December 31, 2012

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival XXIV

Pretty sleepy in the world of Roman bioarch this December.  Let's see what we have (some of which was from the end of November, oops!)...

Finds and Excavations
  • 26 November.  The Museum of London's excavation is now complete at the 8-10 Moorgate site.  Portions of the Roman-era (1st-3rd c AD) town were uncovered, along with at least one human burial.  No pictures, sadly.
  • 30 November.  Workmen installing a spa in a house in Teesdale (England) found Roman coins, pottery, glass, and a roof tile with a handprint on it dating roughly to the 2nd century AD.  No bones, it seems, but I do love finds of Roman hand- and footprints. Again, sadly, no pictures.
  • 24 December.  Although this isn't totally Roman-era, I was interested to learn that a portion of Phillip II's skeleton would be studied further.  Phillip of Macedon was the father of Alexander the Great, and Greek archaeologists think that the remains they found at Vergina are indeed his.
  • 24 December.  Large-scale excavations under London are also revealing the city's Roman past, among other eras.  So far, archaeologists have found "hundreds of skeletons," although there's no indication what time period they date to.
A few of the "hundreds of skeletons" found recently under London. (Photo via BBC.)

Articles and Reviews
  • 28 November. Bos et al. in PLoS One - Yersinia pestis: New Evidence for an Old Infection.  There's been a rash of articles about the Black Death lately, but this one is noteworthy because the authors attempt to pinpoint divergence dates for various strains of Y. pestis.  One happens to coincide with the dates of the so-called Plague of Justinian in Late Antiquity (6th-8th centuries AD).
  • 23 December.  The "bambino di Fidene" (a 2nd century AD Italian child whose skull has evidence of a trepanation) gets a nice write-up in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.  This individual is being exhibited as part of a new(ish) exhibit at the Museum of the History of Medicine in Rome.  The news piece is almost an osteobiography, taking the reader through the possible reasons the child was trepanned and the palliative care for the child who had to undergo such a traumatic procedure.
Odds and Ends
  • And finally, a cute little Roman bronze skeleton dating to the 1st century AD, part of the collection of the Getty in Malibu:

That concludes your Roman bioarchaeology news for 2012.  Join me here each month next year for more!

December 30, 2012

Best of Powered by Osteons - 2012

Last year was definitely better for blogging than this one, as I had more time on my hands then as an unemployed scholar.  I've only been able to post half as often in 2012 as in 2011, due in part to my new academic job, and many of those posts are my Bones reviews.  There are some half-finished (or not even started) posts hanging out in my drafts folder that I'd hoped to get to write by the end of the year.  But I will be looking forward to writing those in 2013.

The good news is that thanks to all you readers out there, traffic to Powered by Osteons has risen 50% since 2011!  Here are some rough stats of pageviews by month and year over the past five and a half years of blogging:
Powered by Osteons pageviews (including incomplete data in the summer of 2010
because I'm a doofus and hadn't enabled something I needed to enable). Click to embiggen.

Without further ado, the Top 5 posts I wrote in 2012 are... drum roll... (excluding Bones reviews...)

1.  Lead Poisoning in Rome - The Skeletal Evidence (20 Jan 2012).  This post explains an article on which I was a coauthor in 2010, providing some of the only data on lead concentration in human skeletons in the Roman Empire.  My post was syndicated by PastHorizons in February.  (Incidentally, this post is the most popular of all time on the blog, narrowly beating out the Bioarchaeology of Crucifixion from late last year.)

2.  Childbirth and C-Sections in Bioarchaeology (13 March 2012).  In this post, I review some of the bioarchaeological evidence for burial of mother-fetus dyads, or women and their babies who died in childbirth, and I end with questions about childbirth practices in the Roman Empire.

3.  From Birth to Burial: The Curious Case of Easter Eggs (20 March 2012).  After summarizing the longstanding symbolism of the egg to both pagan and Christian traditions, I discuss in this post the curious practice of burying children with eggs in the Roman Empire.  This post was syndicated by PastHorizons in April.

4. Recipe for a Roman Diet (2 May 2012).  While I was writing and revising my latest academic article, I wrote this post as both an explanation of the variety present in the Roman diet and a way to test my own recipe for a Roman(ish) dish.

5. Teaching Skeletal Anatomy to Kids (30 Jan 2012).  Based on a question from a colleague, I asked around and got loads of suggestions for how to teach human skeletal anatomy to the elementary school set.  This post compiles all the activities my social-media-friends and I thought up when trying to make anatomy fun for all.

I hope you all have a wonderful new year!  Please continue to check back with Powered by Osteons for new posts and Bones reviews throughout 2013.  And don't forget that you can "like" PbO on Facebook, where I post news and links about bioarchaeological discoveries around the world several times a day.

December 4, 2012

3D Printing in Bioarchaeology

So, one of the things I bought with my start-up funding was a MakerBot Replicator 2.0.  I've been interested in 3D printing for a while now, really ever since I saw the results come out of a printer at my husband's CS department at Duke University back in the early 2000s.  This seems to be the year of the desktop 3D printer, though, with a huge variety of offerings from different companies at very reasonable prices.  I decided to go with MakerBot, since they were well-reputed and printing was supposed to be pretty easy.
My MakerBot setup
Unfortunately, so far it's slow going.  I'll admit that I haven't contacted their support team yet, but I expected the manual and other instructions with the printer to be much more thorough than they are.  Trouble-shooting the printer is a bit out of my wheelhouse, since I'm not particularly mechanically inclined and am very likely to use percussive maintenance on anything that isn't working the way I want it to work.

Printing linked chains
The printer is doing alright at printing linear objects, particularly the sample files that come on a little SD card with the MakerBot.  So the comb worked well, the shark, and even the linked chains (which impress a lot of people).  After a few tweaks, I got the stretchy bracelet to print, which my 3-year-old was delighted by (and promptly broke).  Printing anything else that's even remotely circular, though, has been problematic.  The extruder that lays down the hot plastic seems to hit a snag at least once in every print.  In a linear print, this isn't too much of a problem, as the extruder moves on.  But in a circular print, it seems to throw off the entire object, and often I have to cancel the build because a bit of plastic has broken off or is dragging around the platform. After my latest attempt to test the printer, it just stopped spitting out hot plastic, so perhaps I need to unload and reload the filament.
Success! Bracelet!

My ultimate goal here is to digitize some bones in our collection (ideally, the pathological ones) and print replicas of them.  Maybe even digitize some Roman bones.  These replicas can be used for teaching without worrying that they'll be damaged or lost.  Or they can be scaled up, so that it's easier to view small pathologies on small bones.

I've got a grad student working on learning the 3D scanner and helping me trouble-shoot the printer.  But I thought I'd blog about this, first, to start talking about what I'm trying to do with the hopes that others may have helpful hints, and second, to start encouraging prospective master's students to apply to UWF to work with me.  As I just started, I don't have any of my own grad students, so if you're interested in things like 3D printing, new ways of presenting anthropological information, or dead Romans, drop me an email!

December 3, 2012

Bones - Season 8, Episode 9 (Review)

The Ghost in the Machine
Episode Summary
The Jeffersonian team and the FBI find a largely skeletonized body in a greenhouse.  Based on the shape and placement of the eye orbits, Brennan thinks the victim was male.  Based on the partial fusion of the distal radius and acromion of the shoulder, she estimates him at 13 to 14 years old at death.

*smoke fade!*

Close your mouth, Tempe.
At the Jeffersonian, the remains are xrayed, and a bunch of old fractures are found to the wrists, elbows, patellae, and coccyx.  Although his long bones suggest he was small, his muscle markers show that he was well-built and athletic.  Angela finds that he had symmetrical features and good teeth, although he ground them at night.  Hodgins estimates, based on the wasp's nest found in the skull, that time of death was around 2 years ago in the autumn.  Angela reconstructs the face and finds out it's Colin Gibson.

