2006). Isotopic evidence for breastfeeding and possible adult dietary differences from Late/Sub-Roman Britain. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 129 (1), 45-54. PMID: 16229026.

Killgrove, K.  (2010).  Migration and mobility in Imperial Rome.  PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  [PDF]

O. Nehlich, B. Fuller, M. Jay, A. Mora, R. Nicholson, C. Smith, & M. Richards (2011). Application of sulphur isotope ratios to examine weaning patterns and freshwater fish consumption in Roman Oxfordshire, UK. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 75 (17), 4963-4977. DOI: 10.1016/j.gca.2011.06.009.

Prowse, T., Schwarcz, H., Saunders, S., Macchiarelli, R., & Bondioli, L. (2004). Isotopic paleodiet studies of skeletons from the Imperial Roman-age cemetery of Isola Sacra, Rome, Italy. Journal of Archaeological Science, 31 (3), 259-272. DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2003.08.008.

Rutgers, L., van Strydonck, M., Boudin, M., & van der Linde, C. (2009). Stable isotope data from the early Christian catacombs of ancient Rome: new insights into the dietary habits of Rome's early Christians. Journal of Archaeological Science, 36 (5), 1127-1134. DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.12.015.

August 10, 2011

1st Installment of the Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival

Since I'm gearing up for a new semester (finishing up syllabi, packing for a move, etc.), I haven't had as much time as I'd like to blog about the interesting reports and publications that have come out recently on the topic of Roman-era skeletons.  So here's a carnival or round-up of links from the past few weeks, things I've wanted to talk about but haven't had the time to craft full posts about.

Roman Child Skeleton from Durnovaria
(credit: DorsetECHO)
  • August 10 - Today's news brought a brief story about the discovery of a skeleton of a Roman child from what used to be Durnovaria (modern-day Dorchester, England).  There's no osteological information in the report, but there is a nice little history of Durnovaria and this photo of the skeleton, which was found within the settlement (unclear if it was in a house).  It's not unusual to find children buried outside of cemeteries - within houses, near walls, etc.
  • August 8 - On Monday, the BBC gave a bit more coverage to the discovery of nearly 100 infant skeletons in a Roman-era villa in Britain.  Jill Eyers, who rediscovered the skeletons in a storeroom, put forth the idea last year that these infants were killed on purpose and that the villa was in use as a brothel.  [Original BBC report here, bit of video here.]  Dr. Eyers remains convinced of her theory, but scholars in both the classical and anthropological blogospheres are questioning that.  Most notable are the posts by archaeologist Rosemary Joyce, who wrote a critique of the theory last year and wrote an updated post yesterday continuing to cast doubt on the whole brothel idea.  Dr. Joyce's posts are well worth a read, as she delves into the historical and archaeological evidence of Roman brothels to bring a counter-point to the discussion of this interesting discovery.
  • August 8 - The American Journal of Physical Anthropology published an interesting paper on Monday by Becky Redfern and Sharon DeWitt (2011) on the effect of status on mortality risk in Roman-era Dorset, England.  The authors looked at nearly 300 individuals dating to the 1st to 5th centuries AD and assigned them a status level based on burial type.  Using models of mortality, they found that indeed higher-status individuals had lower mortality risk.  This was especially true for children and for people who were buried (and presumably lived in) an urban environment.  Interestingly, male mortality risk was higher than female mortality risk (I presume owing to warfare and other job hazards).  Redfern and DeWitt conclude that, "...the cultural buffering afforded by being of high status enabled people to more effectively deal with urban environments and migration, with lower-status individuals having greater risk because of their forms of employment and living conditions."  We can, of course, assume that individuals with higher status had better diets and overall health, and therefore lower mortality risk. But it's great to see researchers actually test that hypothesis.  It's also interesting to see that urban denizens had lower risk of mortality; in many ancient societies, urbanism meant dramatic changes to health and wellbeing, but I've also been finding with my Romans that those who lived in or near the city were generally healthier than those from the suburbs and countryside.

