May 31, 2012

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival XVII

It's been surprisingly quiet in Roman bioarchaeology land of late.  But here's what I have for you this month(ish), much of it Medieval in date...

New Finds/Analyses
  • 6 April - Two cemeteries have been discovered in Poiters, France.  One was Medieval and dates roughly to the 5th-10th centuries AD.  The other was Roman-era, but the only grave discovered was of a monkey.  (No pictures of the simian grave, unfortunately...) 
  • 30 April - Another skeleton was discovered in Caistor (UK), dating to the early Medieval period (roughly 7th century AD).  There seems to be a fair amount of Roman stuff at the site, though, including a possible curse tablet.
  • 4 May - A skeleton dating to the Medieval period was found in the Piazza Mercurio in Massa-Carrara (Tuscany).  The individual was female, but she is missing a head (from the images, it seems like a later cut through the grave disturbed it).  There's also a Q&A with bioarchaeologist Barbara Lippi, who answers questions about the find and about other applications of osteology. 
  • 15 May - A brief reassessment of "Altamura Man," who dates to roughly 400,000-250,000 BC.  The skeleton hasn't been studied in well over a decade, so researchers in Bari are trying to get the project started back up again.  (More on Altamura Man, likely a member of Homo heidelbergensis, via wikipedia.)
  • 16 May - And the big news this month was the discovery of a Christian-era (4th century AD) catacombs in Rome, near Tiburtina, less than 50cm below the ground surface.  It includes 12 galleries and was in use until about 800 AD.  There was a very high number of infant burials in the catacombs, but oddly, the director of the excavation is quoted as saying that bioarchaeological analysis verified that they were mostly male children.  Unless I've missed the article somewhere, I don't know of a large-scale DNA study that has demonstrated the sex of these infant burials.
  • 24 May - Some new Etruscan tombs have been found in Grosseto, dating to the end of the 7th century BC.  It doesn't sound like there are any skeletal remains, but there are some artifacts.
  • 25 May - A skeleton has been found in Naples in the Piazza Municipio.  The skeleton doesn't seem to have been in a cemetery, and there are no grave goods.  It dates to the 7th to 8th centuries AD.  (Additional photos via  And it may be Arab or Muslim?
  • 30 May - And some skeletons have been found in Piacenza.  No report yet on the date, though.
Medieval skeleton from Naples (credit)
Sylvia Plaaaaaaaath! (credit)
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May 14, 2012

Bones - Season 7, Episode 13 (Review)

The Past in the Present
Episode Summary
The season finale refocuses on Christopher Pelant, a brilliant but sociopathic computer hacker from Episode 6. Pelant had been under house arrest and devoid of the internet because of previous charges of wire and computer fraud.  He is also a suspect in two unsolved murders, so Booth, Brennan, and Miss Julian testify at his parole hearing to keep him at least contained in his house.  As the hearing closes, Booth and Brennan each get a call about a murder in the woods - and their ringtones have been changed to howling wolves.

In the wildlife refuge, a couple whose GPS led them astray found a body.  Brennan notes that the victim is male and that the lack of billowing on his auricular surface indicates he's in his late 30s.  Hodgins estimates the man has been dead for two days because of the presence of Mycetophilidae eggs.  The healed fracture Brennan notices in the man's left humerus is significant - it transects the medial epicondyle at the trochlea, and she recognizes the man as Ethan Sawyer, a friend from graduate school whose arm Brennan set when he broke it on a ski trip. (Sure, she's not a medical doctor, but her name is Bones, after all. She can do more than set bones on a table. Oh wait, no, she can't.) Brennan immediately suspects Pelant, as she had enlisted Ethan's help with the Pelant case, even though Ethan was committed to the high security ward of a mental hospital for being delusional schizophrenic.

At this point, Brennan should take herself off the case because of her close connection to the victim, and also because she'd compromised the Pelant case by taking counsel from an outside source - and a crazy one at that.  But she doesn't. Wendell examines the body and finds tooth marks on the zygomatic from five or six different wolves.  Saroyan notes hemorrhagic staining around 50% of the bite marks, which meant that Ethan was still technically alive when the wolves started eating him.