*another smoke fade!*

Further analysis of the skeleton reveals perimortem abrasions to both patellae and tibiae, damage to the metacarpals, scaphoid, and lunate, a Colles fracture to the left radius along with a hairline fracture to the left clavicle, a shallow vertical gash to the sternum, and a fracture of C2, which would have snapped his neck.  The skull also has some areas of discoloration that puzzle Brennan.  A paint chip found with Colin's body helps Booth narrow the car down to a 1987 Chevy El Camino, which Colin's father just happened to own.  

*seriously, is a Dementor coming to get me?*

The wasps also tell Hodgins that the body was moved, as they live above ground and not below.  He traces the paper fiber in the wasp nest to Betula uber, the round leaf birch, and helps Booth and Brennan find a location that the body could have been dumped initially.  Brennan finds three small holes in the pump house that match up with the discolored areas of Colin's skull.

*I start making the Wayne's World bee-dee-dee-boop sound*

Angela helps reconstruct the events leading up to Colin's death.  They try some scenarios in which Colin is getting hit by the car, but then Brennan realizes Colin was surfing on top of the hood.  The driver hit a bump, stopped, and Colin fell off and broke his neck.  Booth brings in a bunch of kids for questioning - Miranda, whom Colin had a crush on, her boyfriend Sean, and some kid named Carl we haven't seen yet.  Sean admits he was driving and admits to having moved the body because Colin was haunting him.  Booth notes that the three(?) boys confessed and Miranda had nothing to do with it.

*oh yay, last one!*

With the help of psychic Cyndi Lauper, the mix tape Colin gave to Miranda on the day he died is played, and she realizes he loved her.  His spirit is spirited away.  Everyone cries.

  • Forensic
    • Although it's sometimes possible to estimate sex from subadult remains, it's very poor form to do so.  Especially in the field rather than in a laboratory setting.  And since Colin was small for his age, it likely meant he hadn't started going through puberty, the event that serves to most strongly differentiate male from female skeletons.  Personally, I'll go as young as 16 if the morphology is clear.  I wouldn't estimate sex on a 14-year-old.
    • The prop people need to get a fake adolescent skeleton.  In one closeup, when the wrist was projected on a screen, there was a line of partial fusion of the distal radial epiphysis.  But the rest of the skeleton (the femoral heads, the iliac crest, the xiphoid process, all the other things that wouldn't be close to fused at 14) was, of course, fused.  The skull (which we saw reflected in a mirror at the pump house and at the end) was definitely adult, strongly male, and looked nothing like the skull of a 14-year-old.  Seriously.  Is it too much to ask for them to have fake skeletons of a variety of ages, sexes, and ancestries?  I mean, we have those in our teaching lab, even though we don't have a crapload of money because we're not a wildly popular TV show.
    • Unless Brennan's home is a secure forensic facility, I don't think she should be taking human remains home with her.  You know, chain of custody and all that boring police stuff essential for catching a murderer.  At least when the brought it to the pump house, there was a big EVIDENCE tag on the bag/box the skull was in.
  • Plot
    • There's an El Camino in the middle of the lab?  Really?
    • Who were the three boys that were supposed to have been hanging out with Colin?  We met Sean at the beginning, then the Carl kid showed up at FBI questioning out of the blue.  Not sure who the third was.
    • The conceit of this show was awful.  Just awful.  Only crazy people (and TV forensic professionals) talk to skulls.  Not seeing the bones made this pretty boring and reliant on exposition.  Also hard to interview potential suspects when you have to think of a semi-plausible reason to have a skull at the FBI for questioning.
  • Dialogue
    • Brennan: "I'm uncomfortable defining sex with just the skull."  You literally do it ALL THE TIME on this show!  And this is the one time you should be uncomfortable, yet you do it anyway.
    • Brennan pronounces "integral" like "in-TEE-gral."  (I don't care if Merriam-Webster says it's a variant pronunciation.  No one pronounces it like that.)
    • I finally figured out what it takes for Brennan and Booth to call one another by their given names: tears.

Forensic Mystery - D.  We didn't really learn that much about the forensic mystery, since information about Colin's injuries was touched on only briefly at the beginning and the end.

Forensic Solution - C-.  Well, they did ID the remains, based on... well, Angela's facial reconstruction got a hit in a missing person's database?  I'm assuming, since it was never spelled out.  But the forensics in tonight's episode were pretty terrible.

Drama - F.  I simply do not need to see close-ups of everyone's faces as they talk to a dead person.  Nor do I need to see Brennan crying two or three times in an episode.  Yes, we get it, the writers want to rehabilitate her emotional state.  Can we dial it back a notch now?  The ridiculous conceit of the show ("through the victim's eyes") meant major limitations in the plot, and the incessant smoke-fades made me want to hurl my remote at the TV.

November 30, 2012

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival XXIII

All your bioarch news from the Roman world for the month of November.  It's been a pretty good month for skeletons, particularly in England...

Roman-era Finds

Rome and Italy
Tibiae of the Roman "giant" and a normal
tibia for scale. (Credit: Simona Minozzi, via
National Geographic.)
  • 9 November.  Published this month is a Roman-era "giant."  The man suffered from a pituitary disorder that made him stand about 6ft 8in (202 cm) tall.  He was found in a necropolis at Fidenae (just outside Rome) in 1991 and dates back to the 3rd century AD.  There's a variety of coverage of this publication, but see the story at National Geographic and a copy of the paper (while it lasts) is at
  • 26 November.  Researchers at the Catholic University of Rome have sequenced DNA from the skeleton of a girl found at Cosa (in Tuscany), dating to the 1st century BC.  Based on the presence of the HLA gene variants in her genome, as well as the osteological analysis of her skeleton, which revealed surprising evidence of malnutrition given her high-status burial, that she may have had celiac disease.  This is a cool disease-ecology-type finding, as celiac disease would have been difficult to deal with in the wheat-heavy Roman world.  I haven't read the article yet, which is in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, but I'm surprised this hasn't been picked up more widely.  It's a really interesting study, although I can't find the article in the WJG online site.
  • 29 November.  Several Greco-Roman-era graves were found on the island of Lipari, one of the Aeolian islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the coast of Sicily. Lipari has long been a strategically important harbor, from ancient through relatively modern times.  These remains seem to be pre-Empire (5th-2nd centuries BC, I think?).  There are some interviews with excavators (in Italian) here.
  • 4 November.  A late Iron Age grave of a supposed warrior and his wife has been found in Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia.  There are some very interesting grave goods, including a "killed" knife or spearhead.  It's thought to be a double cremation burial, although the report doesn't note if there were any human remains found.
  • 5 November.  The magazine Popular Archaeology carries a piece this month on new excavations at Petra in Jordan.  The skeletal material, dating to the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD, is being analyzed by my colleague Megan Perry at ECU.
Roman burial from Somerset, England
(credit: BBC)
  • 17 November.  Remains dating to the Roman and Iron Ages have been found in Norfolk, England, including some cremation burials and human bones. The remains were found during road construction.
  • 17 November.  Over 40 burials and four cremations were uncovered at Cirencester, England, dating to the early Roman period.  Interestingly, there was a child's inhumation with pottery flagon dating to 70-120 AD.  Archaeologists are excited because inhumation burials were not common practice until the later Roman period; yet I thought that children were often a different case, as they were quite often inhumed (in Rome, anyway), even in times when cremation was the norm for adults.  These tombs join 46 cremations, 6 burials, and 1 tombstone found at the same site in the 1960s, all dating to the 1st-3rd centuries AD.  Very interesting cemetery, and I hope there's a publication soon.
  • 18 November.  Not to be outdone, Somerset, England, now boasts a Roman cemetery with several human burials, found during water main construction.  There was one partially-preserved coffin as well as thousands of shards of pottery, some jewelry, and at least one coin.
  • 28 November.  A necropolis with over 100 burials was found in northern Bulgaria near the village of Marten.  The oldest burials date to the 5th-4th centuries BC, and several of the skeletons have CVM, a sign of nobility.  From the Roman times, there were found wooden coffins, ceramics, and glass.  Unclear if any of the Roman-era tombs had skeletal remains or not.
Post-Roman Finds
  • 1 November.  Although discovered in 1959, an aberrant burial from 550-700AD England is detailed in new reports this month.  The individual had metal spikes through its shoulders, ankles, and chest (near the heart). 
Conferences and Symposia
  • 10 November.  At Edinburgh University, there was a conference on the Roman-era site of Vagnari at the end of October.  Current World Archaeology covered some of the highlights, including a mention of the 100+ skeletons that are being studied by my colleague Tracy Prowse at McMaster.
Excavating a Roman grave at Vagnari. (via CWA)
  • 23 November.  Mary Beard has an essay in the BBC News Magazine on the human bodies from Pompeii.  It's a thought-provoking take on the bodies/plaster casts we tend to stare at in museums and on site at Pompeii, the re-creation of bodies twisted at the moment of death.
Exhibits, Videos, and Art
  • 3 November.  Rumor has it that classicist extraordinaire Mary Beard will be back on TV, but as an advisor to a new sitcom set in ancient Rome called Plebs.  I'm cheesy excited about it, as it'll be like Rome but focused on the commoners.  It'll air in the spring.
  • 28 November.  This image of the Roman Colosseum carved into a (fake) tooth made the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, and G+ in the circles I run in.  I have no idea what the Chinese(?) characters at the bottom say, but it appears to be a toothpaste ad.  Very cool sculpture (or Photoshop job) regardless.

