September 28, 2012

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival XXI

Skeleton and burial news from around the Roman world this past month...

New Finds
Skeleton from Milton Keynes
  • Greece. 31 August - A Roman tomb (3rd century AD) was found recently in Corinth.  Two urns were recovered, one of which held the burial of a female, likely the woman who was depicted on the walls of the tomb reclining on a bed. [And a blog post on the find in English.]

Continuing Sagas
  • Tunisia. 19 September - There is an ongoing debate about whether the thousands of babies found at the Tophet in Carthage represent evidence of human sacrifice. Jeffrey Schwartz and his colleagues don't think so based on their assessment of age-at-death, and they published this in 2010.  In 2011, Pat Smith published an alternate age estimation for the population, suggesting sacrifice is a possible explanation.  Just recently, Schwartz and colleagues published another article refuting Smith's claims.  The issue is far from settled, and it's an interesting case-study showing that, for all we can tell from the skeletons, the questions of behavior and intent are never straightforward.

Museum Exhibits

And as a reminder, if you want to keep up on all the latest in bioarchaeology news from around the world (not just the Romans!), please "like" Powered by Osteons on Facebook.

September 24, 2012

Bones - Season 8, Episode 2 (Review)

The Partners in the Divorce
Episode Summary
A couple of homeless men stumble upon a burning corpse.  As they try to figure out what it is, the brain explodes through the side of the skull.

The Jeffersonian team reports to the scene.  With no blow fly eggs or larvae, Hodgins cannot estimate time of death.  Brennan guesses the victim was a Caucasian male based on the nasal root and brow ridge.  She notices something metallic adhering to the sixth cervical vertebra.

In the lab, Abernathy is squicked out by the gooey body.  Xrays confirm the metallic object in the neck and reveal multiple fractures to the ribs, both femora, and the tibiae.  Based on the serial numbers on the stents in the heart, Saroyan gets a positive ID on the victim: Richard Bartlett, a divorce attorney for wealthy couples.  Hodgins and Angela figure out that the metal in the victim was a fountain pen.  Abernathy realizes that the concentric microfracturing to the occipital was the result of a fall not of the brain exploding when it was heated.

Meanwhile, Booth and Sweets are trying to figure out who had motive to kill Bartlett.  Former clients Melanie and Gavin were the last ones seen with Bartlett, but when Booth and Brennan visit them, they claim to have reconciled in anticipation of a new baby.  Hodgins puts Sweets on the trail of a chef who was a former client after he finds that Bartlett's last meal was a burger made of Rattus norvegicus, the common brown rat.  But the chef, although he had motive, had served Bartlett the same rat burger every week for two years and was waiting to see the look on his face when he told him.  Angela puts Booth on the trail of Margo Sandoval, Bartlett's assistant who was also having an affair with his wife.  But she was simply protecting Bartlett's wife by shredding things that documented their affair.

After Abernathy and Angela mock up some possible scenarios that could explain Bartlett's injuries, Brennan has an a-ha moment: he was tossed down something similar to stairs, namely, the chute from Bartlett's penthouse office to the ground that the construction workers had set up.  Brennan peers down into the chute and confirms there is blood and tissue stuck to it.  Hodgins identifies the substance in the fissures on the squamosal suture as a solvent used by architects in modeling.  This points to Gavin, and he and Melanie outdo one another in the FBI questioning room by alternately confessing to various parts of the murder.

  • Forensic
    • Nothing for you all today, other than the usual complaint that you can't tell race from just a couple facial features.
    • OK, fine, here's a picky one: Brennan pronounced "squamosal" funny (could be right, though; as usual, my pronunciations tend toward the Latin rather than the medical).
    • I could have sworn Hodgins called the rat "Radisson norvegicus," which is not the proper taxonomic name.
    • Nelma Bell, one of my grad students (who took forensic anthropology with the below-referenced expert on burned remains), commented, "It's been shown that skulls do not explode from fire, trauma or not! Sometimes they appear to have 'exploded' but they actually fragment and fall in on themselves." She even sent along a citation: Pope et al. 2004, Exploding skulls and other myths about how the human body burns. Fire and Arson Investigator: Journal of the International Association of Arson Investigators 55(4)23-28.
  • Plot
    • I must have missed why Margo was no longer a suspect.  I mean, other than that Gavin and Melanie were clearly the murderers all along.
    • Even Brennan isn't stupid enough to attempt to get into a chute that goes straight to the ground. That was a ridiculous game of chicken, and if I were Booth, I'd be pissed about that passive-aggressive display.
    • Not specifically plot-related, but those ankle booties Brennan was wearing while examining the body at the Jeffersonian are ridiculously impractical.  And kinda ugly.
  • Dialogue
    • "In Christian Byzantium, a woman could divorce her husband... for leprosy or impotence." - Brennan (Not sure what this is referring to... perhaps the Justinian Code? Where are my late Antique classics scholars?)
    • "I don't want to hear about any anthropological crap." - Angela
    • "I assure you, I'm not that good." - Sweets, on his psychologist'ing abilities
    • "2000 was a questionable year for merlot." - Sweets

Forensic Mystery - C-.  All parts of this mystery were telegraphed from a mile away.  Not a particularly interesting case this week.