Mummies arranged by age, sex, and occupation.
(credit: Panzer et al. 2010, Fig. 2)
  • Not Roman and not recent news, but still neat: last summer, S. Panzer and colleagues published a study of late 19th/early 20th century mummies from the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Sicily.  The pictures in the article are astounding: the mummies are excellently preserved, and the radiographs show a variety of minor pathological conditions (e.g., healed fractures) in some of the mummies.  The authors were able to learn a lot about embalming techniques and about the health of the people who were given this treatment after death.

Interactive Teaching Tools
  • And finally, this link has been sitting in my bookmarks for a while.  I discovered the BBC's online video game Dig It Up: Romans through Katy Meyers' blog post (July 14, at Play the Past).  It's cute, fun, and educational.  Katy writes that, "not only does the game allow players to see the different stages of archaeology, but it is all done in a cultural resource management with the threat of construction setting time limits."  Unfortunately, I didn't find a skeleton when I played... just a lamp and an amphora.  But the game shows that archaeologists need sampling strategies, that we don't always find every piece of an artifact, and that we don't always find anything of interest (ah, memories of Spam cans from my days excavating at Monticello).  Go play it now!  You know you need a break from work.

Panzer S, Zink AR, & Piombino-Mascali D (2010). Scenes from the past: radiologic evidence of anthropogenic mummification in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily. Radiographics 30 (4), 1123-32. PMID: 20631372.

Redfern RC, & Dewitte SN (2011). Status and health in Roman Dorset: The effect of status on risk of mortality in post-conquest populations. American Journal of Physical Anthropology PMID: 21826637.

August 5, 2011

Bioanthropology Kids' Book Follow-up

When I posted my piece on Teaching Preschoolers about Archaeology, Bioanthropology, and the Classics over on G+, Bria Dunham suggested a book I'd never heard of: Gakky Two-Feet, written by none other than Micky Dolenz of the The Monkees fame in 2006.

Now, I grew up listening to every song The Monkees ever recorded, since my mom was a huge fan of Peter Tork, and Nickelodeon broadcast all the old episodes of the TV show, which my brother and I watched religiously.  So when Peter came through Charlottesville and played folk music at a small coffeeshop some time in the early 90s, my mom and I went (and I was way too shy to say hi after the set).  And when The Monkees reunion tour was announced this year, I was disappointed to find out that they were coming to Durham just a couple weeks after I'll be moving to Nashville.

Needless to say, following Bria's suggestion, I immediately ordered Gakky Two-Feet and got it in the mail yesterday.  It's quite a cute little book.  The protagonist, Gak, is a "hominidee" living about 5 million years ago in the Big Trees of Africa.  Gak is an oddball because he walks on two feet, earning him his nickname, but soon the other hominidees realize that his talent is useful: his mother makes him carry branches to the river, he discovers that he can see further than his compatriots in the high grass of the savanna, and then he saves another hominidee by carrying her out of the clutches of a hungry lion.  In spite of the danger to himself, Gak sounds an alarm about the lion and all his friends also flee.  Gak ends up a hero, and the hominidee female he saves is thankful, expressing her intention to marry him someday.

Somehow, Dolenz has managed to pack a few different theories on the origin of bipedalism into a short kids' book.  He even touches on the ideas of altruism and sexual selection.  In a way, it reminds me of Roy Lewis' The Evolution Man (a fast read for adults and probably appropriate for older kids too) - a kind of a "what if" book depicting the origins of humankind.  The illustrations, by David Clark, are also quite darling (although Gak inexplicably reminds me of a young-and-hammy Hugh Laurie).

The one thing that struck me as odd is the preface by Dolenz, in which he says that "Current paleoanthropological theory holds that our ancestors adapted to upright walking about 4 million years ago (around the time of Australopithecus afarensis - the infamous "Lucy")."  Lucy and her kind weren't the first to walk bipedally, but A. afarensis is the first to show hallmarks of a modern ability to walk (and lessened adaptations to life in the trees).  A minor quibble.

Gakky Two-Feet has now been toddler-tested.  My daughter hasn't memorized it yet, but she requested "Read Gakky Two-Feet!" several times yesterday.  I'd definitely recommend it for ages 2 and up.