November 29, 2012

Forensics Student Presentations - Fall 2012

My forensic anthropology class has begun presenting their final projects.  So this week, we got treated to a bunch of experimental sharp/blunt/ballistics trauma (on pigs), a re-creation of the mouse-in-the-MtDew-can case (spoiler: the animal in the water decomposed faster than the one in the Dew), a presentation on one of the historically black cemeteries in town, and a facial reconstruction.  I was surprised at this last one, as I've given this assignment a few times in the past, and no one's ever taken me up on the challenge to do facial reconstruction from clay.  But my student Kristi did, and this is her process and result.  We were all pretty impressed, particularly because it's a fake skull (and thus doesn't exactly conform to normal cranial morphology).  Even better: it's my fake skull, so Kristi let me keep the result.  It's creepily staring at me from a bookshelf in my office.

Forensics presentations are my favorite part of the semester. Can't wait to see what they all come up with next week!

November 26, 2012

Bones - Season 8, Episode 8 (Review)

The But in the Joke
Episode Summary
A clandestine artist papering over a billboard trips over his glue bucket and falls to the ground, landing on decomposing human remains and getting stuck to them.  The FBI takes the artist back to the Jeffersonian, where he and the remains are scanned with some mysterious scanner.  The pelvis is large and rugged, which for some reason suggests to Fisher that it was from a Caucasian male.  Hand-waving about upper margin formation on the pubic symphysis means the man was in his early 30s.  Because of a prematurely fused C5 and C6 in his neck, Saroyan thinks that she can find the doctor who performed the surgery and ID the victim.  The artist, meanwhile, is recognized by Angela as Zed, a wannabe Banksy (and recognized by me as Adam Whitman).

Saroyan does track down the doctor who performed the surgery, finds the name of the victim, and confirms the ID - at least, I can hope, since literally all of that happened during the commercial break.  The victim was Morgan Donnelly, who worked at a telemarketing job by day but was a comedian by night.  His manager reported him missing and suggests Booth go talk to Alexa, Morgan's girlfriend who might have been cheating on him.  Brennan insists on driving Booth to Alexa's so that she can schill shamelessly for Toyota.  Alexa and her brother Elliot laugh at the idea of Morgan's death, thinking it was a practical joke.  Elliot knew Morgan, as he recorded all his shows and was chummy with him, so it's completely obvious he did it.

Meanwhile, the Jeffersonian team is still trying to figure out who killed Morgan and how.  There was massive blunt force trauma to the facial bones, including the zygomatics, suggesting Morgan was struck several times.  Saroyan and Hodgins figure based on the state of decomp and the presence of blow flies that Morgan was killed 5 days ago.  At this point, I figure based on the amount of time left in the show that this episode is gonna be a slog.  Hodgins and Fisher clean the bones using both dermestid beetles (to get the flesh off) and Madagascar hissing cockroaches (to get the peanut butter off; oh yeah, the PB was used to de-stick the remains from Zed).

Booth and Bones head to the comedy club, Laughtastics, and end up interviewing a whole bunch of people who didn't do it: the bartender, who wrote jokes for Morgan; the female comedian who wrote jokes for Morgan; and the Gallagher-wannabe who hated Morgan.  None of them killed him, even though Gallagher-dude's mallet tested positive for blood (it was just a turnip).

Brennan, Angela, and Fisher attempt to reconstruct the sequence of blunt force trauma.  The first blow was so hard that it broke bones we hadn't even learned were damaged!  The second blow oddly doesn't follow Le Fort fracture lines.  And the third blow smashed in Morgan's face.  Fisher suggests, based on Hodgins' identification of the fragments in Morgan's stomach as ceramic, that Morgan was hit with a vase.  But it ended up being a toilet.  No one mentions what was used on the other end in order to force his head into the toilet - a hand?  The top of the toilet seat?  A blunt object?

Hodgins draws the short straw, apparently, and has to go looking in all the toilets that Morgan possibly frequented in order to find the one he was killed in.  He finds something mysterious (a bone fragment?) in the toilet at Alexa's house.  Elliot admits to having killed Morgan since he was planning to move to New York and leave Elliot, his sometimes joke-writing partner, behind.  Alexa is very, very sad.

  • Forensic
    • What did they scan the Zed-remains dyad with at the Jeffersonian?  Some random open scanny thingy?
    • A large, rugged pelvis doesn't give you any indication of ancestry/race.  It does suggest male, but since they had the pubis, that will give you a better estimation.
    • Not sure what they meant by the "upper margin formation" of the pubic symphysis.  Maybe they meant the "upper extremity" is forming?  Or "symphyseal margin" is complete at the upper extremity?  Sloppy writing, as these terms don't really mean anything.  (That said, examining changes to the pubic symphysis is the best way to estimate age.)
    • I can't get over the fact that the entire ID was done off-camera.  Laaaaazy.
    • Why weren't the fractures to the metacarpals mentioned until the very end?  Just super lazy writing.
    • I'd expect at least one of the blows to the face/toilet to cause Le Fort fractures.  I suppose not all blunt trauma to the face causes these, but it would have been a nice touch to see those reconstructed on the Angelatron.
    • There was never an explanation of how Morgan's head was forced into the toilet.  Because of the lack of trauma to the back of the skull, I guess it wasn't with another object or the toilet lid. Then again, since the writers didn't feel like telling me about the metacarpal fractures until it was relevant to the plot, perhaps they didn't care to explain this either.
  • Plot
    • So, the theme this week was about being true to yourself.  But only for the "sensitive" cast members, Angela and Fisher.  Angela gets sad because Zed doesn't think her art is good.  So she Bansky'ies him right back, and he likes it, so she feels good about herself.  Fisher is apparently an underground comedian who bares his soul because looking into the abyss is the heart of comedy.  Fisher's story was actually kind of interesting, simply because it's not standard dramedy trope.  I still hate Fisher, though.
    • Oh yeah, Booth goes on stage at the comedy club.  He is natural at comedy, whereas some aren't naturally funny but can write funny jokes.  This, of course, parallels the Booth-Brennan dichotomy, where he's the one with the gut instinct, and she's the cerebral one.
    • This week in Saroyan Fashion Watch: Now I want that black dress with the pink flecks.  Gorgeous.  One, please.
  • Dialogue
    • Did Brennan seriously say "of the uttermost importance"?  I rewound and listened to it twice.  I think she did.  Clearly, the writers were phoning it in this week.  (Update: Alright, so Merriam-Webster says that "uttermost" is fine.  Who says that?)
    • "Everyone here is this weird combo of smart and dumb." - Zed.  (Can I just say that I do appreciate it when the writers give me an audience surrogate.)
    • "Cowboys didn't settle this country.  Farmers did." - Brennan. (Wait, didn't hunter-gatherer Native Americans settle this country?  Or does "settle" imply staying in one place?)
    • "Mecca is the center of the Muslim world.  It would be completely rational for a Jew to avoid Mecca.  Especially during Hajj." - Brennan
    • "I am incapable of ever loving another human being.  For that reason, I will never sire an heir." - Fisher's comedy gold
    • Medicinal Physics Quarterly (which Brennan is reading in bed) is not a real journal.  I checked. You're welcome.
    • Booth asks a rhetorical question:  "How many toilets are there in the metro DC area?"  Brennan answers it: "Approximately 5 and a half million... There's approximately one toilet per person in the USA... 250,000 man-hours.  That's how long it would take to check out every toilet in DC."  I laughed.  Because my husband does this to me. All. The. Time.
Forensic Mystery - D+.  They ID'ed the victim off camera.  Off camera!  Seriously.

