June 29, 2012

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival XVIII

Wow, and I thought the last few months have been slow in terms of Roman skeleton news... this month, I have, well, four links, none of which is technically Roman in date:
  • So this is also Anglo-Saxon, but it is a really cool find - a woman buried with a cow.  According to the article, only 31 burials with animals have been found in England... all of them male and all of them with horses.  This woman buried with a cow is a very interesting discovery, and I hope more information about it comes out soon.
Anglo-Saxon burial of a woman with a cow (credit: BBC)
Let's hope the start of summer excavations at various sites in Italy will bring some interesting skeleton finds next month!

June 21, 2012

My Preschool Archaeologist

Cecilia (my 3-year-old) and I were on a walk in the woods this afternoon when she found some pottery sherds eroding out of the path from underneath a small tree root.  We recovered what we could, took them home, and cleaned them off.  Then she looked for joins and glued the pieces together.
Whiteware with brown slip?Putting it together
I know next to nothing about historic American pottery.  Anyone want to hazard a guess as to age?  The paste seems pretty solid, so I'm guessing it's pretty recent.  One piece is brown on both sides, but the rest are white on one side and brown on the other.  It seems to be a big vessel of some sort - a large pot, I gather.

I explained a bit about context, erosion, surface scatter, and how to clean pottery to understand what it used to be.  Cecilia really likes the book Archaeologists Dig for Clues, so she has a pretty good idea about what archaeology is.  But she wasn't nearly as interested in the sherds as I was... or in my explanation of taphonomic processes that may have brought those particular sherds to rest in that particular place.  Maybe in a few more years...  Right now, C's much more interested in showing what a good primate she is!

June 18, 2012

Classics at TJ's UVa

Just about a week ago, students, faculty, alumni, and other members of the UVa community received an email announcing the sudden resignation of President Teresa Sullivan.  This came as a surprise to all because Sullivan, the first female president of a school founded by Thomas Jefferson, was only two years into her tenure and was, by all accounts, an effective and compassionate leader.

Statue of Homer stands in front of the
neo-classically styled Old Cabell Hall (photo credit),
which sits at the opposite end of The Lawn from
the Rotunda, a half-scale copy of the Pantheon.
In the week since the announcement, rumors have swirled, emails have been leaked, and an emergency faculty senate meeting - convened on a Sunday evening - had record turn-out and a near-ultimatum from the current provost.  I don't presume to have all the facts about this situation, although it sure seems that Sullivan's resignation was tenaciously sought and manipulated by the Board of Visitors.  One of the stated reasons: Sullivan was unwilling to make cuts to cash-negative departments like classics.

As a proud UVa alumna and classics major, I found it difficult to believe that anyone would want to cut a discipline that studies the very foundations of Jefferson's thinking and therefore much of our contemporary governance.  What did the Founding Father - a polyglot who learned Latin and Greek at age 9 - say about the classics again?
For classical learning, I have ever been a zealous advocate.  -- Letter to Thomas Cooper, 1814 
Among the values of classical learning, I estimate the luxury of reading the Greek and Roman authors in all the beauties of their originals. -- Letter to John Brazier, 1819
I think the Greeks & Romans have left us the present models which exist of fine composition, whether we examine them as works of reason, or of style & fancy; and to them we probably owe these characteristics of modern composition. [...] To all this I add, that to read the Latin & Greek authors in their original, is a sublime luxury; and I deem luxury in science to be at least as justifiable as in architecture, painting, gardening, or the other arts. [...] I thank on my knees, him who directed my early education, for having put into my possession this rich source of delight; and I would not exchange it for anything which I could then have acquired, & have not since acquired. -- Letter to Dr. Joseph Priestly, 1800
Our culture is, of course, different now than in Jefferson's day.  Latin and Greek are no longer the language of scholarship, nor is French.  Scientists who discover a new species no longer have to describe it in Latin, although taxonomy still roughly adheres to traditional nomenclature drawn from the classical languages.  The Father of the University of Virginia likely didn't foresee English becoming the lingua franca of academia or the United States becoming a world power.  But he did understand very well how higher education should work:
When sobered by experience, I hope our successors will turn their attention to the advantages of education.  I mean of education on the broad scale, and not that of the petty academies, as they call themselves, which are started up in every neighborhood, and where one or two men, possessing Latin and sometimes Greek, a knowledge of the globes, and the first six books of Euclid, imagine and communicate this as the sum of science.  They commit their pupils to the theatre of the world, with just taste enough of learning to be alienated from industrious pursuits, and not enough to do service in the ranks of science.  I hope the necessity will at length be seen of establishing institutions here, as in Europe, where every branch of science useful at this day, may be taught in its highest degree. -- Letter to John Adams, 1814
Thomas Jefferson's UVa is one of the preeminent public universities in the country, and his successors deserve great credit for continuing his vision of what higher education in the United States should be.  UVa offers a range of classes in a huge variety of disciplines, which is the very reason I decided to attend it: to broaden my education and my understanding of both the sciences and the humanities.  Growing up in Charlottesville, though, makes it hard not to model one's education after Jefferson's.