August 2, 2011

Teaching Preschoolers about Archaeology, Bioanth, and the Classics

The August challenge over at the group blog Then Dig was to produce a post with suggestions for good archaeology reads.  I wrote up a short piece on anthropology books for kids, which is cross-posted there and below.  But if you read through to the bottom of this post, I've also included some suggestions for the budding classicists.

After reading a few of Matt Thompson's "Illustrated Man" posts over at Savage Minds, I decided to search for children's books that go beyond the ubiquitous kiddie-adventure-with-moralistic-underpinnings storylines.  Now, those books aren't all bad.  My 2-year-old daughter and I both really like the Adventures of Patrick Brown book series, which is lushly illustrated in an almost graphic novel style and which employs a good level of vocabulary that doesn't talk down to kids whose language skills are increasing at an astounding pace.  But my ultimate goal was to find books related to my life-long interests - archaeology and biological anthropology - that I could share with my daughter.  More importantly, I wanted to find books that won't make me pull my hair out when I inevitably have to read them over and over and over again.

I discovered, though, that it's surprisingly difficult to find books geared towards the preschooler set that aren't board books with too little dialogue (half of the words in Fifteen Animals are "Bob") or lightweight stories about everyday activities that reinforce old gender norms (I'm looking at you, Berenstain Bears).  Most of the books that interested me and that tried to communicate a small part of what I do for a living seemed to be written for kids in late elementary school.  Fortunately, I managed to stumble upon a couple books that captivate the attention of a squirmy toddler and her academically-inclined mother.


Archaeologists Dig for lists over 1,100 results for children's books about archaeology.  It's pretty daunting, and I ended up getting some duds.  The best one by far - which I highly recommend - is Archaeologists Dig for Clues by Kate Duke.  The format has some graphic novel qualities to it, with little dialogue bubbles in addition to the text and side-bar explanations, which cover everything from water screening to ceramic typology.  The characters are quite diverse in their gender, age, and race.  Although the story - a day in the life of a field archaeologist - condenses basically an entire field and lab season into one day, the portrayal of the field archaeologist, the explanations about the tasks she undertakes, and the demonstration of what specialists do at the lab are all quite good.

Biological Anthropology

The WatcherA recent New York Times Sunday book review profiled two works about the life of Jane Goodall:  The Watcher and Me, Jane.  One of my friends sent a copy of each for my daughter's birthday.  Jeanette Winter's The Watcher is definitely the better book - with more words and better vocabulary, the story introduces children to some basic concepts in primatology and anthropology. Winter's illustrations can be used to get children involved in watching too: Jane doesn't immediately see the chimps, who are hiding in the trees, and it's fun to ask my daughter to point them out and count them.  This book also deals with events like Goodall's bout of malaria and the progressive endangerment of chimpanzees because of poaching and deforestation, all while remaining approachable by kids. One of the things I dislike about Patrick McDonnell's Me, Jane (other than the title, which irrationally annoys me) is that he jumps from little Jane dreaming about chimps to Goodall in the field, skipping the trouble, hardships, and work she had to put in to get from interested kid to adult researcher.  Anthropology isn't as simple as digging a hole in your backyard or looking at an ape through a zoo window for a few minutes, and The Watcher manages to get this point across quite well. It's a surprisingly thorough (for a kids' book) story of Jane Goodall's life written in a way that challenges younger readers but at the same time doesn't talk down to them.  I definitely recommend The Watcher, but I'd give Me, Jane a pass.

Another good place to look for anthropology books may be your local science or art museum.  My colleagues at the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma, for example, created an illustrated pamphlet for children that explains what bioarchaeologists do (and helped me learn the Italian version of various bioarchaeological terms).  The cartoonish dead Romans are adorable, even though they're not a great match for the higher-level text that discusses such heady topics as palaeopathology.  Unfortunately, you can't all rush out and buy this, but I suspect there are similar English-language pamphlets floating around somewhere.  If not, well, I guess my next project will be writing a children's book on bioarchaeology!  (Anyone want to illustrate it?)


Special bonus for those of you who read my blog for the classical side of my research: I also tried to find books appropriate for toddlers that introduce them to the wonders of ancient Greece and Rome.  The best I could come up with were two books by Rosemary Wells.  She writes the Max & Ruby series, which my daughter absolutely loves.

