May 31, 2011

Bioarchaeology of Roman Seafood Consumption

As more Americans are developing an interest in the local food movement, preferring to purchase and consume perishable foods closer to home in order to cut down on economic and ecological costs of food production, we're also learning more about how the ancient Romans were decidedly not localvores.

Imported Seafood?

It's no revelation that the Romans were importing food to the center of the Empire to feed their growing population: grain from North Africa, to distribute to the Roman poor as a grain dole (Garnsey 1988); olive oil from Greece; and wine from France.  But today's Nature news brings a summary of an article in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology by Beltrame, Gaddi, and Parizzi, who argue that a Roman shipwreck discovered with a lead pipe in its hull was transporting live fish around the Mediterranean.

Lead tube from the keel (photo by D. Gaddi)
The 2nd century AD ship was found off the coast of Aquileia in the northern Adriatic and recovered in 1999. Cargo aboard consisted of around 600 amphorae containing oil from Africa, whole and processed sardines, salted mackerel, and garum (a fermented fish sauce the Romans loved).  While the cargo isn't unusual, the presence of a lead pipe in the hull of the ship is - based on the position of the pipe, Beltrame and colleagues think seawater could have flowed into that area of the hull.  The pipe is not part of a bilge-pump, the authors argue:
Lead tube and lead sheet
(fig. 7 in Beltrame et al. 2011)
No seaman would have drilled a hole in the keel, creating a potential way for water to enter the hull, unless there was a very powerful reason to do so. At most he would drill a bilge-hole in the top-side shell, well above the waterline, so to avoid as the entrance of water inside the planking. Beyond the potential danger of water infiltration inside the keel, discharging below the waterline created another technical problem—counter-pressure at discharging, which would have involved extra power from the pump to expel reflux fluids. Finally, this solution would have required the installation of a non-return valve on the feed-well to prevent water entering the pipes when the pump was not functioning.
While the purpose of a bilge-pump is to send water out of a ship, a suction-pump is responsible for bringing water onto a ship.  The authors favor this latter interpretation and further explain:
If we posit the presence of a suction-pump capable of taking in from the sea at least 252 litres per minute—a flow that could have been almost doubled when applying a larger force— the discussion over its use remains open. [... A] possibility is that a large quantity of water could be used to fill basins for the transportation of live fish.
Their idea is interesting but not without drawbacks, most notably the difficult relationship Romans had with the sea (Purcell 1995) and the general lack of evidence for a market for live seafood.  Beltrame and colleagues do tackle these issues, though:
The transport of live fish in the ancient world is a controversial topic: on one hand some scholars, using an anthropological and deductive approach, invoke the apparent technical limitations faced by the Romans in preserving perishable foods to argue that the consumption or marketing of fish would have happened in the immediate vicinity of the port where they were unloaded, or the vivarium (fish-pond); they consider that fishing was mainly a subsistence activity, and that in few places was there a real market.
[...] If critically read, the written sources do not appear to provide substantial evidence supporting the theory of transport by sea, at least over long distances, of live fish in Roman times, except in special cases and perhaps for small quantities (as quoted by Pliny). But Macrobius in the late Imperial period does offer the description of vivariae naves, apparently identifying a specialized vessel, and Athenaeus describes watertight tanks placed on board— not compartments within pierced hulls.

[...] We like to suggest that our ship was used for transporting fish alive from the Istria vivaria to the rich tables in Aquileia; we must not forget, however, that during the spring, even the shallow waters of the lagoon of Grado and Marano could be a large natural fish-pond which could feed a burgeoning market for young live fish in other locations.
Stable Isotopes and Marine Resources in Rome

The question remains, though, who would have been consuming these fish?  Although we think of the Mediterranean diet today as including a lot of seafood, it's unclear how much of the average Roman diet was made up of freshwater fish, seafood, shellfish, and garum... and it's unclear if there was such a thing as the average Roman diet, since dietary practices varied based on age, sex, social class, and occupation. For information beyond the historical and the archaeological, we can turn to the bioarchaeological data and look at patterns of marine resource consumption in Rome and surrounding sites in the Imperial period.

First, a bit of background.  The human diet comes from a variety of sources, but mainly from foodstuffs containing protein and carbohydrates. For decades, bioarchaeologists have been measuring the isotope ratios of carbon and nitrogen from human skeletal remains to get an overall picture of a person's diet in the years before his death (Katzenberg, 2008).

Carbon enters the food chain through photosynthesis, so a human’s carbon isotope ratio is largely affected by the kind of plants he ate.  The two major photosynthetic pathways are called C3 and C4 – C3 plants are found in temperate climates and include wheat and barley.  C4 plants are more tropical grasses and include corn, millet, and sorghum.  An individual who ate more C3 plants will have a more negative C isotope ratio, and someone who ate a lot of C4 plants will have a more positive C isotope ratio.

Nitrogen, on the other hand, is obtained primarily through consumption of other organisms - both plants and animals - so understanding N isotopes means understanding an organism’s trophic position, or position in the food chain: what it eats and what eats it.  Plants such as legumes directly process atmospheric N and therefore have an N isotope value close to zero.  Terrestrial plants are slightly higher, then there are herbivores that eat those plants, followed by carnivores that eat herbivore meat.  A person who ate mostly marine resources would have a higher N isotope range, as the trophic chain in the marine environment is much longer than on land.  It's also interesting to note that a breastfeeding infant would also have a very high N isotope ratio, as the infant is consuming his mother’s dissolved tissues.

For part of my dissertation research (Killgrove 2010), I did a palaeodietary study on 48 individuals from two Imperial-period cemeteries in Rome with help from isotope chemist Rob Tykot.  We looked at the perimortem diets of men, women, and children and saw a diverse range of foods consumed:

Carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis from two Imperial Roman cemeteries
Based primarily on historical sources and previous isotope studies of the Roman diet, we may expect that the lower-class individuals of Rome would have consumed a diet consisting of cereals (wheat, barley, and/or millet), olive oil, wine, and legumes, with some possible contributions from meat and fish. And that is, more or less, what the chart above shows me. The people we analyzed from Rome consumed a diet based largely on plants such as wheat and barley, and meat from terrestrial animals, with variable but minor input from legumes, marine resources, and millet/sorghum.

There are two exceptions in the graph above: a male has a very high C isotope value, indicative of a diet high in C4 plants. This aberrant diet could indicate that he was eating a large quantity of millet and beans, which Pliny notes were often eaten together by people in rural Italy. And a 2.5-year-old child with a very high N isotope value was either still nursing or had been recently weaned.