Forensic Solution - C-.  And they neglected to mention key information about the victim's injuries until the very end of the episode.  Lazy.

Drama - D+.  Arrggh, I don't care that Angela is sad.  Tonight's plot themes were ridiculous.  There was no urgency in finding the killer, whose identity was telegraphed from very early in the episode.  And any episode with product placement makes me cranky.

Next Week: Uh, something about creepy kid eyes?  I dunno, that teaser made no sense.

November 19, 2012

Bones - Season 8, Episode 7 (Review)

The Bod in the Pod
Episode Summary
The episode opens with the Jeffersonian team on the beach inspecting a plastic pod full of decomposed human remains.  Brennan waxes on about all the fecal coliform bacteria and chemical contaminants in the ocean.  Although she initially claims she can't "determine gender" of the remains by looking through the pod, she shakes it like a Magic 8 ball, and the skull floats up so she can see the angular eye orbits and large mastoid process, which suggest the deceased was male.

Back at the Jeffersonian, Hodgins and Vaziri mention the deceased was a Caucasian male, although no one ever explained how they did ancestry determination.  The body is sealed in some sort of organic, multilayered polymer.  Hodgins uses a laser cutting tool to open up a small hole in the top then decides to sniff the contents of the pod.  He passes out because the remains decomposing in an anaerobic environment produced loads of carbon dioxide.

With the head removed from the pod, Brennan notices blunt force trauma to the posterior plane of the occipital with rough-edged abrasions.  The upper and lower central and lateral incisors have been smashed out.  There are wood splinters in with the body.  Hodgins discovers that the pod itself is simply normal plastic sheeting.  The body, wrapped in plastic, was exposed to direct sunlight.  The heat, combined with the bacteria and lipids, created a catalyst that hardened the plastic.  Vaziri estimates the age of the deceased at early to mid-40s based on the auricular surfaces of the ilia.

A stamp on the lumber brings Booth and Brennan to Lumber for Less, where the manager, Renee, is upset to learn that Lucky (aka Charles Milner, whom she identifies based on Angela's facial reconstruction) is dead.  They had been lovers.  Lucky was a crime scene clean-up professional.  Renee points to Lucky's wife, but the wife had no illusions that Lucky was faithful.  Booth and Sweets bring in Davey, Lucky's stepson, for questioning.  Sweets thinks that the mother-son team of Lucky's widow and her son are the likely murderers.  Davey, though, points them in the direction of Melvin Carville, a crime-scene-clean-up competitor.  

Meanwhile, Angela is trying to figure out a murder weapon.  She thinks it might have been one of the clean-up tools, and based on the serrated marks on the skull and blunt trauma to the mandible and maxilla, she identifies a wrecking bar-style tool that Davey, Lucky, and Melvin all had.  Sweets interviews Melvin, who claims that he and Lucky were going into business together and that he didn't kill him.  Of course, when the FBI requests to see all the tools, there's blood all over Melvin's and Davey's tools are wiped clean.  Hodgins runs an "isotope" comparison of the pod plastic with the plastic sheeting that Melvin and Lucky both used; it seems to have been Lucky's plastic, which suggests he was killed at a job he was working.

The last job Lucky was working was a home invasion of an elderly woman; the murderers thought she had a lot of money stashed away but didn't find it.  Lucky won the bid for the flooring estimate, because he was sleeping with Renee from Lumber for Less.  Brennan thinks that Melvin is the killer, but she has no evidence, so she has the Jeffersonian team comb the old lady's house.  She finds nothing, Melvin walks, but then Brennan gets an idea in the middle of the night - run a hair dryer over the cement floor, and blood will appear.  The blood has four relatively dense areas, which Brennan thinks are from the murderer cleaning up while on his knees (and feet).  One of the four dense spots is perfectly round - the result of the murderer having an artificial knee.

Booth brings Melvin in for further questioning.  He explains the knee print and confirms that Melvin has an artificial knee.  Brennan presents a bag of cash that was found in Melvin's house.  Turns out, Melvin wanted to get the bid on the old lady's house because he thought there was still cash squirreled away somewhere.  He was right, and he didn't want to split it with Lucky.  So he killed him.

  • Forensic
    • You don't "determine gender."  You "estimate sex."  Brennan should know better.
    • There was no indication where the determination of Caucasian came from.  I mean, it was before they even took the skull out of the pool of fluid.  At least angular orbits and large mastoid are reasonable for identification of the deceased as male, and auricular surfaces can be used to get a rough age-at-death.  As always, multiple methods for assessing demographics would be nice.
    • They seemed to have made a positive ID from a facial reconstruction.  No DNA?  Dental records?  You know, the normal things we do to make a positive ID?
    • No self-respecting scientist would stick his head in a vat of unknown goo and inhale deeply.  I'm beginning to think the writers don't like Hodgins very much.  Also, I didn't get the anaerobic environment explanation.  That type of environment usually preserves bodies quite well, but here it left it liquefied.  Because it was enclosed?
    • The evidence for perimortem trauma was kind of confusing.  I gather there was blunt force trauma to the back of the head, but also to the front of the jaw?  And then there was sharp trauma... from the implement used to make the blunt trauma?  There was so little information about the assessment of trauma and cause of death.
    • Would one really "compare isotopes" from the two plastics to see which one was used to wrap the body?  Wouldn't you use a mass spec to find molecules or elements, not isotopes?
  • Plot
    • Today's non-murder side plot was all about romance.  Specifically, the budding Vaziri-Saroyan romance.  Which seems reasonable, I guess.  Vaziri reads her love poetry in Farsi.  (Anyone know Farsi and can speak to whether it made sense and/or was good?)  Oh, right, and Vaziri is a political exile from Iran because of some poetry he wrote when he was a teenager.
    • Angela and Hodgins rekindle their romance on the roof of the Jeffersonian, by reading poorly-translated Farsi.  Eh.  Guess the writers thought they needed something to do.
    • And Sweets is still living with Booth and Brennan.  Not romance, per se, but apparently his childhood home life scarred him more than just on his back (which the writers forgot about a couple episodes ago when Sweets was shirtless), and he's dragging his feet trying to find a new place to live.
    • You know it's a boring/drama-heavy episode when there are musical interludes.
    • This might as well go in the "plot" category... I so so so very desperately want Saroyan's gorgeous cream-colored sweater, the one with the cut-outs and buttons down the front.  Stunning.  I want it now.
  • Dialogue
    • "I'm laughing because murder would be inappropriate for a toddler." - Brennan, on writing a children's book
    • "You are my carburetor." - Hodgins to Angela
    • "... then what are these knuckley things in the middle of my legs?" - Melvin on knees
    • Booth: "Knee prints are just as unique as fingerprints." Melvin: "The hell they are."  (Thank you, Mr. Murderer, for saying what I was thinking.)
Forensic Mystery - C+.  Far too much forensic hand-waving, not enough actual science in tonight's episode.  The deceased was IDed just as the opening credits ended.