Forensic Solution - B+.  I mean, they ID'ed the guy... from his stents.  And I guess the injury pattern was sufficiently interesting (if implausible) to help with the cause of death.

Drama - C.  The plot wasn't terribly interesting this week, since it was clear from their introduction that Gavin and Melanie did it.  The character drama this week was focused on how Booth and Brennan need to rebuild their relationship.  That's a good idea, and I'm glad the writers aren't just sweeping the past three months under the rug, but something about the Booth-Brennan pairing still just doesn't work for me.  It's just too awkward, even when it's not supposed to be awkward.

Next week:  Doppelganger!?

September 18, 2012

Bones - Season 8, Episode 1 (Review)

Greetings, Bones fans and h8rs. I’m back for another season of reviews (quick apologies for the delay in this post - I was otherwise engaged last night). I’mma try not to be too hard on the season this year – I mean, I will call out the scientifically sketchy, weird, and flat-out wrong things that make it into the script. But Brennan deserves a bit of slack: after all, it’s pretty great that a show about a female scientist is starting its 8th year on the air.

The Future in the Past
Episode Summary
Last season ended with a dramatic cliffhanger: Brennan was being framed for the murder of her friend Ethan Sawyer by an evil computer genius, Christopher Pelant. Unsure whether she'd ever be able to clear her name, Brennan took off with baby Christine and the help of her ex-con father, Max. Cue new(ish) theme music, with more medical-sounding doo-doos.

This episode takes place three months later.  Brennan has terribly fake blonde hair, and baby Christine, who isn't more than - what, 4, 5 months old? - is already saying "dada."  Angela, Hodgins, Saroyan, Booth, and Sweets are all still trying to crack the Pelant case.  Clark Edison has replaced Brennan and is doing a reasonable job of it, even asking the team to document their findings (which they apparently dislike because they're poor scientists).  Special Agent Flynn is also back to continue to be cranky at Booth.

Brennan has done some detective work on her time off, with the help of Max: they discovered that Pelant's high school guidance counselor went missing his senior (junior?) year. She was a runner, so they searched the woods in fictional Pitt Meadows, VA, and found her (super fakey skeleton) body, which Brennan excavated and pedestalled like the pro that she is.  The Jeffersonian team finds the body, after Brennan calls in a tip while disguising her voice. They also find a flower, which she and Angela have been using to communicate during her disappearance.

At the Jeffersonian, Clark notices the high nasal bridge, which suggests Caucasian, and her sternal rib ends put her at 35 to 39 at time of death. Her pelvic inlet shows she never gave birth.  The woman is ID'ed (not sure how) as Carole Morrissey, Pelant's high school guidance counselor.  Sweets pulls up Pelant's recommendation letters for Stanford and, using linguistic analysis, realizes that the one from Morrissey was written by Pelant, just before she went missing.  Angela, meanwhile, does some handwaving computer stuff and gets Miss Julian reinstated to the case because she showed her digital signature was forged (and she therefore didn't give Brennan money).

Clark is less successful in figuring out cause of death and the weapon that was used.  Saroyan notices staining on the trabeculae of the sternum, there's trauma to the back of the head, and a swab of the area comes up with red agate, a rock.  So this requires a visit from fugitive Brennan, who sees deep nicks on the 5th and 6th cervical vertebrae, as well as injuries to the 3rd to 5th lumbar verts.  More importantly, Brennan notices injuries consistent with Morrissey's being strung upside down and gutted: tearing of cartilage at the knee (lateral femoral and tibial condyles) and torn cartilage at the talus and medial malleolus. The body is almost wholly skeletonized, and yet the small bits of flesh that remain after 10(?) years are the ones that give manner of death.  Interesting.  Red agate was what Morrissey struck her head on before being strung up.

Hodgins gets results back from the swab of the vertebrae: tamahagane, or Japanese steel. Brennan suspects that the murder weapon was a Japanese sword that Pelant's father brought back from the Pacific theatre during WWII.  Although Clark thought Pelant had used something heavy, since he was just 16, he was actually a very heavy teenager, around 200lbs, so he could put a lot of force on a light object.  Booth gets the sword from Pelant's family, and Clark shows that that weapon matches the sharp trauma to Morrissey's cervical vertebrae.  Pelant is taken into custody with this evidence.  