Diversity in the Imperial Roman Diet

Map of sites with palaeodiet information.  Blue = Casal Bertone;
Red = Callixtus; Green = Castellaccio Europarco; Yellow =
ANAS; Purple = Portus; Not shown: Velia (south of Naples)
Only a handful of palaeodiet studies have been done on populations from Imperial Italy. The best comparative study for individuals from Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco is Prowse and colleagues’ analysis of skeletons from the Imperial necropolis at Portus Romae (Prowse, 2001; Prowse et al., 2004, 2005) as well as a small analysis of some garum samples. Recently, a dietary analysis was published from the Christian (3rd-5th century AD) necropolis of St. Callixtus, which was located about 3 km from the city walls of Rome and less than 5 km from Casal Bertone (Rutgers et al., 2009). Although this site is as likely to represent a periurban population as Casal Bertone is, the fact that these individuals were early Christians raises the issue of differences in diet due to asceticism. Prowse (2001) published additional sample data from the cemetery known simply as ANAS, which was located halfway between Portus and Rome. Further south on the Italian peninsula, a dietary study of people from early Imperial Velia (modern Elea) was undertaken by Craig and colleagues (2009).

The graph below shows the mean and 1 sigma standard deviations (following removal of outliers) for the data published from Casal Bertone, Castellaccio Europarco, St. Callixtus, Portus Romae, ANAS, and Velia.  This is a rather crude comparison but does show that the average diet at each of these sites was quite different:

Palaeodiet comparisons at sites along the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy

People in different places were eating different types and amounts of carbohydrates (the carbon axis) as well as different amounts or types of marine resources.  Prowse and colleagues (2004) interpret the ANAS isotope values as indicative of a terrestrial diet. At Portus Romae, on the other hand, individuals had comparatively higher nitrogen isotopes, not unexpected since Portus was located on the Tyrrhenian coast. The Roman Christians buried in the necropolis at Callixtus have average nitrogen values midway between Portus Romae and ANAS, indicating more marine protein consumption than the latter but less than the former. This necropolis was located about 3 km from the Tiber River, meaning people living in the area could have had access to marine resources. Rutgers and colleagues (2009) note the comparatively low carbon values from individuals in the Callixtus necropolis and interpret them as evidence of consumption of freshwater fish. Finally, at Velia, a site in Campania on the Tyrrhenian sea, Craig and colleagues (2009) concluded that their average isotope values were consistent with a largely terrestrial diet of cereals with a small contribution from meat and marine resources. These researchers further note, however, that there was substantial variation within the population at Velia, suggesting that the diet of individuals buried there was not uniform.

Comparisons between the diets of individuals at Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco with Imperial-period sites from the Italian peninsula show that there was no singular Roman diet. To a base of cereals, olives, and wine were added terrestrial meat, legumes, fish, and millet in different proportions and from different sources. Although copious amounts of food were imported from various areas of the Empire, the diet of the average lower-class Roman was likely contingent on foodstuffs available in the immediate area.  However, there is clear variation in the diet of the common people in the Italian peninsula. 

Importance of Imports

It's honestly hard to say at this point whether imported food significantly impacted the diet of the average Roman.  With this palaeodiet study for my dissertation, I learned that there is a great deal of variation in diet within the Italian peninsula - some of this may be due to imported foodstuffs, particularly grain from Africa, and some of it may be due to the particular composition of the population in terms of age, sex, and ethnicity or original homeland.  If the average Roman was eating a significant amount of imported foods, this could also affect the person's strontium and oxygen isotope ratios, those measurements that tell us whether someone was born in Rome or grew up elsewhere.

Roman skeletons have a lot to teach us and can help us answer questions about diet, immigration, and disease in the Empire.  Much more stable isotope research is needed on populations from Rome and Imperial Italy, in addition to zooarchaeological and palaeobotanical studies, in order to more fully understand the variety of natural resources available for both human and animal consumption in this important historical time period.  This research needs to be integrated with historical literature and archaeological finds as well, in order to present the fullest view possible of what life was like in Rome - were people eating food they sourced locally, or were they importing exotic or low-cost foodstuffs?  The answer is probably that they were doing both - but the task for us bioarchaeologists is to figure out along what lines the diet varied.

C. Beltrame, D. Gaddi, & S. Parizzi (2011). A presumed hydraulic apparatus for the transport of live fish, found on the Roman wreck at Grado, Italy International Journal of Nautical Archaeology : 10.1111/j.1095-9270.2011.00317.x

Additional References:
  • Craig O, Biazzo M, O’Connell T, Garnsey P, Martinez-Labarga C, Lelli R, Salvadei L, et al. 2009. Stable isotopic evidence for diet at the Imperial Roman coastal site of Velia (1st and 2nd centuries AD) in southern Italy. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139(4):572–583.
  • Garnsey P. 1988. Famine and food supply in the Graeco-Roman world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Katzenberg M. 2008. Stable isotope analysis: a tool for studying past diet, demography, and life history. In: Katzenberg M, Saunders S, editors. Biological anthropology of the human skeleton. New York: Wiley-Liss. p 413–442.
  • Killgrove K. 2010.  Migration and mobility in Imperial Rome.  PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Prowse T. 2001. Isotopic and dental evidence for diet from the necropolis of Isola Sacra (1st-3rd centuries AD), Italy. PhD dissertation, McMaster University.
  • 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 31:259–272.
  • Prowse T, Schwarcz H, Saunders S, Macchiarelli R, Bondioli L. 2005. Isotopic evidence for age-related variation in diet from Isola Sacra, Italy. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 128:2–13.
  • Purcell N. 1995. Eating fish: the paradoxes of seafood. In: Wilkins J, Harvey D, Dobson M, editors. Food in antiquity. Exeter: University of Exeter Press. p 132–149.
  • 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.

May 26, 2011

The Philosophy of Wikipedia

A meme is going around (thanks in large part to the web comic XKCD) that every Wikipedia page eventually ends up at the page for philosophy.  Wanna test it out?  The intrepid computer geek responsible for the Oracle of Bacon* put up a page explaining the phenomenon - including a search box, so you can submit your own test.  I learned that it takes 37 steps to get from the biological basis of this blog - "osteon" - to philosophy.  What did you learn?

* Full disclosure: I may be married to said intrepid computer geek.

Mona Lisa: Tomb Raider

Head on over to Past Horizons this morning to read my featured article, "The Skull with the Mona Lisa Smile."  (I figured that was a less controversial title than "Mona Lisa: Tomb Raider.")  It seems to me that no one's commented on the harebrainedness (?) of the scheme to dig up a bunch of graves and do a facial reconstruction from one of the skulls to "prove" Lisa Gherardini sat for Da Vinci.  So, I'm hoping this sparks some discussion.