Forensic Solution - C.  Again, hand-waving.  Lasers!  Isotopes!  Gender determination!  I do not think those words mean what you think they mean.

Drama - C+.  The drama of the murder mystery was pretty terrible.  But I'll bump this grade up because I don't mind the Vaziri-Saroyan drama at all.  They seem fine for each other... both have names that are difficult for me to type.  Overall, a thoroughly boring, mediocre episode.

November 13, 2012

Bones - Season 8, Episode 6 (Review)

The Patriot in Purgatory

Episode Summary
The episode opens with five of Brennan's interns -- Bray, Edison, Vaziri, Abernathy, and Fisher -- gathered around a corpse with a chainsaw in its chest. Saroyan tells them to await Brennan's orders.  Immediately they become suspicious, and Abernathy starts a differential on the chainsaw victim -- he was ripped through the xiphoid process, fluid on the 4th and 5th left ribs.  Fabric is found in the cut that transected the xiphoid process, and Edison thinks it may have been a tennis ball.  The interns are fighting when Brennan shows up, only to reveal that they're not working that case; that man died after attempting to juggle a chainsaw, a Fuji apple, and a tennis ball... while drunk.

Brennan has taken a page from the Phil Jackson playbook (after Booth made her watch basketball) and decided to set the intern team on the task of identifying cold cases now that the missing persons database has been thoroughly digitized.  Brennan leaves, and the interns immediately start firing on all cylinders, rattling off identifications and cutting into one another's explanations of who the dead person is on the table.

Fisher identifies Lisa Bowrey, a mechanical bull-riding stripper who went missing in 1980, based on the size of the humeral head, the intra-articular fracture to the thumb, abrasions on L2 and L3, and the presence of sequins among her personal effects.  Abernathy discovers he is looking at the remains of George Leto, a blacksmith who went missing in 1898.  Erratic ossification on his pubic symphysis puts him in his mid-50s, and he also had a woodcutter's lesion (also known as an olecranon spur).  Clark has Chad Winnike, a suspected murder victim who disappeared 18 years ago.  He identified the remains based on lateral epicondylitis of the elbow joint (aka tennis elbow) and high strontium.  And Bray finds Sarah Mahoney based on a compression fracture of the C7 body with subluxation, or milker's neck.

Doo doo doo... where do the fibulae go again?
Vaziri, however, does not have easy answers to his case, a homeless man found beaten in a sleeping bag behind a parking garage at the Pentagon in September, 2001.  Other than a chipped tooth and a fracture to the left 6th rib, Vaziri has little to go on.  He convinces Hodgins to test the residue in the tooth, however, which reveals traces of kerosene and ethylene glycol, or jet fuel.  On the skeletal remains, Vaziri finds an old, healed bullet wound that occurred roughly 10 years before the man's death.  Based on the state of the remains, the temperature at the time, and the Calliphoridae (blow flies) in the decomposing tissue, Hodgins and Saroyan put time of death at 4 days before the body was discovered.  The interns are all interested at this point, and Fisher, an expert on bone remodelling, is asked to take a look at the rib fracture.  He puts the injury at about 10 days before death, or on September 11, 2001.  Because of the presence of jet fuel and the man's injuries, the team thinks that he was in or near the Pentagon when it was struck by one of the planes.

The bullet wound, Booth thinks, could indicate the man fought in the Gulf War, and this would match with the high level of uranium found in his body.  There was no DNA database for servicemen in the 1990s, though, so a DNA test of the body does not find an identity match.

The interns further examine the body and find all sorts of abrasions and small microfractures to the bones -- the ends of the humeri, the L4 and L5, the knees, the right metacarpals -- all suggestive of a violent death in which the individual was dragged or hung upside down.

After a day of going to homeless shelters with a facial reconstruction provided by Angela, Booth gets an ID: Tim Murphy.  Murphy did indeed serve in the Gulf, where he was the sole survivor in an explosion in a munitions dump.  He suffered from severe PTSD, and his wife would often find him missing for days at a time.  One day, he simply didn't come home.

Hodgins tests the fragment of metal from the rib and finds that it's made of indium tin oxide, which was used on the lamp posts on the west side of the Pentagon.  A military big-wig, Ben Foster (Officer Doug!), asks around about Murphy and finds out that he used to hang out outside the Pentagon shouting "Walk in Moore Park" to everyone who passed.  Booth realizes that this wasn't a sentence but rather the names of Murphy's fellow soldiers who were killed in the Gulf: Walken, Moore, and Park.

The interns examine the skeletal evidence again, noting that the injuries to the bone look strikingly like those seen in weightlifters.  Murphy, though, had no history of that.  They decide to test his personal effects, namely the blood on his clothing.  They find that the blood came from three different people who were working at the Pentagon on September 11.  Booth interviews Rollins, and she remembers Murphy -- he saved her life by lifting heavy pieces of concrete off her, and he saved the lives of the two men as well.  The damage to his shoulders, the compression fractures to his spine, the strain on his knees, all of these injuries were from heroic acts of strength to help free people pinned under rubble.  His rib fracture is likely what killed him, though.  When he started exerting himself to help others, the rib punctured his lung.  It took him 10 days to bleed out, forgotten and presumed homeless.  Murphy is lain to rest at Arlington National Cemetery with a full military burial.

  • Forensic
    • All of the forensic IDs were alright... in that each intern offered at most three pieces of evidence that might be used to ID someone from skeletal remains.  Hardly conclusive, but if we assume they did additional work we didn't see, it all sounded entirely reasonable.
    • I was peeved that the interns didn't look for cause or manner of death in the cold cases, though.  There were no notes as to what may have killed those individuals.
    • Clark's ID included a mention of "high strontium" which doesn't make much sense.  Isotope ratio?  Concentration?  Trace element?  All could tell you something about the deceased, but they'd tell you different things.
    • They always put the fibulae medial to the tibiae when laying out a skeleton (see picture above).  I just don't get why.
  • Plot
    • So Daisy isn't an intern anymore?  Man, that must have been a really rough break-up, that she lost her job too.
    • Where people were on 9/11 - Saroyan was a coroner in NY and posted at least 900 people.  Fisher was breaking into his history teacher's desk to steal a test he hadn't studied for.  Clark was at a coffee shop before grad school.  Abernathy had just been stabbed with scissors by his stepfather.  Vaziri was at morning prayers.  Bray was with his aunt, as his uncle was a firefighter in NY and died that day.  Brennan was part of DMORT and helped recover remains from the Pentagon.  No indication as to what Booth was doing on that day.  (For my part, Clark's story mirrored mine... I was getting coffee on campus at ECU and thought the TV showing planes ramming the WTC was some kind of joke, then wondered how a plane could go off course so badly that it hit a building, then realized the magnitude of the situation and listened to NPR for the rest of the day.)
  • Dialogue
    • "Idle talk is like a mama bear whose cubs have long gone in search of a teat." - Abernathy
    • "I plan to offer numerous 'attaboys' while administering pats on their hindquarters." - Brennan (and she did)
    • "I'm a special agent.  I beat up bad guys and leap over things." - A very self-aware Booth
Forensic Mystery - A-.  Pretty good misdirection about the skeletal injuries, which really did make it seem like Murphy had been killed by someone else.

Forensic Solution - A-.  The vast majority of the forensics on the show tonight were pretty spot-on.  Would have liked a confirmation of the deceased's ID with dental records or something, though, and some causes/manners of death for the cold cases.

Drama - B.  I very much liked Vaziri in this episode, and especially his dressing-down of perpetually clueless Abernathy, my least favorite intern.  But the writers' continued attempts to "humanize" Brennan fell very flat tonight.  All it takes is the love of a good man to become a real person, amIright ladies?

Nutrition and Well-Being in the Roman World: The Evidence from Human Bones

On Sunday, I returned from Rome, where I participated in the one-day conference Nutrition and Well-Being in the Roman World: The Evidence from Human Bones.  The conference was organized by Kim Bowes, a classical archaeologist at U Penn who is also the professor-in-charge of the school of classical studies at the American Academy in Rome.  Bowes recognized the growing interest among classicists (especially classical historians) in the information that human skeletal remains can tell us, and she thought to get together most of the leading names in Roman bioarchaeology to discuss what we can and can't determine from bones.  It was fantastic to be in a room with dozens of people who care as much about the bones of dead Romans as I do -- there's not much opportunity for me as a North American to have these sorts of conversations in person.