In a strange bit of editing, we return from commercial unsure of where Booth and Brennan are or what they're watching.  Seems they're watching some sort of interview with Ethan Sawyer, and he's talking about needing to kill the demon, and it's explained that the demon is Christine.  So in 15 seconds of confused exposition, suddenly Brennan has a motive for murdering Ethan, a motive on which the entire rest of the trumped-up case against her seems to hang.  Due to a computer glitch, Ethan was transferred to a less secure area of the mental facility and walked away.  Brennan had seen him a couple weeks before, and he had given her an old math textbook as a gift.

Angela checks the video surveillance from the mental hospital, and the tape has been doctored to make it look like Brennan was visiting Ethan the night he died.  There's apparently no paper record of visitors to the secure ward of a mental hospital - sign in sheet, photocopies of ID, wardens' recollections - just time-stamped security footage.  Angela asks Brennan if she has an alibi for that night, but she claims she doesn't.  As in, Brennan never says what she was doing - was she at work?  At home nursing her infant?  Eating dinner with Booth?  Seriously, someone must have seen her that night.

Wendell finds the tip of a needle in the C7 vertebra.  Saroyan extracts it, and Hodgins finds a trace of an anesthesia called curare that was used in the 1940s.  It's not made anymore, so you'd have to distill it yourself, from Chondrodendron tomentosum.  Hodgins has some of the plants, but Brennan had asked him for it because she was studying a tribe in western Colombia that used it to poison their darts.  You know, in the copious spare time she has while being the best forensic anthropologist in the country and a new mom.

At this point, Brennan is preposterously still on the case.  She finds a series of cut marks on Ethan's skeleton.  Booth meanwhile claims that all evidence for the case goes through him.  He gets a mysterious phone call seemingly from Brennan, saying she was being held by Pelant.  Booth breaks down the door and beats up Pelant, who calls the police by taking off his ankle monitor.  And finally Miss Julian removes both Brennan and Booth from the case, turning it over to Lt. Flynn, FBI Special Agent in Charge of Creepy Stares.  Angela, Wendell, and Saroyan look more closely at the cut marks, which cross minor arteries.  The killer severed them to entice the wolves with the scent of blood while Ethan was alive but immobilized.  Saroyan concludes that since Pelant has no training in circulatory anatomy, he couldn't have done this.  Because she's forgotten how he disassembled and reassembled a human body in episode 6.  And that even a moderately intelligent person can read a book on the topic.

Booth's harassment of Pelant gets him paroled, apparently.  He makes a bomb and plants it in Booth and Brennan's house, in place of their usual alarm clock.  Flynn questions Sweets about his profile of Ethan's killer, and he is forced to admit it fits both Pelant and Brennan.  Sweets is now off the case too.

Angela hacks into Pelant's email, credit card records, and library account and discovers through the latter that he checked out over 80 books in the past month.  Flynn gets a warrant to search Brennan's car and house, but can only do the car because of an error in the warrant for the house.  Hairs in the trunk match Ethan's.  Miss Julian is going to arrest Brennan but is giving her a few hours before doing so, to let her get her affairs in order.  Brennan remembers the quote Ethan wrote in the book he gave her: "Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night; God said, 'Let Newton be,' and all was light." (Alexander Pope)  Booth sends Hodgins and Saroyan to Ethan's room at the mental hospital, where they find a triangle of secret code written in Ethan's saliva on the wall, revealed through black light.  Angela has an a-ha moment after talking to Brennan, who's at Christine's christening with Booth and Max.  She hypothesizes that Pelant was uploading viruses through the RFID codes in the library books.  When the books were scanned, the viruses deployed into the system and eventually got to the internet.

Angela tells Miss Julian about this, but she's also off the case, since Pelant managed to wire money to her from Brennan's account.  After the christening, Booth goes to get the car, but Brennan hops into the one Max brings her.  She decides to make a run for it rather than being arrested for Ethan's murder.  Because that's what any normal, rational scientist would do: run from the law, rather than trust in her colleagues to solve the case.  And we're supposed to believe it because of the sad-eyed baby in the back seat.