UPDATES 5/27-30/11 -

May 25, 2011

Do hips spread with age?

My mom used to tell me that hips "spread" with age - particularly women's, particularly after childbirth.  I'd chalked this up to an old wives' tale with a teeny bit of truth: during the last stage of pregnancy, the hormone relaxin is released that causes the cartilage at the pubic symphysis (the very front of the bony pelvis) to weaken, allowing women's pelvic inlets to widen so that we can give birth to giant-brained babies (whose heads are 102% the size of our pelves - yeah, that's a fun statistic).  But after childbirth, the cartilage is strengthened again, and the pelvis returns to normal.

20-year-old's pelvis in pink,
79-year-old's pelvis in black
Today, UNC sent out a press release about a study that was published on Monday in the Journal of Orthopedic Research: "Surprising evidence of pelvic growth (widening) after skeletal maturity."  Researchers in our departments of biostatistics, orthopedics, and radiology decided to investigate the longstanding maxim that hips spread with age, which had been previously assumed to do with increasing weight with age.  Surprisingly, they found that the pelvis does widen after skeletal maturity - up to a 1 inch increase in the pelvic diameter!  To the right is the graphic from the press release.  Interestingly, the growth was seen in both males and females - so yes, women's hips do spread with age... but so do men's.

I'd initially thought that the growth would be restricted to women - after all, having a wider pelvic inlet should lead to much better outcomes in childbirth, and that makes evolutionary sense.  But it's interesting that men's pelves also grow.  I want to see a lot more of this kind of research - does it happen in other populations (that is, is this growth a result of our lifestyle of over-nutrition)?  Does growth slow down at certain times (such as during menopause for women)?  Very cool research - I can't wait to find out where researchers will go with it next.

Berger AA, May R, Renner JB, Viradia N, & Dahners LE (2011). Surprising evidence of pelvic growth (widening) after skeletal maturity. Journal of orthopaedic research : official publication of the Orthopaedic Research Society PMID: 21608025

The Bones of Martyrs?

Click on over to Past Horizons to read today's featured article, "The Bones of Martyrs?," authored by yours truly, about the possible discovery of the remains of Chrysanthus and Daria, two 3rd century saints.

Some links and recaps of my article can be found here:

May 24, 2011

Severed Head (not that kind) of the Saint of Genital Diseases

My news feed this morning brought me the report of a 19th century painting whose subject was revealed based on a giant testicular tumor, and now I get the BBC's report that the "Severed head of patron saint of genital disease [is] on sale." (Image below via BBC.)

In the 14th century, Vitalis was reportedly quite a promiscuous young man. He eventually expiated his sins, became a monk, and was beatified as Saint Vitalis of Assisi, patron saint of genital diseases. His head will be auctioned on May 29. It's currently valued at between $1,100 and $1,700. Y'all want to give me some money to buy this relic, right?

Blogging about Romans is Legion-dary

John Garrett at has created a truly amazing infographic called "Blogging Lessons We Can Learn from the Romans." Behold:

Be sure to enjoy his entire post by clicking through here.

What Lies Beneath Pompeii

Archaeology is a destructive process. The dirt that we dig through isn't just an annoying impediment to the discovery of fantastical treasure--its layers give us important information about temporal relationships between artifacts, provide clues to how and why a grave was disturbed, and serve as a time capsule of natural and anthropogenic environmental change. From the time that I took my first college course in archaeology 15 years ago to this semester, when I taught the archaeology unit in my general anthropology class, one ethical tenet of the field hasn't changed: don't just excavate because you can.

Often in intro to archaeology courses, the go-to example for "don't excavate just because you can" is the site of Pompeii. Destroyed by a volcano in 79 AD, Pompeii has for centuries yielded unsurpassed information about life in the Roman Empire. It was rediscovered in 1749, but excavations were halted in 1997. At least one-quarter of the city is still buried under ash and more contemporary debris, awaiting advances in technology to excavate and preserve the site, important considerations in light of the architectural collapses during the 2010 rainy season.

Fortunately, technology is changing rapidly, and anything that helps us archaeologists avoid destroying our research material as we excavate is welcome. One method that's been helping archaeologists figure out what's under the ground without actually digging it up is ground penetrating radar (GPR). This technology isn't really new - GPR has been around since the 1970s. In essence, high-frequency radio waves are blasted into the ground. When a wave hits something buried - a grave or a wall, for example - the receiving antenna of the GPR device records the variations in the signal that bounces back from the buried object. The resulting image looks something like this (via wikipedia):

Yesterday, Archaeometry published an early-view article entitled, "Mapping the undiscovered ruins of Pompeii (Naples, Italy) using ground penetrating radar" by Pettinelli and colleagues. According to the authors, theirs is only the second published study on using GPR to find archaeological remains in volcanic soil.

For you classicists out there, the area of interest was near the Nola Gate, between Reg. III and IV. In this area, a road has been partially excavated, and the exposed stratigraphy shows four successive ash deposits:

Figure 2 from Pettinelli et al. - Scarp-exposed stratigraphy of the study site.

Using GPR on the unexcavated area, the researchers found the same boundaries under the ground that they could see in the excavated area: the four layers of ash color coded as above. But they could also see anomalies underneath the ground (in red):

Figure 3b from Pettinelli et al. - Boundaries and anomalies detected by GPR.

The importance of this study (as far as I can tell, never having done research with GPR myself) is that this technology worked on volcanic material, especially considering Pompeii has up to 8m of volcanic ash covering it. In spite of the challenges of using GPR on volcanic material, which has a tendency to reduce the radar signal amplitude, these researchers have shown that it is possible to use this non-destructive technology to find buried archaeological remains at Pompeii, albeit only up to a depth of about 3m. In this case, they suspect the anomalies at 2 and 1.5m depth in the figure above are likely walls.

Also interesting is the authors' use of time domain reflectometry (TDR), a technique that is used to measure the electrical properties of soil. As the depth range of GPR is affected by the electrical conductivity of the soil - with more conductive soil, GPR can penetrate further - it is important to understand using TDR the dielectric properties of the volcanic deposit (and thus how far we should expect the GPR to penetrate).