Max and Ruby's Midas is, of course, a modern retelling of the Midas myth.  Max overly indulges in cupcakes, so Ruby reads him the story of Midas, who lived in ancient Greece and one day found that he could turn everything he saw into sweets... including his parents and his big sister Athena.  Midas simply wishes away his power in the story, and everything is restored.  Max learns nothing and sneaks a cupcake at the end.

And then there's Max and Ruby in Pandora's Box, a retelling of the Pandora myth.  Max keeps sneaking into Ruby's room and touching her things, so she reads him the story of Pandora, a little girl whose mother cautioned her not to go into her jewelry box.  Pandora opens the box, and hundreds of bugs fly out.  She's about to close the lid when a spider pops her head out and says that she's Pandora's only hope.  Pandora's mother comes home, checks on the box, and finds all her bug-themed jewelry still there.  The first part of the myth is reasonably close to the original, but the ending (as many modernized Greeks myths are) is too happy. Max, of course, appears to learn nothing from the story or from his sister.

Perhaps I should also mention Lisl Weil's oddly illustrated (and hard to find) The Boy Who Flew Too Near the Sun.  It's notable in that Icarus actually dies at the end, which just doesn't happen in children's books these days.  Interestingly, Weil also wrote and illustrated a book called King Midas' Secret and Other Follies, which includes the myths of Midas, Narcissus, the Sphinx, and Daedalus and Icarus, but in this one Icarus doesn't die.  If you're looking for children's books closer to the original Greek myths, Weil's books may be of interest.

If you've found any other good kids' books on archaeology, biological anthropology, or the classics, let me know in the comments!  I'm always looking for new titles for my voracious little (not-quite-)reader.

August 1, 2011

Biocultural Bodies and the Anatomy of Controversy

I wrote an essay for this month's Anthropologies on what biological anthropology contributes to the discipline as a whole.  The first paragraph is below to whet your appetite, but do click through to read about Cleopatra, the Tarim Mummies, and our anachronistic application of the modern construct of race to the past:
Why should we study the dead…?  This question has been posed to me numerous times in slightly different ways by students, interviewers, and granting agencies. Sometimes I answer that it’s important to listen closely to what the dead are telling us about their lives; their experiences in a remote time and in a foreign culture can give us insight into what a past civilization was really like. But other times I respond that it’s important to pay attention to what the dead are telling us about our own lives; the way that we use the dead to bolster or dismantle the ideology of our contemporary societies throws into stark relief the limits to our understanding of the past.  [Read the rest...]
The entire issue this month is well worth a read, and each essay is under 1,500 words.

Live in ancient Peru? You'll want to be Wari...

My colleague Tiffiny Tung, whose courses I'll be teaching in a few short weeks at Vanderbilt while she's on leave, has a new article out today in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology with archaeochemist Kelly Knudson called "Identifying locals, migrants, and captives in the Wari heartland."  They studied the strontium ratios from 31 burials and 18 trophy heads found at the site of Conchopata in the central Peruvian Andes (600-1000 AD).  Out of the 31 proper burials, they found only two with non-local strontium signatures (an adult female and an infant), but out of the 18 trophy heads, 14 of them were from somewhere outside of Conchopata.  Wari iconography suggests that they raided other peoples, captured individuals, and brought them back home, to be sacrificed and made into trophies.  They conclude (Tung & Knudson, 2011, p. 259):
...not only was human sacrifice part of the Wari ritual repertoire, it appears that Wari state structures were used to facilitate and promote this ritual production and destruction of human bodies and trophy heads. These acts of violence against the body were not random or unplanned. Rather, they seem to have been well orchestrated acts that brought together military elites who obtained prisoners and heads, ritual specialists with supernatural and technical skills to transform humans into trophy heads, and master artisans that could portray elaborately dressed warriors and deities with prisoners and trophy heads on large, state-produced urns.
Adult female cranium covered in cinnabar.
From the Wari site of Conchopata.
(Credit: T. Tung's webpage)
Not only do Tung and Knudson engage in an excellent discussion of violence and warfare in ancient Peru, but they lay out a new technique for analyzing strontium isotope values.  Now, strontium hasn't been as widely used by bioarchaeologists as, say, carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses, which means that in most areas of the world, we don't quite understand the relationship between human strontium ratios and the strontium ratios of the local geology and water.  The Peruvian Andes, though, have been very well studied compared to other parts of the world (Germany and England are other areas of pretty good coverage).  Still, there are overlapping strontium ranges for different sites in Peru, meaning it can be difficult to discriminate among the homelands of the non-locals, and sometimes to even tell whether a person was non-local or local.