Aw, sad-eyed baby is soooooo sad.  The pathos.  It hurts my ovaries.

  • Forensic
    • Loss of billowing is one of the characteristics of the auricular surface we use to assess age.  But using the auricular surface requires looking at multiple features of it, not just billowing.  And there are better ways to estimate age - auricular surface is not going to narrow the age range down to "late 30s."
    • Why does Brennan think she's a medical doctor who can set a break?  Especially a very uncommon break to the elbow, a joint that requires good range-of-motion?
    • In one of the music video montages (seriously, why were there so many, when the rest of the plot was so rushed?), Brennan is looking at the skeleton on the light table, and the humeri are reversed (or maybe just upside down? Hard to tell).
    • Nice callback to Angela's fancy taphonomy-remover program, previously used in episode 9 (which was by far my favorite episode of the season to hate on).
  • I asked a Geek about the computer stuff...
    • Can someone remotely switch ring tones?  Yes, quite feasible if it's a smart phone, especially an Android phone.  Random bit of scariness: If someone hacks your Gmail password, they can install programs, read your email, and do other nasty stuff to your Android phone.  So maybe change your password now, mmm 'k?
    • Could viruses be embedded in RFID stickers?  Maybe, but this is getting closer to the fractal nonsense from episode 6.  These RFID stickers are generally static, so you're just reading a number, not actual computer code.  But if you've written your library system especially badly, it could work, as through SQL-injection attack.  Still pretty unlikely.
  • Plot
    • Why would Pelant be up for parole if he was a suspect in two unsolved murders?  Seriously, no one's checking in on him for any reason?  And how does harassment from an FBI officer give him immediate parole?  Why does Saroyan completely underestimate him if he's a crazy genius?
    • Why are we just now meeting Ethan Sawyer, and why does he just happen to be a crazy person committed to a mental asylum whose odd fracture Brennan fixed because they were besties in grad school?  Oh, right, because it's convenient for the plot.  And by convenient, I mean convoluted.
    • Why did it take so long to remove Brennan, Booth, and Sweets from the case?
    • Why didn't the mental hospital have any other records of visitors to the super-secure ward?
    • Why doesn't Brennan have an alibi for the night Ethan was killed?
    • Angela is suddenly a better computer hacker than Pelant?  "Irony," explains Angela.  "Convenient plot point," say I.
    • Why are Saroyan and Hodgins looking for a triangle?  I have no idea where that came from.  At least they found it.
    • Why is no one else at the christening?  Those don't usually happen at a completely empty church.
    • Why would Brennan want to run?  It's not like she's minutes away from getting the electric chair.  She'd probably post a giant bond and be put under house arrest or surveillance or something.  Isn't the evidence against her all circumstantial, or at least evidence that can easily be planted?
    • Finally, why does Booth's hair get lighter every episode?  And why is Ryan O'Neal obsessed with that Members Only jacket?
Forensic Mystery - D+.  No mystery here. Brennan ID'ed the victim at the scene.  And seemed to know who killed him.  Immediately.

Forensic Solution - B-.  Auricular surface billowing isn't great, but theoretically a fracture could be distinct enough to ID someone.  Immediately?

Drama - C- (plot) / A- (drama).  So if you read all my comments under plot points, you'll see that this was a wonky, messy, underdeveloped plot.  Every new thing out of anyone's mouth in the second half strained credulity, and I had to just accept it and move on to the next contrived plot point.  But ignoring all the plot holes, the hour of television was suitably dramatic - there was a fight scene, a kissing scene, a rogue FBI agent scene, loads of people freaking out, and a not-without-my-baby final voyage into the sunset.  Plus, a literal ticking time bomb, set to go off some time in August, I guess.  I have to ding the drama grade, though.  The Bones writers generally handle the serialized serial killers quite well - Gormogon, Gravedigger, Broadsky - but they missed an opportunity this season to put Pelant in another episode or two, which made everything really rushed in the finale.