I don't know the full story behind Sullivan's ouster, but I sincerely hope that the rumors about cutting departments and providing online degrees aren't true. To make UVa a "petty academie" would mean denying the youth of Virginia the well-rounded education that Jefferson so strongly advocated.


June 12, 2012

Looks Like Osteology, Tastes Like Pastry

You know you need to get back into the lab when your first thought upon pulling a tray of apricot jam muffins out of the oven is, "Hey, that looks just like a humeral head epiphysis."

Mmmmm... epiphyseal deliciousness.

June 6, 2012

Dutch National Museum of Antiquities (Thanatourism in Leiden, Part II)

Although my favorite part of my recent trip to Holland was visiting all the skeletons and medical oddities at the Museum Boerhaave, I also greatly enjoyed the national antiquities museum, Rijksmuseum van Oudheden.  It's no secret that northern Europe has fantastic museums.  I wrote about the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen a few years ago, and much of that holds for the RMO - the museum has lots of clean lines, a mix of more traditional display cases and novel methods of presenting artifacts, and manages to show you a ton of objects without the claustrophobic feeling that tends to come with antiquities museums in Greece or Italy.

Some of my favorite displays can be seen in this slideshow:

The atrium was really lovely, and on the top floor, there was a Roman-style roof that projected into the display space.  I also very much liked the cut-away of a typical Roman-era grave that was built into the wall, as well as the reconstruction of a columbarium that included actual busts and containers that came from Roman columbaria.  Both of these were very effective ways of presenting what Roman burials looked like.  Similarly, placing the gravestones from Abydos into a cemetery configuration - although it made it hard to read them - gave them more context than they would have had lined up against a wall.

But I know you all want me to get to the actual skeletons, of which the RMO had quite a number.  These are the ones I took photographs of:

So there were skeletons from a range of different time periods in the history of the Netherlands, along with skeletons from elsewhere in the world.  The skeletons were all laid out well, with pretty good signage and often a variety of artifacts to put them into context.  Really, that's my biggest compliment for the museum: the great contextualization of objects, skeletons, and history, particularly in the Archaeology of the Netherlands exhibit, which was extremely well laid-out, absolutely gorgeous, with little activities for kids to do (like explore the beds and objects of children in various time periods).  Just fantastic.  See the middle picture at the link above for an idea of how it's laid out like a timeline/ribbon rather than in just a series of display cases.

And for those of you who want some more Roman-era stuff, here are some of the great pieces the RMO has on display (plus, at the end, a few neat objects from other places and eras):

This museum seemed expensive at first (entry costs 9 euro), especially after I saw the map, which made it look like the museum was pretty spare, but it was quite impressive and well worth my 9E and 3 hours.  (I could have spent more time there, but I was hungry and had to move on to Amsterdam.  In retrospect, I should have spent more time in Leiden.  Wonderful town.)  It feels like the RMO has one of just about everything - this means it's often hard to compare stylistic variation within a subset of artifacts, but overall the collection effectively displays the deep history of Holland.  So if you're ever in the area, do check out this museum and its cute gift shop, where I bought my daughter a copy of Miffy in Latin.

Etched in Bone: Uncovering information about immigrants to Rome

I just returned from Holland, where I spent a lovely few days talking to all manner of experts on ancient Rome during the Moving Romans conference and thanatouring Leiden's excellent Museum Boerhaave and the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden.