Angela meanwhile figures out the triangle of code that was on Ethan's wall - the edges of the triangle represent the three sides of Pelant: the base is his rebirth into innocence, one side is his secret murderer persona, and the other side is his guilt(?) and his desire for someone to kill him.  With some more computer handwaving, the symbols along the edges morph into a sooper secret code, which happens to plug into some program somewhere that somehow shows that Pelant digitally altered the surveillance video outside Ethan's asylum. Brennan is no longer a suspect in Ethan's murder.

The whole gang retreats to the Booth-Brennan manor to celebrate and apologize to one another.  Special Agent Flynn excuses himself to take on domestic terrorism.  Clark gets shuffled off to an archaeological dig somewhere for some reason.  But as B&B are "making up" on a washing machine's spin cycle (yes, really), they get a call - Pelant has managed to erase his identity and is claiming to be Basam Al-Fayad, an Egyptian citizen.  As he leaves the FBI with his Egyptian consulate escort, he hands Brennan a marigold - indicative of pain and grief.  Brennan tosses it, but as the elevator doors close, Flynn stoops and picks it up.  Dun-dun-dunnnnn!

  • Forensic
    • Never good when they assess ancestry from the skeleton.  Especially from one small part of the skull.  Sure, high nasal bridge suggests European nose.  But I need more than that for a positive ID.
    • Similarly, pelvic inlet suggesting a nulliparous woman?  I've never heard this, to be honest.  I have heard that the pubic symphysis can show scarring from childbirth (with the idea being that the relaxation and subsequent reformation of the cartilage there results in minor damage to the bone), but I thought this was largely discredited... or, at best, the research is inconclusive on whether it's possible to tell parity from skeletons.
    • They did this on another episode, so I've complained about it before, but the show's pronunciation of malleolus always gets me - I've never heard anyone say it that way, even if the dictionary says it's an acceptable pronunciation.
    • Why did Brennan talk about Pelant's knees?  She was going on about how he used to be heavy, which has long-lasting effects on the skeleton, especially at the joints.  Sure, it's true, but it was kind of beside the point.
    • How was Morrissey positively ID'ed?
  • Plot
    • How did Booth find Brennan at the motel?  Or, I guess, she found him.  But still.
    • Did we ever get more information on the flower code?  Is it some well-known code?  If not, how did Pelant crack it?
    • Was there any point to the "three sides to Pelant" mumbo jumbo from Sweets?  How did Ethan know about that?  Why did Sweets just then decide to pop into the Jeffersonian to give Angela the clue that she needed?
    • Ugh, so much Angela computerish handwaving this episode.  At least it was vague, though, and not just outright ridiculous like last season's finale and "Crack in the Code".
  • Dialogue
    • "She is quite brilliant."  Nope, still not buying that your infant can talk (although it's possible).
    • "Then you have trust issues stemming from... I dunno, a bunch of psychological crap."  Self-aware Sweets is quickly becoming my favorite character.
    • "I love serious archaeological work!" I guess this is goodbye, Clark.  Have fun on your improbable Jeffersonian excavation in some obscure part of the world attempting to answer some unstated research question.

Forensic Mystery - A.  I wasn't expecting another dead person to figure in to a season premiere that had a lot to get out of the way.  But it was worked in pretty nicely to an already busy episode.

Forensic Solution - B-.  Decent forensic work for the Morrissey case.  No explanation for how they actually confirmed the ID, though.  Bad computery mumbo jumbo work for the Pelant side of the case, though.

Drama - B+.  This episode had all the elements of a truly good Bones episode, but there was just way too much going on at once, which made the Brennan-Booth reunion stiff and awkward, and the Brennan-Angela reunion not quite as sweet as it could have been. I am excited that Pelant will figure in to later episodes, and Agent Flynn is pretty sketchy himself.  Could be a good season!

September 3, 2012

Invitation to an Ancient Roman Dinner

I'm a bit embarrassed to admit - considering just how active I am in social media and science outreach - that I'd never heard of the science cafe phenomenon until I arrived in Pensacola.  Basically, it's a community-organized series of talks in which the speaker engages the public directly, in a small setting (often involving food or coffee).  So I jumped at the chance to speak at one when invited by Mike Thomin at the Florida Public Archaeology Network.

In two weeks, I'll be talking about how to eat like a Roman:

If you're in the area, please do come out for the first science cafe of the new school year.  And if you're not, the conversation might eventually make it to the web.  (Last spring's talk on the Archaeology of the Taco by my colleague Ramie Gougeon is available to watch on FPAN's website.)

And do go check out a science cafe in your area!

(P.S. This might mean a delay in my review of the season premiere of Bones, but I hope to get to it as soon as possible.)

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