Welp, that's it, folks!  Join me in the fall for the season premiere and resolution of the cliffhangers from tonight's episode.


May 9, 2012

Gay Caveman II: Electric Boogaloo

Remember last year around this time, when the Daily Mail published a story on the first "gay caveman" found in the Czech Republic?  And then how the international news media jumped on it like a snake swallowing a kid goat whole?  [ Daily MailTelegraph ]

Remember how a number of anthropologists got really angry about the interpretation of the find, the ignorance of the news media about human sexuality and gender, and the ridiculously loaded language that was being bandied about as if the labels of today can be accurately read in the archaeological past? [ Me - Gay Caveman! ZOMFG! / John Hawks - The "gay caveman" / Rosemary Joyce - "Gay caveman": Wrecking a perfectly good story ]

Remember how CNN and LiveScience interviewed us to "debunk" the sensationalized story after Jezebel and Salon mocked the general cluelessness of the news media and gullibility of the public? [ CNN / LiveScienceJezebel / Salon ]

Well, the Gay Caveman is back!  The Daily Mail reports today on "The only gay in the Stone Age village." Czech archaeologists who uncovered this anomalous burial last year have now found the remains of the village associated with the burials, near Prague.  The longhouses and their associated artifacts (e.g., pottery) date to 2900-2500 BC.

Helpfully, the Daily Mail uses quotes and language from a year ago, from before anthropologists descended on this story and - horror of horrors! - complicated and muddled the media's crisp interpretation of the anomalous burial.  At least, I'm guessing the Daily Mail is using old quotes, because I hope Vesinova did not reiterate this year the ridiculous claim that "he was a man with a different sexual orientation, homosexual or transvestite."

The site is quite an interesting one, and the pictures are great.  I can't understand why the Daily Mail continues to bait us, though.  To reiterate:
  • 2900 BC is not "caveman" times.
  • There is no archaeological evidence whatsoever of this individual's sexual orientation.

At least this story continues to give me interesting stuff to discuss with my students.

Not gay. Not a caveman.

May 8, 2012

Bones - Season 7, Episode 12 (Review)

The Suit on the Set
Episode Summary
Brennan, Booth, and Christine have traveled to LA to be on the set of Bone of Contention, a full-length movie being made from Brennan's book of the same name.  The stars, Cherie Redfern and Blaine Conway, are playing the fictionalized Brennan and Booth - Dr. Kathy Reichs (true to the name-flipping conceit of Bones) and Andy Lister (rather than Andrew Ryan, the love interest in Reichs' Brennan books).  The set is awash in fancy, blinking things and is emblazoned with WISK, the Washington Institute for Science and Technology.

Brennan is initially upset at the revisions to her screenplay, but she and Booth settle in to watch the filming.  When Redfern as Reichs says something along the lines of, "The victim has penetrating trauma to the chest bones followed by a massive cardiacal eruption.  I could extract the medial epicondyle..." then breaks open the chest cavity, Brennan loses it and complains about the mistakes in the science and dialogue.  Mandy Oh, the VP of production, insists they have a consultant on staff to keep the science on track, but Brennan quickly finds out it's Doug Philmore, the Canadian forensic podiatrist from S06E17 (one of the better episodes from last season).  Philmore is doing his best, but he is also chagrined that the director, Jocko Kent, doesn't care about the science.

As a new body is being swapped in for the one Redfern broke, a stench pervades the air.  Brennan and Booth quickly realize it's a real body, then get permission (from the VP of production and head of security, because no need to call the LAPD, folks!) to solve the murder mystery.  The victim was a man in his mid 40s, and based on the state of decomposition, he had been dead around 90-120 hours.  According to Philmore, the set is a fully functioning laboratory because it would cost the same as a prop lab... because all movies have a prop budget of tens of millions of dollars in equipment and supplies?