My own contribution to the conference was called "Etched in Bone," and I both summarized some of my recent research on identifying immigrants to Rome (which I've previously blogged about here, here, here, and here - whew!) and expanded on that work by including some new data that, while not statistically significant, offer a look at variation within the immigrant population and let me generate new hypotheses about the lives of immigrants to Rome (hypotheses that, of course, need to be tested with more data!).

Surely the immigrant experience was not the same for everyone - after all, some immigrants were free, some were rural slaves, and some were domestic slaves.  What do these preliminary data suggest?


The immigrant sample I'm working with has just 19 individuals.  I'm the first to admit that that's a pretty small number and certainly can't be extrapolated to the whole of Rome or the whole of the Empire.  But it would do a disservice to the study of immigrants not to explore trends and patterns, even in this small data set.

Out of the immigrants, there were 7 adult males, 3 adult females, and 9 subadults of indeterminate sex (that is, under about 16 years of age).  First, this tells us that all sorts of people were immigrating to Rome, not just young men.  This is the basic demographic chart, which interestingly enough shows a spike in the 11-15-year-old age range:

Demographics of Immigrants to Imperial Rome

Based on what we know about general subadult mortality in the Empire, kids in the age range of 0-5 have the highest likelihood of dying.  So what's going on here?  Well, what intrigues me is that I tested six individuals in the 11-15-year-old age range -- and all of them came back as non-local or immigrants.  My working hypothesis is that the large spike indicates that the 11-15-year-old age range is the time that many immigrants were coming to Rome.  We might expect a high mortality of new immigrants, those people who just completed a physically exhausting journey and have arrived at a city with a different disease ecology than their homeland.  Additional data are needed, of course, to see if the pattern holds, but we could also test third molars, which form between the ages of 12-16, to better pinpoint the age at arrival of immigrants.

Lead Poisoning and Immigrants

Another way of looking at the variation within immigrants is through lead concentrations (data from Montgomery et al. 2010).  Now, we didn't test everyone, so both the locals and the immigrants are seen in the chart below, with larger circles representing higher concentrations of lead in the first molar:

Lead Concentration in Locals and Immigrants to Imperial Rome

For reference, a lead concentration of 1 mg/kg is the current upper limit, per the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for kids (but there's talk of lowering the limit to 0.6 mg/kg), and a lead concentration of 10 mg/kg is the current level for "very severe lead poisoning."  It's evident from the chart that only two people had lead concentrations lower than the modern recommendation.

We know, of course, about the increase in anthropogenic lead in the Empire.  But what I'm seeing here is that locals (that is, people from Rome) were incorporating a relatively small but consistent level of lead in their bodies - a level higher than modern recommendations but much lower than severe lead poisoning.  Two of the immigrants, though, have levels over this severe lead poisoning level - it's likely they were mentally handicapped or suffered from physical or behavioral challenges because of the high lead exposure they suffered as kids.

So my current, again preliminary, interpretation of these data is that since lead use was rampant in Rome, people living there were all likely to get at least a little lead exposure in their childhoods.  But in other parts of the Empire, where the immigrants hailed from, there may have been pockets of industrial production such that some people got intense exposure to lead but others didn't.  If it becomes possible to isolate the homelands of these immigrants, it may be possible to line up archaeological evidence of the lead industry with lead concentration in the skeletons.

Porotic Hyperostosis: Diet, Malaria, or Lead Poisoning?

I've blogged before about the relationship among carbon isotopes, oxygen isotopes, and porotic hyperostosis after hearing a talk about it by Bethany Turner (whose article just came out in AJPA early view).  In short, Turner found in Peru that porotic hyperostosis - which is an indication of the non-specific condition anemia - was much more likely to be related to environment (i.e., a parasitic condition creating anemia) than to diet (i.e., iron-deficiency anemia from eating too much maize) by demonstrating that people with porotic hyperostosis had higher O values but similar C values than people without it.