Some of the papers were in Italian, so I couldn't live-tweet the conference, as I was concentrating on remembering all the Italian I've forgotten since I lived in Rome in 2007.  But I wanted to post a quick summary of each of the papers.

First up were Dominique Castex and Kevin Salesse of the Université Bordeaux talking about the Osteobiography of Epidemic Victims from the Catacomb of Saints Peter and Marcellinus in Rome (1st-3rd centuries AD).  The last time I talked to Kevin at this past year's AAPA meetings, he didn't have isotope results yet.  At the conference, he displayed some preliminary C, O, and N results, which were both similar to and different than my data from the same time period.  Interestingly, he found a high rate of migration using just O isotopes, but the question was raised as to whether his "local" range, which he drew from Tracy Prowse's work at Isola Sacra, was a valid range (a valid question that's been asked of my data in the past as well).  Kevin also did biodistance analysis on dental nonmetric traits, finding that one chamber or niche is distinctly different from the rest -- and yet the O data weren't different, which is an interesting result.  Castex presented on some of the pathologies from the catacomb.  I was thrilled to hear that their rates of disease were quite low -- linear enamel hypoplasia at 1.9% and cribra orbitalia at 0.7%, for example.  These data compare with my pathology frequencies from Rome, data that have been called into question by others because they're just so much lower than expected.  There may be a bit of inter-observer error at work, or it could just be that the Romans were quite heterogeneous in health.  Castex, Salesse, and I seem to favor this latter interpretation.  I can't wait to read Kevin's dissertation, to find out more about this really interesting population.

Then Paola Catalano and her colleagues at the archaeological superintendency presented on Le Condizioni di Vita Quotidiana a Roma: il Contributo dell'Analisi Antropologica dei Sepolcreti Scavati negli Ultimi Anni dalla Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma.  Demographic analysis of some of these recently excavated cemeteries shows that these were non-natural populations, which is to be expected in bioarchaeology, and that all of them had wildly different demographic make-ups (in terms of age-at-death mostly).  A couple new sites that I haven't read much about yet are Quarto Capella and Padre Semeria, although some preliminary data were presented in the Proceedings of the 4th International Congress on Science and Technology for the Safeguard of Cultural Heritage in the Mediterranean Basin in 2009. I was most intrigued by the carbon and nitrogen isotope study that Flavio DeAngelis did on some skeletons from Casal Malnome.  He found ranges from about -21 to -17‰ for carbon and about 8 to 14‰ for nitrogen.  These are well in line with the data I produced from Casal Bertone and Castellaccio, and that others have produced from sites around Rome -- the Roman diet was a little bit of everything.

Mauro Rubini and Paola Zaio then presented information on Nutrition and Health in Central Italy During the Roman Period, a summary of the work they've been doing for the past several years.  In the rural areas of Italy, they found that quite a number of subadults had Schmorl's nodes, suggesting to them that adolescents were doing hard labor from a young age.  Not terribly surprising if we consider what agricultural work involved even as recently as the 20th century in the U.S.  A lot of Rubini's recent work focuses on leprosy and tuberculosis, and particularly in the cross-immunity between them.  For example, he found two cases of TB from Rome and two from Herculaneum; these make sense, as TB thrives in communities that have high population density.  But he also found two cases of TB from Sardinia, where we wouldn't expect to find it.  His suggestion was that there may have been less leprosy in Sardinia, as the disease seems to have wended its way down the peninsula from the north, meaning no cross-immunity to mediate the Sardinians' exposure to the TB bacillus.  It's not a theory I'd heard before, but it does make some sense, and it would be great if we had more biochemical/PCR analyses of skeletons from the Italian peninsula to start tracking the ecology of diseases like leprosy and TB in ancient times.

After lunch, I spoke about Heterogeneity of Health in Imperial Rome.  Some of what I said expanded on the presentation I gave in Leiden a few months back.  Namely, we can look at percentages of disease at various cemeteries in Rome (or the peninsula or the Empire) until our eyes cross, but the ways we've been separating the population -- age-at-death, sex, geography -- aren't telling us the whole story of the diversity of the Roman population.  Heterogeneity within the population needs to be explored to a much greater degree than we are currently doing, because drawing conclusions about, for instance, malaria from simple percentages of cribra orbitalia is not capturing any of the variability within the population.  I argued that one of the easiest ways to delve further into variation within the Roman population is through isotope analysis to identify immigrants.  Many of these individuals likely varied in their health outcomes and in their susceptibility to diseases endemic to Rome.  One of the most interesting things I found while looking at my admittedly small dataset (see graph) is that porotic hyperostosis was evident only in immigrants who came from warmer, drier climates compared to Rome. Even more interesting, of those people with porotic hyperostosis, the majority of them had elevated lead levels.  So it's not so straightforward to ask whether something like anemia is the result of dietary deficiency, parasites or malaria endemic to a region, or exposure to toxins.  I'm going to attempt to refine these ideas, following helpful questions and comments from the audience, for the talk I'm giving at Cambridge University next month.

Francesca Candilio presented work she and her colleagues are doing on Assessing Roman Health through the Analysis of Dental Pathologies.  Whereas most of us in this conference were talking about one specific time period (the Empire), this presentation was more synthetic, discussing dental pathologies from the Neolithic to the Medieval periods.  As expected, carious lesion frequencies increase once people become settled agriculturalists, but the frequency actually drops after the Eneolithic and remains more or less steady through Medieval times. Interestingly, Candilio talked about how there is a huge variation in caries frequency between Lazio and Marche, a variation that gets obliterated if she simply lumps them together into the same population.  So she argued for the need to investigate heterogeneity along the lines of both geographic area and temporal differences.  The problem with wanting greater chronological control, as Kim Bowes brought up in the discussion after this paper, is that we don't have a lot of skeletal data from the countryside (it's mostly from large and medium-sized cities) or from time periods when people cremated their dead, like the Republic.  Candilio is also a proponent of open source data and hopes that at some point, all bioarchaeologists who work in Italy can agree on a set of standards and a platform for sharing data.  It would make the sort of synthetic work she's attempting a lot easier to do.

And then Oliver Craig introduced some issues with isotope analyses in Quantifying Roman Diets: Pushing the Limits of the Bone Stable Isotope Record.  Craig has worked at Velia on the C/N isotopes from that population, where he found that they had surprisingly low N values for people who lived on the coast.  In a forthcoming publication, Craig looks at isotope values from Herculaneum, specifically at the relationship between elevated d13C levels and differences in radiocarbon (14C) dates.  He and his colleagues found that some individuals at Herculaneum were up to 80-100 years off in 14C dates, likely as a result of eating more marine foods.  But where Craig really cautioned us was in the interpretation of dietary content from isotope results, that is, in the proportions of diet that come from protein and carbohydrates.  Current methods for reconstructing dietary content are insufficient, he argued, and we need to better understand human physiology, such as the synthesis and fractionation of amino acids.  So rather than measuring C and N isotopes from collagen, which is the current practice, Craig suggested it may be better to measure amino acids.  He helpfully provided a lot of references in his talk, so I need to go track those down and read them, as his presentation was incredibly interesting but also a bit too fast for me to take good notes.