To deal with this, Tung and Knudson use three techniques.  First, they calculate a two sigma local range from the strontium values of small animals.  Second, they look at the descriptive statistics (mean, median, standard deviation, etc.) and assume that those individuals on the tail ends of the normal distribution were likely foreigners.  They then calculate the mean and range of strontium isotopes based on the trimmed data (Wright, 2005).  And third, the authors introduce a new technique to identify outliers, wherein they basically zoom in on the spacing of the data to find a sectioning point between locals and nonlocals.  In essence, when a gap between samples (arrayed in increasing value) gets large, it's possible that the people on either side of the gap were from different places.  The authors note that this technique isn't absolute and therefore can't be used in isolation.

It's interesting to see their third technique in print, as it's what I had been doing visually in my strontium data from Roman sites:

(From Killgrove 2010)

You may expect to see a range of strontium values, as people living in the same place may have used slightly different water sources and had slightly different soil contents.  In the graph of my Romans, there are very clear outliers on either end of the graph.  The question that Tung and Knudson try to answer with their Wari data is, How do we find the hidden variation within a large data set?

This is a question that I am quite interested in answering as well, since Roman strontium ratios are greatly affected by the fact that there was a massive and intricate aqueduct system in the city and suburbs.  Importantly, the aqueducts brought low-Sr water from the Monti Simbruini to the suburbs and city of Rome, which was built on the volcanic (high-Sr) soils of the Colli Albani.  When you have two major strontium sources like this, another way of finding hidden variation is to plot the strontium isotope ratios versus the inverse of the strontium concentration (Montgomery et al. 2007):

(From Killgrove 2010)
From the above graph, you can see that the outliers are still outliers (T36 and F12A).  And you can see a linear relationship in Line A, which I interpret as indicative of local Roman geology, with end-members of more or less seawater (.7092) and the volcanic geology of the Colli Albani (.710).  I've created a line B with only three data points, so this may not be a valid relationship (although I hope to eventually get more data), but I interpret this as showing the people who lived on low-Sr geology - which could have been people living to the east in the Monti Simbruini or could have been people who, as children, consumed the majority (at least 70%) of their water from an aqueduct that was fed by springs in the Monti Simbruini.

Tung and Knudson's article gave me a lot to think about in terms of my own research - I'm excited to look into their new technique and apply it to the Romans as I write up my Sr/O isotope migration research as a journal article.  But it also got me thinking about trophy heads in the Roman world.  We know the Romans did this - Cicero was quite famously beheaded and impaled on the Rostrum, in the tradition of Marius and Sulla, who displayed their dead captives in the Forum.  But I don't know the whole tradition of Roman trophy heads: were they usually foreign captives, much as they were with the Wari, or were locals (aside from Cicero) also given this treatment?

K. Killgrove (2010).  Migration and mobility in Imperial Rome.  PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

J. Montgomery, J. Evans, & R. Cooper (2007). Resolving archaeological populations with Sr-isotope mixing models. Applied Geochemistry, 22 (7), 1502-1514. DOI: 10.1016/j.apgeochem.2007.02.009.

T. Tung, & K. Knudson (2011). Identifying locals, migrants, and captives in the Wari heartland: a bioarchaeological and biogeochemical study of human remains from Conchopata, Peru. Journal of Archaeological Anthropology, 30 (3), 247-261. DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2011.06.005.

Wright, L. (2005). Identifying immigrants to Tikal, Guatemala: Defining local variability in strontium isotope ratios of human tooth enamel. Journal of Archaeological Science, 32 (4), 555-566. DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2004.11.011

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