What I found in the immigrant population from Imperial Rome is that all the immigrants with porotic hyperostosis were from areas with higher O values than Rome - that is, they were coming from warmer, drier climates, possibly from south of Rome in the peninsula of Italy or possibly even from northern Africa.  Yet almost all of them have similar carbon values, suggesting they were eating largely the same diet as the people from Rome:

Immigrants to Rome compared via C and O isotopes and porotic hyperostosis
(NB: triangles indicate higher Pb concentration than modern recommendations;
star indicates higher Pb concentration than severe lead poisoning)

This suggests, then, that environment rather than diet may be the proximate cause of anemia in this immigrant sample.  It makes some sense, since people coming from warmer, drier areas may have been more exposed to malaria or another parasitic condition than people living in or near Rome, which did have malaria but also had a very good, reliable aqueduct system.

Still, this is Rome we're talking about, so no explanation can be that simple.  Another factor in porotic hyperostosis is lead poisoning, which can cause severe anemia.  Again, not all of these people were tested for lead, but 4 of the 5 people with porotic hyperostosis also had lead levels over the modern recommendation.  So, there's a strong correlation among high O values, high Pb values, and porotic hyperostosis in immigrants to Rome.

It's possible that both malaria and industrial pollution affected these immigrants' health, resulting in systemic anemia that showed up in their bones.  But it definitely appears at the moment like environment was a much bigger factor in anemia among immigrants living in Rome than was their diet.

Future Prospects on Moving Romans

Lots more work needs to be done on skeletons from Rome.  There are some intrepid bioarchaeologists out there starting to work on questions and hypotheses I've outlined above, but it's quite a fertile and unexplored research field at the moment.

In the meantime, I'll be ruminating on the great questions, suggestions, and conversations I had at the Moving Romans conference, particularly as I get my article on health and disease out for publication (hopefully in a couple weeks' time) and start working up my Sr/O article for peer review.


Montgomery, J., Evans, J.A., Chenery, S.R., Pashley, V., & Killgrove, K. (2010). 'Gleaming, white and deadly' : using lead to track human exposure and geographic origins in the Roman period in Britain Journal of Roman Archaeology, Suppl 78, 199-226.

Turner BL, & Armelagos GJ (2012). Diet, residential origin, and pathology at Machu Picchu, Peru American Journal of Physical Anthropology PMID: 22639369

June 2, 2012

Thanatourism in Leiden

I'm currently in the Netherlands, for a short conference that happened yesterday.  It was all kinds of awesome, and I promise I will blog about my contribution (including the new charts I made because charts make me happy) soon, but I wanted to put up some rather more touristy pictures.

Given my professional interests, I'm often what you might call a "death tourist."  No, let's call it a "thanatourist" because portmanteaux sound much fancier.  I've always loved checking out cemeteries in different states and different countries.  But the neat thing about Europe is that most places have some kind of natural history or science/medical history museum.  And I always go.  This afternoon, after wandering in the sunny 60-degree day through the various Saturday markets, snagging some souvenirs in shops along Haarlemerstraat, and visiting a cemetery near Zijlpoort, I spent a couple hours at the Museum Boerhaave.

Nosce te ipsum
Skeleton man on skeleton horse
The museum was officially established in 1931 and is now located in the former convent/hospital of St. Cecilia (Caeciliagasthuis), which dates to the early 15th century and was also a lunatic asylum for a while.  (Gotta love buildings that predate the discovery of America and are still standing...)  It holds scientific and medical instruments  of all kinds, from the first EKG machine to Leyden jars to the only two remaining thermometers crafted by Fahrenheit.  I largely ignored all these things, opting to spend most of my time with the 18th century anatomists the Albinus brothers, Brugman's collection of random body parts, and the rather infamous Anatomical Theater, a full-scale 1988 reconstruction of the original theater built in 1596, which has been decorated with nearly a dozen skeletons in various poses, holding banners in Latin with pithy sayings about death...
What the Anatomical Theater looked like in the
early 17th century

Skeleton-foot-eye-view of the
Anatomical Theater
There were also a number of collections of interesting anatomical specimens and teaching models:

"Ethiopian Fetus"
Papier-mache model of a fetus in utero (Auzoux, 1889)
And last but not least, some skulls, all definitely collected in a time before osteology and anthropology...

"Skull of a maniac"
"Skulls from different races"
For those of you who also find wandering through cemeteries to be as peaceful as I do, this is from one I found near Zijlpoort (although I didn't stop to find out the name of the church):

I might have to take a break from my thanatourism tomorrow as I head up the road to Amsterdam.  After all, there are windmills to see, tulip fields to trip through, and silly wooden shoes to buy.

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