Luca Bondioli spoke about skeletons from the Roman period in From Order to Chaos: Putting Morphology, Diet, Demography and Health into Perspective. His first few slides explained the importance of preservation bias in calculating frequencies of diseases.  Namely, he showed that as the percentage of bone present increased, the frequency of disease decreased.  So if you are studying a cemetery with very poor preservation, you're likely to overestimate the disease load of that population.  He also showed that explanations that work for one population don't necessarily hold for another population.  In the Velia cemetery, he and his colleagues found that males with auditory exostoses had a higher frequency of skull trauma than males without AE, suggesting males were deep-sea diving and hitting their heads on rocks in the process.  But at Isola Sacra, males without AE had a higher frequency of skull trauma, so the explanation cannot be the same.  Bondioli also discussed peaks in Wilson band and Harris line occurrence at several sites.  The common explanation for Harris lines in the tibia and linear enamel hypoplasia in the permanent dentition is physiological stress associated with weaning.  But Bondioli found peaks in Harris line frequency at 6-9 months (possibly weaning) and then again at 3 years old.  There were likely various stressful times in a Roman child's life, and we can't attribute it solely to weaning.  We need to ask more questions about what they were doing at other times in childhood; this is a segment of the population that we really don't know that much about.

To conclude the papers, Peter Garnsey presented on History Meets Anthropology: The Case of Herculaneum.  As an historian, Garnsey really led the charge to incorporate bioarchaeological data into a better understanding of Roman history, particularly in terms of diet and health.  He showed some fascinating slides on the people who died on the beach at Herculaneum and the people who were found in the boat houses.  Most interestingly, the demographics of the individual boat houses were very different in their proportions of males/females and age groups.  These demographics differed strikingly from the population found on the beach, which was mostly adult males.  A newly interpreted inscription from Herculaneum (which I heard all about in June from Luuk de Ligt at the conference in Leiden) is allowing Garnsey and his colleagues to reconstruct the demographics of the population -- for example, Garnsey suggested that one-quarter of the population were ex-slaves and 40% of the population were slaves.  Additionally, people over the age of 40 are underrepresented.  They've got a JRA article coming out soon on the inscription, and I hope we hear more about the skeletons from Herculaneum soon.

Lisa Fentress acted as the discussant for the day.  She summed up the papers, encouraged us to find a way to make our data open access, and noted that "heterogeneity is one of the fundamental questions about Rome."  Of course, I completely agree with that sentiment, and with the idea that we won't understand the bioarchaeological data if we don't share more of it.  For my part, I have published all of my isotope data in my dissertation -- every single C, N, O, and Sr value is there.  But having a place to put my stature data, for example, and my pathology frequencies would be fantastic, as would being able to access others' data for comparative purposes.  It's currently quite difficult to suss out exactly what the percentages of pathology mean -- if they're TPR or CPR (true/crude prevalence rates), if they're reported for just adults or the entire population, etc.  Greater transparency in the bioarchaeology of the Roman world is absolutely necessary going forward, and I'm happy that several of the presenters agreed on this.

All around, I had a great time in Rome.  I talked to old friends, met new potential colleagues, and got some ideas for future projects.  I am thankful that Kim Bowes invited me to be a part of this fascinating conference.

November 5, 2012

Bones - Season 8, Episode 5 (Review)

The Method in the Madness

Episode Summary
Two opera-singing sanitation workers notice a decomposing body as it falls out of one of the trash bins they're emptying. At the scene, Brennan notices the large sciatic notch and the dorsal margin of the pubic face, which suggests she's looking at the remains of a female in her early to mid 20s. Hodgins finds eggs from Cochliomyia macellaria (blowflies) with larvae greater than 4mm in length, suggesting the woman has been dead for 36 hours or less.

The Jeffersonian team finds loads of sharp trauma on her bones, suggesting the muscles and viscera were ripped from her skeleton.  Numerous deep incisions around glabella, the supraorbital ridges, and the zygomatic arches mean her face was ripped off.  Saroyan notes acute liver hemorrhaging, which means the woman was still alive when she was eviscerated.  Fisher finds numerous deep V-shaped incisions with no serrations in the wounds, suggesting someone strong made the cuts.

From the bits of flesh and hair, Angela is able to reconstruct a face, and she and Hodgins recognize it as Jessica Pearson, who co-owned Them Apples, an artisanal applesauce company.  Booth and Brennan pay the co-owner, Brooke Kaminsky, a visit.  She mentions that she last saw Jessica when she dropped her off at the free clinic and that a creepy butcher named Adam kept giving her meat.  He was just trying to help her out, though, and was threatened by a big, beefy guy.  Fisher gets pig bones from Adam's shop so he can compare tool marks, as Adam won't part with his knives.  He finds that the flesh was removed from the pig and from Jessica in much the same manner, except her throat was slit, possibly by a right-handed assailant.  This rules out Adam, who is left-handed.  Fisher suspects someone is mimicking Jack the Ripper.

Angela and Hodgins reconstruct Jessica's personal effects, including twenty $100 bills.  Sweets questions Dr. Cole Reese (Will Cortlandt!), who was seeing Jessica at the free clinic.  She came in once a month to get an STD test, as she was working part-time as a prostitute.  The microfracturing on Jessica's wrists suggests she was restrained, and the contents of her stomach include Old Tom Gin, which is manufactured by Dr. Cole Reese.  Booth pays Reese a visit and finds him mid-role play, with a prostitute tied to his bed and a knife in his hand.  Reese had been paying Jessica, but she didn't like the handcuffs and had struggled too hard to get out.  As she was screaming, a burly man busted into Reese's apartment and threw him into the closet.

Using street surveillance cameras, Angela gets an image of the 6'6", 250-lb guy who assaulted Reese (Jerry!  Kubiac!).  Willis McCullum, however, was like a father to Jessica, as he helped her through her father's (his best friend's) death, paid for college, and was trying to help her get on her feet.  Brennan and Fisher use Angela's computer to better visualize the pattern of the injuries.  Based on the placement of the sharp trauma and the position of the victim, Brennan finally realizes that a machine made the injuries to Jessica: the ribbon blender used at Them Apples.  Booth and Brennan confront Brooke, who admits to having hit Jessica during an argument about selling the company.  Jessica fell into the ribbon blender, and Brooke couldn't stop it in time.  She disposed of the body in the trash and cleaned up the blender.

  • Forensic
    • I was a bit confused by Fisher's explanation of the V-shaped cuts as needing to come from something serrated - V-shaped cuts are usually from chopping tools that have a wedge-shaped blade, like an axe, not from kitchen or butcher's knives.
    • This means that I'm not sure why the cuts didn't immediately tip off the Jeffersonian team to a machine.  I mean, I get that the writers wanted to parallel the artisanal stores with a throwback serial killer, so they had to keep throwing around the possibility that a person was wielding the blade.  But it was pretty clear from the first description of the incisions to the bone, especially the regularity of the cuts, that a machine did it.
    • Otherwise, my only complaint is that the fake skeletons they use continue to be suuuuuper fakey fake.  I'd think they could spring for one of the nice plastic ones at least.
  • Plot
    • It's pretty silly conceit that after two weeks of living at the FBI, Sweets is invited to stay with Booth and Brennan for a few days. But I unabashedly love the character at this point (ever since poor Nigel Murray bought it), and we get John Francis Daley without a shirt, so it's all good.
    • The part about Jessica being a prostitute didn't sit well with me. The writers seemed intent on describing her as sad, pathetic, lonely, miserable, and really just moralizing all over the place primarily through Saroyan and McCullum.  Since there was already so much going on in the episode, the prostitute twist didn't seem necessary.
  • Dialogue
    • Brennan: “From an anthropological standpoint, the artisanal subculture is fascinating.” (MIT anthropologist Heather Paxson actually does research artisanal cheesemaking.)
    • Fisher: "In the 1930s, Joseph Ball killed over 20 women and fed their remains to alligators."
    • Brennan: “Most cultures have ceremonies to celebrate milestones in a man’s life.” Sweets: “Oh god, this isn’t about circumcision, is it?”
    • Sweets: “Kids from broken homes really rake in the material goods by way of compensation…"


Forensic Mystery - B+.  A bit too much going on in terms of suspects and red herrings for my taste.  But it was a lively episode to be sure.

Forensic Solution - B.  Gonna ding them on this one because it took the team far too long to realize that a machine was the murder weapon and not a person.