The authors have successfully used GPR to locate subsurface anomalies at Pompeii. They conclude that:
... the use of GPR could produce a detailed map of the ruins still hidden in the subsurface, giving archaeologists the possibility of reconstructing the entire urban development of this unique ancient city.
Mapping the full city of Pompeii would be a great contribution to the archaeology of urban life in the Empire. It would also produce a significant amount of information about the ruins before archaeologists put even one trowel in the ground - if excavations ever resume, that is.

E. Pettinelli, P.M. Barone, A. Di Matteo, E. Mattei, & S.E. Lauro (2011). Mapping the undiscovered ruins of Pompeii (Naples, Italy) using ground penetrating radar Archaeometry : 10.1111/j.1475-4754.2011.00599.x

May 23, 2011

Diggin' Up Presidents

CNN is reporting that the remains of Salvador Allende, the former president of Chile, are being exhumed in order to determine if he committed suicide or was killed following a military coup in 1973. [] An international team of experts has already been assembled, and the DNA and other testing will be done in Austria. Most notably, no one is setting a specific time frame for this, which means they will take their time to do it right, a refreshing departure from the frenzied attempts to find the "real" Mona Lisa in the past couple of weeks. I'll be interested to read what they find about Allende's cause of death.

May 22, 2011

May 20, 2011

The 9,000-year-old La Jolla Fisherman and -woman

Today's Wired gives an update on the two Palaeoindian skeletons found on the grounds of UC San Diego, during construction work on the president's University House in 1976. The skeletons are important because they are very well-preserved and around 9,000 years old, making them two of the oldest known skeletons in the Americas and therefore key to understanding the population history of the continent (image credit to Jan Austin, SMC).

In early 2009, UC officials started the process of attempting to repatriate the skeletons to a local Native American tribe, as reported in Nature 458(265):
Officials at the University of California are moving to give two of the oldest-known skeletons in North America to a local Native American tribe, against the recommendation of university scientists who say the bones should be retained for study.
Under federal law, bones are returned to a tribe that can prove 'cultural affiliation' through artefacts or other analyses. At nearly 10,000 years old, the skeletons in question — unearthed in 1976 at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) — are so ancient that they are not culturally linked to any tribe (see Nature 455, 1156–1157; 2008).
But last month, University of California president Mark Yudof and UCSD chancellor Marye Anne Fox began seeking a rare federal approval to give the skeletons to the local Kumeyaay tribe, which has asked for them.
Why the uproar now? A letter was published today in Science 332 (6032):916. It's unfortunately behind a paywall, but it's called "Unexamined bodies of evidence" by Margaret Schoeninger, Jeffrey Bada, Patricia Masters, Robert Bettinger, and Tim White. These anthropologists, oceanographers, and chemists are reacting to a recent Science report entitled "Do island sites suggest a coastal route to the Americas?" (Science 331 (6021):1122). In it, archaeologist Daniel Sandweiss is reported as suggesting that DNA analysis of Palaeoindian skeletal remains along the west coast of the U.S. will help us learn more about how the first people spread throughout the American continents.

The Wired report notes that:
A few studies were done years ago on the skeletons before UC withdrew access to them, but recent technological advances would allow scientists to do much more, including a digital skull calibration and possibly a full genome sequence.
Notably, one of those studies was an isotope analysis of diet undertaken by Meg Schoeninger (2009, AJPA 138:231), in which she found that the two people had consumed seafood year-round rather than seasonally, suggesting they had lived along the coast and not moved to the interior of California. These skeletons therefore hold the potential to tell us a great deal about what it was like to be one of the first people to experience life in America.

The La Jolla skeletons are around the same age as Kennewick Man, a skeleton who was found in Washington in 1996 and who has also been subject to protracted legal battles between scientists who want to study his remains and modern Native Americans who claim him as an ancestor and want to rebury him. Schoeninger and colleagues do not come out against reburial; rather, they argue in the Science letter that:
Low levels of aspartic acid racemization in the bones suggest that it might be possible to retrieve endogenous DNA. With state-of-the-art ancient DNA (aDNA) extraction, amplification, and sequencing methods, there is a strong possibility that aDNA sequences will be obtained for these skeletal remains. Such information could be used to assess their genetic affiliation, if any, with modern American Indian groups.
Namely, the bones are in such good condition that it is likely they could extract DNA from them, allowing them to find out which modern Native Americans are descended from these earliest Palaeoindians.

The debate about repatriation of Native American remains began decades ago, and was eventually codified into law with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. With the finding of several ancient skeletons in the past two decades, though, many researchers are arguing that the antiquity of the skeletons makes them Palaeoindian, unable to be directly linked to a modern Native American group. The debate has been heated and, although I've often found myself of two minds on the matter, I typically come down on the side of learning more about the past, with the hope that that knowledge will benefit all of us who live and have lived in this country.

DNA analysis of the La Jolla skeletons would reveal a wealth of information, and I hope Schoeninger and colleagues are successful in starting negotiations with UC to study them.

Balter M (2011). Archaeology. Do island sites suggest a coastal route to the Americas? Science (New York, N.Y.), 331 (6021) PMID: 21385689

Dalton R (2008). No burial for 10,000-year-old bones. Nature, 455 (7217), 1156-7 PMID: 18971985

Dalton R (2009). Scientists in bone battle. Nature, 458 (7236) PMID: 19295571

Schoeninger MJ, Bada JL, Masters PM, Bettinger RL, & White TD (2011). Unexamined bodies of evidence. Science (New York, N.Y.), 332 (6032) PMID: 21596975

A Pox on All Your Museums

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal (among others, but I think this is the ur-source) reported on a smallpox scare in Richmond, Virginia. The reason for alarm? An exhibit on "Bizarre Bits" from the Virginia Historical Society's collection featured a scab the size of a pencil eraser (image credit Jim Gathany in the WSJ). The letter accompanying the scab, dated January 29, 1876, says:
Dear Pa... the piece I inclose is perfectly fresh and was taken from an infant's arm yesterday. Dr. Harris says the inclosed scab will vaccinate 12 persons, but if you want more, you must send for it. I will pin this to the letter so that you cannot lose it as you did before.
The letter writer, William R. Massie, had mailed a smallpox scab to his father, Henry Massie, Jr., in my hometown of Charlottesville, VA.

Smallpox likely evolved when humans started settling down and domesticating cattle, around 10000 BC, but possibly earlier. The disease was particularly virulent in children, and the vast majority of kids who contracted smallpox in recorded history died from it.

By perhaps as early as 1000 BC in India and definitely by the 16th century in China, humans became resourceful and discovered inoculation: either inhaling powdered smallpox scabs or scratching a bit of a smallpox scab into the skin. This process of inoculation (or variolation, from the name for the virus) was actually quite successful, dropping the odds of dying from smallpox to less than 2% from 20-30% mortality rates for adults.