The profusion of perimortem bone damage to the victim's arms and torso, along with the skull damage, suggest he was attacked in some manner.  The jagged edge of the costal margin of the left 7th rib suggests his cause of death was a punctured aorta.  The actor playing the Hodgins character inserts himself into the investigation, since he has a doctorate in botany and microbiology from UC Berkeley.  Foliage on the victim's shoe is Laurus nobilis (bay laurel), common in California.  Brennan lets Dr. Barry Summers consult and run tests on Hodgins' behalf.

Angela's facial reconstruction is quickly identified by Summers as Hansen Stephens, the head of the studio.  His head has traces of brass and foliage on it, suggesting he was killed with or near a sprinkler.  Booth questions pretty much everyone: Stephens' assistant, Mandy Oh, Blaine Conway, and Liam Toynen (the screenwriter).  They didn't do it, even though Mandy's car had some foliage in the bumper and she's a racist troll.

Two shards of aluminosilicate, or fragments of a cell phone screen, are found embedded in the metacarpals by Dr. Philmore.  Angela goes to the data backup service again and finds texts Stephens sent to Cherie, whom he was sleeping with.  But she was also sleeping with Jocko and Fernando, the junior groundskeeper (also a movie producer in Mexico).  Philmore's reconstruction of the footprints from the scene suggests that Stephens was running from someone or something.  Based on the pattern of injuries on Stephens' bones, Angela narrows down the kind of vehicle that hit him to something with a small turning radius.

Brennan and Booth are hanging out outside Cherie's trailer, where there is a giant bush shaped like an elephant, when they realize the elephant's trunk has been repaired since Stephens' death.  The golf cart of the groundskeeper, Valerie Rodgers, matches the small turning radius, and she confesses immediately to running down Stephens, who was unrepentant that he mauled her prized pachyderm topiary.

And it turns out that Dr. Summers was in a movie with Dr. Saroyan years ago called Invasion of the Mothersuckers, making her the female Blacula.

Forensic and Plot Comments
  • Brennan didn't note how she determined the victim was male or in his 40s.  Boo.  Plus, the plot was so self-aware that there was not much to make fun of this week...
  • I don't buy in any way that it's just as expensive to make a fake lab as set up a real lab.  Mass specs are not cheap, my friend.
  • I do buy that someone with a doctorate in botany would be in the movies.  PSA: Students - academia does not pay well.  At all.
  • For all its snazziness, Philmore's footprint replicator thing didn't do much - it was dismissed by Brennan off-screen.
  • How did Rodgers get the body to the prop room?  Why didn't she quit her job and leave after she killed someone, rather than returning to the scene of the crime for a couple of days?  I guess she is supposed to be psychotic or something.
  • "Learn how one tibia can topple an Empire!"  I have got to steal that for the title of my next conference paper on pathology in the Roman Empire.
  • Dr. Summers noting that acting, his first love, won out, "kind of like a methicillin-resistant staph infection."
  • Conway/Lister's belt buckle says Kooky.  Cute.
  • Jocko: "I thought it was a film shooting.  I'm not used to real things."
  • Saroyan, Sweets, Angela, and Hodgins get blown up while picnicing at the Washington Monument in the trailer for Bone of Contention.  Awesome.
  • The whole Saroyan storyline was silly, but I actually met my husband during a screening of Blacula, so I'll allow it.
  • Loved all the little bits of meta-commentary...
    • Brennan complained that they changed the name of the Jeffersonian to WISK.  (I've always thought it was weird that they changed the name of the Smithsonian to the Jeffersonian.  Then again, the Smithsonian was named after a rich Brit who never set foot in the US.  Jeffersonian is a much better name.)
    • Liam Toynen: "Stephens paid me buckets to write crap" like this movie.
    • Brennan, to Philmore: "I'm glad that your foray into another pseudo-profession like film consulting hasn't dulled your scientific acumen."
Forensic Mystery - C.  Vague handwaving about facial reconstruction identified the victim.  Most of the clues to his killing were interesting, but it was infuriating that they all came sequentially (which is necessary for the plot of the show) when most of them would come at once in a real investigation (e.g., finding two phones, finding the cell phone in the metacarpals).