Drama - A-.  The plot moved along, and the Booth-Brennan dynamic was mostly back to normal, which is nice.  But Sweets moves this into A range now that he's free of Daisy.

Next Week: A very special Veterans' Day episode!

November 2, 2012

Pros and Cons of Osteobiography

Traditionally, skeletal analysis in search of answers about human lives has fallen into two camps: the study of populations is the purview of bioarchaeologists, who want to know more about life in the past, and the study of individuals is the purview of forensic anthropologists, who want to put a name with the set of bones they have in front of them.  This line has started to blur over the last few years in that bioarchaeologists are realizing they can craft stories of individual lives from the vast array of methods and techniques available to the 21st century researcher.

Osteobiography has become a hot topic, and many bioarchaeologists are using the data they generate from a skeleton to humanize the past, to sprinkle stories about daily life in with their more science-y charts and graphs.  What's key about the technique of osteobiography, though, is that there is substantial evidence behind the story -- these are not simply fanciful reimaginings of an ahistorical past but sketches made from the outlines provided by scientific data drawn from the disciplines of osteology, medicine, and archaeology, among others.

This change in bioarchaeology -- from a population-focused discipline to one that recognizes the role of the individual in creating that population (and in being created by that population) -- has been long in coming but is sorely needed.  Humanizing the past not only helps us understand where we've been, it lets us share that information with the public in a way far more appealing than scatterplots.  To this end, there's even a new book (that, I'll admit, I own but haven't read yet) called The Bioarchaeology of Individuals, a collection of osteobiographical narratives from most of the major players in American bioarchaeology.

There are, however, good ways to do osteobiography and bad ways to do it.  Let's start with the bad, shall we?

I recently came across a 2008 article in a Biblical Archaeology Society free eBook on Understanding Ancient Cyprus and Crete.  The article is called Death at Kourion and is by classical archaeologist David Soren.  The very first page includes this image and the accompanying caption (Soren 2008:3):

Credit: Noelle Soren, from this PDF.
Eternally frozen in a protective embrace, the remains of an ancient family vividly testify to the enduring power of love. When a powerful earthquake struck Kourion, Cyprus, on July 21, 365 A.D., a 25-year-old man (the skeleton at right in the photo) tried to comfort his 19-year-old wife, who, in turn, attempted to shield their infant child from collapsing walls. In his History, the fourth-century A.D. historian Ammianus Marcellinus described this earthquake as “a frightful disaster surpassing anything related either in legend or authentic history.
Deconstructing just this caption is difficult.  First, what evidence do we have of social structure from Cyprus?  I suspect there's a lot, but none of it is referenced to support the conclusion of a nuclear family.  Second, there are no references to the osteological evidence that support the age-at-death of the three individuals in the photo, and the ages seem strangely precise.  Third, reconstructing a sequence of events from skeletal (or even archaeological) remains is difficult because of taphonomic processes that occur after death of a person (or abandonment of a site).  There is no mention of what other than the positioning of the skeletons leads him to the conclusion of a "protective embrace."  And fourth... enduring power of love?  Yeah, sure.

Further in the article (p. 14), a bit more context and a bit more evidence is revealed:
Our most dramatic discovery lay in a makeshift room installed in the entry corridor of the structure. Here we found a 25-year-old man and a 19-year-old woman, presumably husband and wife. To protect his wife from falling debris, the man had placed his leg over her pelvis and his arm over her shoulder. They were holding hands; she had a hairpin in her hair. A large falling chunk of plaster had struck her skull, snapping her neck at right angles and killing her. The husband took the brunt of the falling blocks as he straddled his wife, and his skull was crushed. Lying near them was a small bronze ring, probably worn by the woman, inscribed with the first two letters of Jesus Christ’s name in Greek, chi and rho (for Christos), plus the letters alpha and omega, signifying the beginning and the end—as haunting a coincidence as one might ever find at an archaeological site.
I still don't buy the positioning argument.  There are so very many things that could have happened to these bodies in the last two millennia that this very specific reconstruction of a sequence of events (and hand holding) is difficult to swallow.

Granted, Soren's article is not in a peer-reviewed publication; it is clearly intended in tone and content to be for the public.  Still, it doesn't succeed as a work of osteobiography because it is focused on the moment of death rather than the duration of life and because it does not provide any evidence to support the interpretations given.

Fig. 5.2 from Boutin 2011. S04-9 and S04-10.
Now for the very, very good.  One of my favorite treatments of osteobiography is in a book chapter by Alexis Boutin (2011), who writes in Crafting a Bioarchaeology of Personhood about Alalakh, which was a regional capital of ancient Syria (roughly 2000-1200 BC).  Boutin discusses how to create an osteobiographical narrative within the theoretical space of embodied personhoods and life courses.  She then crafts a fascinating narrative with footnotes to the historical, archaeological, and osteological data that form the outline of the story.  A sample (from Boutin 2011:121):
Akap-dagan[1] shook his head in disbelief as he watched his wife's body being placed on the plastered floor of the coffin.  Just a few days before, he had stood at the threshold of the courtyard and watched as Ummi-ishara[2] sat in front of her loom, appearing to do ten things at once but still managing to weave one of the most beautiful mardatu he had ever seen.[3] With her right hand,[4] she used the shuttle to push weft threads into place; with her left hand, she felt inside a bowl for another nut and cracked its hard shell in her teeth,[5] all the while keeping up a constant patter of gossip and laughter with her sister, who sat next to her spinning thread on a spindle. Akap-dagan felt proud that he would be able to throw such a fine garment over his shoulders at the next meeting of the royal court. He had never regretted paying such a large bride-price for Ummi-ishara--not only was she a weaver of the highest talent, but also she was a happy and agreeable woman.[6] The only dark cloud hanging over them was the conspicuous absence of a baby for her to suckle,[7] even after several years of marriage. 
[1] S04-9: middle adult male (40 to 50 years old).  [2] S04-10: young adult female (18-25 years old).  [3] Mardatu was a textile, usually made of wool, but sometimes linen, woven with several colors in a special technique.  [4] The deltoid tuberosity of S04-10's right humerus is strongly marked, especially in comparison with the left humerus. The biepicondylar width is also greater on the right side than the left. The humeral articular widths are not significantly different, which suggests that the right side may not have begun to dominate until physiological maturity.  [5] S04-10's molar attrition was heavy compared with that of other young adults in the Alalakh skeletal series. Chipping is evident on three anterior teeth, ranging from Grade 1 to Grade 2.  [6] A system of bride-price is attested at Alalakh and is characteristic of all Syro-Mesopotamian societies.  Bride-price represents a transaction between the groom's family and the bride's family.  It is often paid in installments and consists of movable property.  [7] S04-10 did not have a preauricular sulcus. As a site of attachment for pelvic joint ligaments, the preauricular sulcus's presence and/or size may be indicative of pregnancy and childbirth, so perhaps S04-10 never bore any children.
This is just the opening paragraph of Boutin's biography, but she's already conveyed more about a time and place I know nothing about (Bronze Age Syria) than the entire first chapter of most books would.  The chapter is spectacularly well written and showcases exactly what osteobiography should be: the combination of anthropological theory, osteological evidence, and archaeological context.  Boutin doesn't have the skeleton photo-op that Soren does, but her narrative is far more intriguing because it shows what daily life was like rather than telling what happened at one point in time.

Osteobiography is a great way to showcase the past, and I think we bioarchaeologists should all try our hand at it one way or another (I did in my dissertation, albeit not as well as Boutin does).  Just a note of warning, though: there's a fine line between reconstructing a narrative and simply telling stories.

A.T. Boutin (2011). Crafting a bioarchaeology of personhood: osteobiographical narratives from Alalakh. In: Breathing New Life into the Evidence of Death: Contemporary Approaches to Bioarchaeology, 109-133.

D. Soren (2008). Death at Kourion. In: Island Jewels: Understanding Ancient Cyprus and Crete, 3-15.

A. Stodder, & A. Palkovich eds. (2012). Bioarchaeology of Individuals. University Press of Florida. DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813038070.001.0001.

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