At the end of the 18th century, Edward Jenner had discovered that inoculating people with cowpox prevented them from contracting smallpox, with a much higher success rate than inoculation with smallpox itself and with less risk of inoculated people spreading smallpox to others. He called this process vaccination (from the Latin for cow).

The vaccine changed in the 19th and 20th centuries, but after a worldwide push for children to be immunized against smallpox, the disease was declared contained. By the early 1970s, routine vaccination was discontinued in the U.S. The last known person to have contracted smallpox naturally is up for debate - perhaps it was a two-year old girl in Bangladesh in 1975 or perhaps it was a Somali woman in 1976.

After the disease was formally eradicated, cases did spring up in laboratories. Eventually, stores of smallpox were destroyed except at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in Russia. The World Health Organization recommended destruction of these stores in 1993, but the date keeps being pushed into the future, even though the scientific community thinks there is no public health benefit to keeping smallpox. It is perhaps a concern that smallpox could be used as biological warfare.

It's actually not surprising, given the history of inoculation with smallpox scabs in the U.S., that staff at the Virginia Historical Society would find one tucked into a letter. In 2003, smallpox scabs were found in a 19th century book on Civil War medicine at the College of Santa Fe (NM). In that case, the librarian emailed the head of the National Civil War Museum the same day she found them. The executive director contacted Paul Sledzik, at that time a curator at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed, who contacted the CDC, who sent the FBI to Santa Fe to bag and send the scabs to the CDC immediately. I didn't find a follow-up report, but I assume the scabs did not contain live smallpox.

Perhaps this is what the historians at VHS were assuming when they neglected to report their finding of a "bizarre bit" of smallpox scab to the CDC. The WSJ reports that:
A medical historian had told them [VHS] years ago that old scabs degrade. "Our strong assumption was that it was not a danger," Dr. Levengood says. Staff members, wearing gloves, encased the scab in mylar and placed it in a plexiglass display case for the exhibit, which opened in June 2010.
The historians assumed that it was ok to handle and display a biological material known to have contained the incredibly deadly and long-lived smallpox virus? Dr. Levengood is quoted as saying they thought the scab was just a "weird thing." Just a weird thing that is immensely contagious and has killed millions of people over the last several centuries? No, you don't screw around with smallpox.

This case is a bit odd, as the news media just reported on the VHS scab yesterday. And yet the CDC took possession of it in March, after an electrical engineer who'd read a review of the "Bizarre Bits" exhibit in February alerted the museum (who told him not to worry about it!) and then a friend at the NIH about it. His concern was legitimate, but the scab had already been on display since June of 2010. Were it actually infectious, someone - probably a museum technician - would have contracted smallpox. But the CDC is serious about smallpox threats, and they donned hazard gear, sealed the scab, threw it in a cooler, and took it immediately to their headquarters in Atlanta. Within a few hours of receipt of the scab at the CDC, microbiologists determined that it did contain the virus from the smallpox vaccine but not smallpox itself.

I'm curious why the story just came out yesterday and what the source was for the report. It seems to be the WSJ, but I'm not sure about that. Still, this should be a lesson to all my historian friends working with 18th and 19th century manuscripts. If you find something "weird" lurking in a letter about vaccination, please call the CDC, just to make sure you don't unleash smallpox onto an unsuspecting and unprepared populace. (Also, if any of you can find a scanned copy of the letter that accompanied this scab, I really want to see it.)

UPDATE(ish) - 5/24/11: The World Health Organization met today to discuss destroying the two reserve stores of smallpox in the world. The U.S. and Russia keep arguing against destruction, and they've won - for now. The WHO will revisit the issue in three years. [via LiveScience]

May 19, 2011

Bones - Season 6, Episode 23 (Review)

The Change in the Game

Episode Summary

As little kids are bowling, a lane gets reset and instead of pins, blood, gore, and bits of skeleton come pouring out. Brennan and Booth arrive at the scene. Based on a piece of the pelvis, Brennan estimates the person was male and in his mid-30s, and the mandible tells her he was Caucasian. He was already dead when he was ripped apart in the pin-setting machine, but Brennan can see perimortem defensive injuries in the form of bruising on the ulna and pisiform and a slight fracture on the radial tuberosity. The entire contraption with the "meat puppet puzzle" is taken back to the Jeffersonian.

At the lab, Wendell "Brennanizes" Hodgins, rattling off the things he sees in the skeleton: "there's a transverse fracture of the metacarpal of the right thumb, chondromalacia patellae on the left knee, a notch in the notch of the ulna... with exostosis of the medial surface." Based on these skeletal indicators, the man bowled a lot - which was confirmed by the finding that his shirt was polyester with his name and his bowling team on it. The victim was Jeff Fowler, a member of the Thunderballs.

Brennan's dad Max just happened to be on the Thunderballs, which seems a bit improbable since it's only a team of four. Max, however, has injured himself and is in a wheelchair. So he suggests that Booth go undercover as the newest Thunderball and find out the gossip about Fowler, also called "The Closer." The other team members are Hercules Navarro and Amber Tremblay, a little red-headed girl with a temper. The be-mulleted Booth as Buck and Brennan as Wanda also meet The Raven, Todd Bellacleese, the director of the tournament. They learn that The Closer was big into talismans - lucky rental shoes, lane #12, a lucky shirt and beer mug, etc.

Back at the Jeffersonian, Wendell finds a perimortem fracture to the nasal bone. When he bangs his hands on the lab table, something rattles. Bone fragments fall out of the foramen magnum, and Wendell realizes that when Fowler's nose was hit, it shattered his cribriform plate and the shards probably flew into his brain, killing him. The question remains, what kind of implement caused the injury? A 2x4 is quickly ruled out, as it would have crushed his face and caused a Le Fort fracture. Nor is it a hammer, a bottle, or a bat. A red flake from the skeleton is put into the mass spec, and Hodgins identifies it as a piece of polyurethane. The team thinks it could be a bowling ball.

Booth thinks that The Raven might have killed Fowler, as the latter superglued the former's hand into his bowling ball. The Raven's pro bowling career was ended, possibly leading him to seek revenge. Sweets interrogates The Raven, who passes with flying colors, even though his alibi is shaky.