Forensic Solution - B+.  There were a lot of interesting techniques being used.  If you can suspend disbelief about the presence of a fully-functioning lab on a movie set, then the majority of the forensic work was quite good.

Drama - B-.  There weren't a lot of stakes to the killing of Stephens.  I could have done with fewer red herrings, but the point was that there were plenty of people who could have and would have killed the guy.  No one would believe that Booth would move to LA.  And the Saroyan storyline was just episode filler.

Meta-Commentary - A-.  I said last week that I was excited about the possibilities this episode held for reflecting on itself.  And I was not disappointed.  Brennan bitched about the poor science in the movie, which is a fictionalization of her book, which was a fictionalization of her work, which is a fictionalization of Kathy Reichs' work.  Her catty remark to Philmore about consulting was pretty delicious.  If only they'd mocked how quickly forensic work gets done on TV, they'd have gotten a full A from me.

May 3, 2012

Is that a lumbar vertebra, or are you just happy to see me?

I was mindlessly watching TV at the gym the other day, and suddenly I realized: "Wait, that's a human lumbar vertebra!"

Still from a Capital One commercial
It made me wonder why they chose a lumbar vertebra for the commercial.  I mean, doesn't trophy-taking usually involve either something big and personal, like a head, or something small and easily removed, like a finger?  Maybe the prop people just wanted something that was easy to dangle from a necklace?  But why not one of the cervical verts in that case?

Then I realized I was thinking way too much for 5:30 in the morning.

May 2, 2012

Recipe for a Roman Diet

Humans evolved to be omnivores.  We'll eat anything we can get our hands on - fruit, vegetables, beans, grains, meat - and we've invented innumerable ways to cultivate and refine those basic ingredients, particularly in the last 10,000 years or so since the agricultural revolution.

But diet in the past was limited, primarily by geography but also by social class or culture.  Before the New World was discovered, Italian food had no tomatoes.  Before the industrialization of food production, many items we think of as dirt cheap today, like salt, were too expensive for the poor to purchase.  If you didn't live on the coast, you probably weren't eating seafood.

When we talk about ancient diets, then, we're looking primarily at commonalities - what the average person was eating - while at the same time understanding that omnivores make for a dietarily heterogeneous population.  There is no singular "American" diet, but we can agree that most of us likely consume a large amount of corn-based products, which are cheap and ubiquitous in the form of corn syrup, tortilla chips, popcorn, etc.  This reliance on corn, a crop native to the New World, means that the average American diet differs from the average European, African, or Asian diet.  Biochemically, we can see this difference in carbon isotopes, and we can show that their value increased following the transition to maize agriculture in the Americas (see, for example, Tykot 2006).  My carbon isotope value is almost certainly higher than that of most contemporary Europeans.

Roman-era Mosaic
Similarly, there is no singular "Roman" diet, particularly in the Empire when goods were moving around at astounding rates, although researchers agree that a heck of a lot of wheat was consumed by all social classes and that olives and olive oil contributed a number of calories and fat to most people's diets.  Ancient historical sources also seem to agree that no one really liked barley and that millet was only consumed in times of struggle, as both of these grains make inferior bread compared to wheat (Garnsey 1988).  Yet dried millet tended to keep longer than other grains, making it good for storage along with dry legumes like chickpeas, lupin beans, and lentils, the latter another food that was most often consumed in times of shortage.

Ordinary Romans - that is, small farmers, peasants, and rural slaves who made up the majority of the ancient Italian population - likely got a large chunk of their diet from their non-cash crops like millet, legumes, and turnips, at least based on what writers such as Columella, Strabo, and Galen tell us (Garnsey 1988).  Their daily diet would have been a far cry from the exotic foodstuffs found at elite banquets.  But, as Horace writes, "Ieiunus raro stomachus volgaria temnit" (Satires II, 2, xxxviii).  A hungry stomach rarely scorns plain food.