Based on the reconstruction of the injury, Wendell thinks that the murder weapon couldn't have weighed more than 5 lbs. Brennan thinks the murderer might be Amber, the red-headed girl, and also suspects that she had been cheating by recalibrating the pins in lane 12 so that they're closer together. Hodgins reminds the team that bowling balls wouldn't flake, they'd chip, so they're looking for a different murder weapon: a motorcycle helmet. The person with a motorcycle and red helmet is Shoe Rental Guy, who admits to having killed Fowler because he never washed his feet, leading Shoe Rental Guy to lose his fingernails through a fungal infection and his girlfriend to The Raven.

Meanwhile, Angela is finally in labor after her water breaks in the Jeffersonian. The entire birth process is horribly unrealistic, as noted in the comments below. The child is named Michael Staccato Vincent Hodgins, and he has a wee tiny hat that looks like Angela's dad's hat. The baby is not blind.

Brennan is excited and anxious about the birth, and the cliffhanger (as this is the season finale) is that she is pregnant with Booth's child. They both seem pretty happy about it. (In real life, Emily Deschanel is expecting a baby with Cricket.)

Forensic Comments
  • As always, the mandible can't tell you someone's race or ancestry. Glad they used the pubic symphysis for age and sex, though.
  • Wendell probably shouldn't be banging on the lab table. Wendell also should not shake the skull like it's a piggy bank. And Wendell should not shake the skull such that the bone fragments fall out from a height. Seriously, if any of my Osteology students did that, they'd be getting an F on the lab for the day. The cranium could be seriously damaged, as could any fragments of bone inside the skull that are needed to figure out cause of death.
  • The cribriform plate is part of the sinuses, so I'm not sure why Wendell describes that as part of the "back of the skull."
  • How is "nail fungus" motive for murder? Why did Shoe Rental Guy reset lane 4 at the beginning of the episode if he knew there was a dead body in it? Why did he keep the murder weapon and not just buy a new helmet? Why didn't he move the body somewhere else, like the dumpster behind the alley? Doesn't the murderer on Bones usually have a name? I was so concerned with Amber Tremblay and Todd Bellacleese that I didn't pay attention, and IMDb is no help with this episode.
  • So who screwed with the lane? Amber or Jeff? I got confused there.
  • And now for my rant about TV birth...
    • Angela's water breaks before her labor starts. This happens in less than 10% of cases in real life and, like, 100% of cases on TV.
    • There was only one medical professional ever in the room (until the very end), and it was a doctor. I saw some med students or interns a few times but rarely saw the doctor. But I guess Angela is special.
    • There was no mention of Angela's being fully dilated. Just because your water breaks doesn't mean you're going into labor and doesn't mean the baby's coming right then.
    • The doctor did say Angela can't push until the contractions get closer together. Which doesn't really make a lot of sense. You push when you're fully dilated, and you push during a contraction.
    • At some point, Angela is talking while having a contraction. Sure, it's possible in the early phase of labor, but for the amount she was screaming, I was assuming she was in the later stages (and then talking as much as she was would be unlikely).
    • When the baby was finally born, the doctor whisked the baby away to be cleaned up and have his eyes tested. Leaving Angela to deliver the placenta herself? To bleed all over the table? Did she need stitches? Compresses? Apparently the hospital couldn't afford another doctor or nurse to make sure she was ok.
    • The doctor gives Angela a fully swaddled baby. Which is fine, but Angela and Hodgins do the silly TV mooning-over-baby thing. Whereas in reality (maybe just my reality?) the nurse's aim is to get that baby on your boob as quickly as humanly possible, even if you are basically numb from the neck down.
    • Do they normally let fathers just whisk a 5-minute-old baby to the germy waiting room for a bunch of people off the street to gawk at? Did the baby already have his first feeding?
    • It was all very, very weird. But fake TV births usually are - and they usually involve a crapload of screaming and cries of "you did this to me" and "I hate you."
    • At least the baby has a middle name in honor of Vincent Nigel-Murray.
  • Hodgins calls Wendell a "man taking apart a meat puppet puzzle."
  • Zuni Indians believed labor could be hastened by silence. - Brennan
  • I can't find the info for the god-awful bowling song ("I like to go bowling with my friend Bert, my bowling ball, and my bowling shirt. Bowling is my kind of game."). It pains me to type those lyrics. They were clearly written by a 2nd grader.
    • Update: Several of you commented and emailed to say that it's Raffi's, "The Bowling Song" from the album "One Light, One Sun." Which explains why the lyrics suck but doesn't explain why it was used in the show.
  • "Sometimes when you speak, you sound like you watch PBS on purpose." - Bowler on the opposite team who had a crush on Brennan.


Forensic Mystery - D. The guy had his name sewn into his shirt. Hard to screw that one up. Even the murder weapon was telegraphed from the beginning (although it was a motorcycle helmet and not a bowling ball, in a keee-razy twist). Wendell's discovery that a broken nose killed the guy was not earthshattering or inspired.

Forensic Solution - C. Eh. Wendell tried to shine, but the case was just too damned boring.

Drama – F. I hate season finales. The writers have to give short shrift to the actual forensic plot, which was confused and boring, to focus on Angela's labor and delivery, and then Brennan's bombshell. I'm not invested in the Angelodgins baby. Any goodwill I had went out the window when the writers treated the whole pregancy and delivery in textbook TV cliches. The will-they-won't-they storyline has been wrapped up, which means I guess Season 7 will be the last for the show. If Season 3 hadn't already had an intern becoming a santanic serial killer, I'd say that the Booth-Brennan baby jumped the shark with this.

P.S. Ooooh, TV Club reviewed the finale. As always, I love their media analyses.

Thanks to everyone for reading my reviews this season! I haven't decided whether or not to continue in the fall with Season 7. Watching the episode, taking notes, summarizing the plot, and looking up the facts behind the forensics of the show take several hours of my time each week. So, if you've read any of my reviews over the year, drop me a line in the comments - yea or nay, should I review Season 7? Give up? Outsource some to other biological anthropologists (meaning: my former students)?

Belligerent Bipedal Beaus

What's tall, angry, and walks on two legs? Only hominin males, apparently.

Today's news brought a PLoS article claiming a new theory for why we became bipedal: to fight better. [ScienceDaily article] A University of Utah biology professor, David Carrier, has claimed that men hit harder when standing upright than on all fours, as they can hit downward rather than upward. This, he says, gives men who stand on two legs an advantage and could explain both the evolution of bipedalism and the reason that women prefer tall men.

Wait, what? Yes:
"The results of this study are consistent with the hypothesis that our ancestors adopted bipedal posture so that males would be better at beating and killing each other when competing for females," says David Carrier, a biology professor who conducted the study.