In order to find out what kinds of plain food the ancient Italians were eating, bioarchaeologists are starting to perform carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses of skeletons (e.g., Prowse et al. 2004, Prowse et al. 2005, Craig et al. 2009, Rutgers et al. 2009, Killgrove 2010).  Biochemical analysis isn't perfect, as it only yields a very macro-view of the diet.  That is, the carbon isotope ratio can provide information about the kinds of plants and grains consumed, and the nitrogen isotope ratio can provide information on the relative amount of legumes and fish consumed.  But depending on the rate of bone turnover, which can be different in different people because of age or disease status, the C and N isotopes represent an average of the last perhaps 5-10 years of a person's diet.  With that in mind, here's what the skeletons are telling us about what people were eating in the Roman suburbs and down along the coast during the Empire:

(Click to embiggen)
The carbon axis shows that the people living in the Roman suburbs and along the coast were eating mostly wheat and barley (C3 foods, which have lower carbon isotope values) rather than millet (C4 food, which has a much higher carbon isotope value, starting around -13.0 permil). But their carbon values are higher than a purely C3-based diet, so those could be affected by marine resources and/or consumption of animals that were foddered on millet.  The nitrogen axis shows that most people were eating a terrestrial, fairly omnivorous diet, with the coastal population of Velia eating a surprisingly little amount of fish.  The pure vegetarians would be at the low end of the N axis, and the pure pescatarians would be at the high end (along with breastfeeding infants).

So what is the recipe for a Roman diet?  Well, it's a little bit of everything, really.  But you wouldn't know that from reading the half dozen or so cookbooks that contemporary authors have written to approximate Roman cuisine.  For example, my copy of A Taste of Ancient Rome, while it has much to recommend it, has just two recipes that include lentils and none that include millet.

In his Historia Naturalis, Pliny notes that Campania in particular is full of millet and that peasants often mixed bean-meal (lomentum) with millet flour. Since cooking and chemistry are two sides of the same coin, I decided to remedy this omission by creating an historically-accurate dish that a Roman peasant might have eaten but also one that would show up isotopically in the skeleton (if eaten in large enough quantities).
Roman Millet and Lentil Salad* 
     Simmer 1/2 cup of lentils in 1 cup of water for 20 minutes, or until soft.  Separately, simmer 1/2 cup of millet in 1 cup of water for 15 minutes.  Put aside to cool.
     Mince 1/2 cup of onion, 1/4 cup of parsley, 2 tablespoons of fresh mint, and 1 clove of garlic.  Add to grains.
     In a separate bowl, mix 1/4 cup of lemon juice, 1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar, and 1 teaspoon salt.  Pour over the salad and toss well.
     Top with freshly cracked pepper.
* See alternative recipe in the comments. 
Mmmmm, tastes like high carbon and low nitrogen!
I served myself up a bunch of this salad for lunch, and I garnished it with some other Roman staples to make it a balanced meal: a bit of cheese, olives, and dried apricots.  It's delicious.  Kind of like tahbouli, which coincidentally is my go-to dish on 90-degree weeks like this in North Carolina.

On Monday, I'll be serving this to my friend Sarah Bond's Roman history class at Washington & Lee, while I tell them about the information skeletons can give us that histories can't.  Let's hope the students like it (and that it helps them remember something about isotopes and ancient diets)!

Bonam appetitionem!

Related Posts


Craig, O., Biazzo, M., O'Connell, T., Garnsey, P., Martinez-Labarga, C., Lelli, R., Salvadei, L., Tartaglia, G., Nava, A., RenĂ², L., Fiammenghi, A., Rickards, O., & Bondioli, L. (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 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.21021

Garnsey P. 1988. Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World. Cambridge University Press.

Giacosa I.G. 1992. A Taste of Ancient Rome. University of Chicago Press.

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

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 (1), 2-13 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20094

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

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

R. Tykot (2006). Isotope Analyses and the Histories of Maize Histories of Maize: Multidisciplinary Approaches to the Prehistory, Linguistics, Biogeography, Domestication, and Evolution of Maize, 131-142 DOI: 10.1016/B978-012369364-8/50262-X   This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

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