"It also provides a functional explanation for why women find tall men attractive," Carrier adds. "Early in human evolution, an enhanced capacity to strike downward on an opponent may have given tall males a greater capacity to compete for mates and to defend their resources and offspring. If this were true, females who chose to mate with tall males would have had greater fitness for survival."
A cursory read of the PLoS article shows that Carrier seems to have used neutral language while talking about the "subjects" and "mammals." And yet in the ScienceDaily report, Carrier doesn't pull any punches and specifically relates his findings to males, through the proxy of male-male competition among primates for mates and therefore sexual selection.

I'm not a palaeoanthropologist, so this isn't my particular specialty, but when I teach about theories for bipedal development, I am always cautious in reporting those that are sex-specific. For example, Owen Lovejoy's "male provisioning" hypothesis says that males evolved bipedal tendencies to bring food back (in their arms) to their mates, and this also led to pair-bonding (or "monogamy"). I guess the anatomical changes associated with bipedalism would then be passed on through a non-bipedal mother to her children? Perhaps it's my failure to fully understand the tenets of sexual selection, but the assumption that females were just sitting around waiting for males to bring them food and not evolving is sexist and ridiculous. (Not to mention, hominins likely weren't monogamous.)

Similarly, this new study assumes that males were fighting for resources (food, mates, etc.) but that females were not. They were therefore reliant on males to protect them (just as Lovejoy's females were reliant on males to feed them). And yet evidence from primates shows that pair-bonded gibbons defend their territory - male and female, young and old.

Sure, I will buy that it's easier to punch someone in the face if you're standing on two legs rather than on four. That's kind of a no-brainer. But positing that males were the active evolvers and females were the passive recipients of evolution is androcentric at best. What's worse is that this kind of research is generally taken by the mass media and pseudo-scientists as proof of long-held assumptions about human nature and gender relations.

As I've written about before, anthropologists are calling into question our ideas about violence and fighting in the past, especially the role of women in those altercations. Palaeoanthropologists need to question this new theory too (as it's a scientific duty to do so), specifically tackling where the females are and what evolutionary pressures would have caused them to evolve bipedal tendencies. A theory that only makes sense for one sex is not robust, in my mind.

Thanks to a suggestion by John Hawks, my summer reading list just grew to include "Women in Human Evolution" by Lori Hager. I'm looking forward to reading up on the gender bias in human evolution (and wondering if there's anything I can do through my teaching to correct it, at least in the minds of my undergraduates). The book was published in 1997, though, so I'm hoping that someone will write an update to cover the changes in biological anthropology that have happened in the last 15 years.

Blogging about tall, pugilistic men who helped me evolve has made me hungry. Maybe one of them will provision me with something tasty for lunch.

Carrier DR (2011). The advantage of standing up to fight and the evolution of habitual bipedalism in hominins. PloS one, 6 (5) PMID: 21611167

May 14, 2011

Damnatio memoriae from antiquity to the present

My good friend and UNC colleague, the newly-minted Dr. Sarah Bond, has an op-ed in today's New York Times, "Erasing the Face of History," in which she compares the erasure of Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak's images in Egypt to the long practice of damnatio memoriae in the Roman world:
The destruction of images by government decree in the Roman world is called “damnatio memoriae.” Such a decree meant that the name of the damned was scratched (oftentimes conspicuously) from inscriptions, his face chiseled from statues and the statues themselves often abused as if real persons, frescoes of his likeness painted over, his wax masks banned from being paraded in funerals, coins with his image defaced, his writings sometimes destroyed and his wills often annulled.

Romans saw it as a punishment worse than execution: the fate of being forgotten. It was suffered by numerous ignominious emperors of Rome in the early empire, and, even in the later empire, it was a mark of great disgrace. After the rebellious Maximian was subjected to damnatio memoriae around A.D. 311, his friend and co-ruler Diocletian was said to be so grief-stricken that he soon died as well.

Excisions like Maximian’s from frescoes and statues can be viewed in the most basic sense as announcements from rulers to the populace about the end of one reign and the beginning of another.

In addition to offering NYT readers a great ancient history lesson, Sarah levels an interesting critique at the new regime in Egypt:
The Egyptian courts would have been better off following Claudius’s example and resisting a ban on the Mubaraks’ images. Instead of enforcing it, Egypt should allow individuals and institutions in possession of the former president’s likeness to decide for themselves whether to keep it. It is one thing to be allowed to deface an image, and quite another to be ordered to do so. [...]

Perhaps it is best that the people of Egypt be spared this forced amnesia and be allowed to retain some memories of their former president. Erasing the crimes of the past doesn’t help us avoid them in the future.

Well said, Dr. Bond! (And be sure to follow @SarahEBond on Twitter.)

May 13, 2011

Bones - Season 6, Episode 22 (Review)

The Hole in the Heart

Episode Summary

ImhotepJacob Broadsky is back, and Booth continues his attempts to apprehend him to prevent him from carrying out more vigilante justice. A tip that Broadsky is at the cemetery at his girlfriend’s grave sends Booth there, only to find a cell phone hidden in the flowers Broadsky left. Booth answers a call to the phone, and Broadsky warns him that he’ll never see the bullet that takes him down.

Meanwhile, the forensic gang at the Jeffersonian hasn’t had a case in over a week. Brennan and Vincent Nigel-Murray are preparing for their conference talk, “Comparative forelimb osteology and biomechanics of theropod versus Homo sapien (sic).” They’ve ordered an accurate representation of the forelimb bones of Tyrannosaurus rex, and Hodgins helps rig them up to a mechanism that replicates the strength of the dinosaur. In a human (Hodgins) v. dinosaur (Nigel-Murray) arm wrestling match, because the dinosaur’s scapula won’t rotate past 40 degrees, Hodgins scores a victory for humanity.

Booth and FBI special agent Genny Shaw head to Broadsky’s place in the woods (that was obtained under Booth’s name, but I guess Broadsky just keeps hanging around there?) with Sweets, and they find the body of Matthew Leishenger, the guy whose rifle Broadsky wanted in the opening scene of this episode. The Jeffersonian team estimates that Leishenger has been dead for about five days. His skeleton shows multiple fractures, and there is a stab wound under the chin. No cash was taken from his wallet, but there are gloved smear-prints that indicate something else was taken. Brennan and Nigel-Murray note two non-displaced fractures of the 7th rib, crush fractures to the left metatarsals and intermediate cuneiform, and a hairline fracture to the second cervical vertebra. Brennan thinks that Leishenger was elbowed in the chest, had his foot stomped on, and was clocked on the back of the neck with an elbow. There is also faint bruising over the mastoid process behind Leishenger’s ear.

Broadsky meanwhile sets up a sniper shot from a construction crane overlooking the Jeffersonian. He uses thermal imaging technology to see in through the glass roof of the building. Broadsky calls Booth on the cemetery cell phone, but Booth gives the phone to Nigel-Murray to answer while he traces the call using the app that Angela made for him. Broadsky fires at the person holding the phone, killing Nigel-Murray rather than Booth, his target.

After a mourning period, the Jeffersonian gang tries to find Broadsky. Angela and Brennan figure out that the gold dust and impression in Leishenger’s credit card slot were from an access key. Leishenger’s boss informs Booth that the access card was probably to the international port of Wilmington. Hodgins finds trace elements on the bullet casing that suggest it was made near the sea, in an area where produce is decontaminated. Booth and Shaw go to the port, where the security guard notes he saw Broadsky an hour ago. Broadsky had been crew on a boat called the Persephone. As Booth is tracking Broadsky, Brennan realizes that the bruises to Leishenger’s (left) mastoid could only have been caused by great force, leading her to believe that Broadsky broke his right hand when delivering the blow. Armed with this information and a rifle, Booth finds Broadsky and shoots him in the leg to disable him. Broadsky is presumably incarcerated, and the team helps load Nigel-Murray’s body into a hearse while singing his favorite song, Harry Nilsson's “Coconut.”

Forensic Comments
  • How effing hard is it to learn the taxonomic name of the human species? It’s Homo sapiens, with a freaking S. The writers made this mistake 3 different times by my count. It was definitely a script error and not a mispronunciation, as the error was made by three different people – Nigel-Murray, Brennan, and Hodgins. Grrrrr, elementary biology fail.
  • No one could decide on how to say “Leishenger” – Shaw kept saying “Licensure,” Booth said, “Lysinger,” and Hodgins said, “Lyshinger.”
  • Booth is not a great FBI agent. I mean, he just picks up a ringing cell phone at the cemetery? Could be a bomb. And he just goes in search of Broadsky at his house, then at the dock without any body armor or backup? Broadsky also kind of sucks at the cat-and-mouse scene at the end. Besides, wouldn’t he just push through the pain of a broken hand? He couldn’t have broken it that badly.
  • Fun facts: Persephone (Broadsky's boat) is the queen of the underworld in Greek mythology. The mastoid process is sexually dimorphic; if you're male, you can probably feel a large bony bump right behind your ear, but if you're female you probably can't.

Dialogue (all Nigel-Murray edition)


Forensic Mystery - D. They knew who Leishenger was, so no mystery here.

Forensic Solution - B. At least Leishenger’s skeleton gave Brennan information she didn’t already have, and that information was key to Booth’s taking down Broadsky.

Drama – A-. I have to give the drama element a high grade because killing off Nigel-Murray was unexpected (and pissed me off, as he was the only character on the show whom I actually liked). But the introduction of the Brennan-Booth did-they-or-didn’t-they plot was annoying and thus takes away from the main dramatic element. Do people really jump into bed with one another immediately after a friend and colleague is gunned down in front of them?

Ugh, why am I still watching this show? I guess there’s only one episode left next week, but I don’t know if I’ll have the time or inclination to do this next season.

May 10, 2011

Odds on Etruscan Evens

The Etruscans were a civilization in the Tuscany area of Italy, known from at least 700 BC and distinguished by their rather unique language and pre-Roman material culture. By the first century AD, though, nearly all evidence of the Etruscan language had been wiped out and replaced by Latin as the lingua franca of the vast Roman Empire. Because the Etruscan language was a linguistic isolate, classical linguists do not know the whole language. They have, however, been able to translate almost all instances of it (evidence of which is often found in tombs), thanks in large part to bilingual documents like the Pyrgi tablets and the very cool Piacenza liver, a tool used by priests in haruspicy (divination based on animals' entrails):

Although my chronological specialty in ancient Italy is the Roman Empire (1st-4th c AD), I am, like every other Roman archaeologist, still fascinated by the rather mysterious Etruscans and their contributions to Roman culture and the Latin language. This week's early view of Archaeometry brought me yet another interesting article: "Gambling with Etruscan dice: a tale of numbers and letters" (Artioli et al., in press). In this short paper, the authors present an elegant solution to the longstanding question of Etruscan numerals, namely whether the Etruscan words huth and sa represent 4 and 6 or 6 and 4, respectively. The wikipedia article on Etruscan numerals (which I assume is based on the work of Giuliano and Larissa Bonfante, although no attribution is given), notes that most Etruscologists agree that huth is 4 and sa is 6.

Artioli and colleagues delve into this linguistic mystery by investigating 93 Etruscan dice: 91 with dots/pips and the only 2 that have been found with words written on them. All of these are 6-sided dice, meaning - for you math geeks - there are 15 possible enantiomorphic permutations (combinations of two numbers on opposite sides of the die, or 6!/48). The authors, however, found only 2 permutations in the 91 dice they examined. The first permutation has the numbers in ordinal fashion: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6. The second permutation, which still exists today, has the numbers add to seven: 1-6, 2-5, 3-4. A seriation of the dice revealed that prior to the 5th century BC, the dice all had the ordinal permutation, and after the 3rd century BC, the dice all had the add-to-seven permutation (with add-to-seven waxing and ordinal waning in the intervening centuries). This fact is interesting in and of itself, but what the authors further realized was that in both permutations, 3 always exists opposite to 4.

Photo composite of the 6 faces of the die Luynes 816 (Artioli et al., figure 8)

Enter the wordy dice (above). In these, thu is opposite huth, zal is opposite mach, and ci is opposite sa. Since we know that thu is 1, zal is 2, ci is 3, and mach is 5, this means that the permutation is the add-to-seven variety. Regardless of the permutation used, the fact that ci is opposite sa means that sa is 4. By process of elimination, huth is then 6. This attribution is contrary to previous assumptions about the numbers. Elegant, right?

I don't have the Etruscan linguistics or archaeology background to fully critique this article, but based on the information presented and what I do know about the culture, I think the wikipedia article on Etruscan numbers deserves a little update. I'll be interested to see how widely this article gets circulated and incorporated into Etruscan language studies, first because Archaeometry seems an odd place to publish this revelation and second because I can't tell if this is going to be controversial or not.

G. Artioli, V. Nociti, & I. Angelini (2011). Gambling with Etruscan dice: a tale of numbers and letters Archaeometry :

G. Bonfante, & L. Bonfante (2002). The Etruscan language: an introduction New York University Press ISBN: 7190 5539 3

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