December 31, 2013

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival XXXVI

Not much news in the sleepy month of December. Here's what I've got for your New Year's reading pleasure:

North Yorkshire Roman skeleton
2 December - Man discovers ancient cemetery under his house (The Cairo Post).  It could be Roman in date. Little other information appears to be available.

4 December - Ancient skeleton found in North Yorkshire sewer trench (BBC News). A flexed burial, relatively intact and assumed to date to Roman Britain, was found. No word yet on age/sex/etc.

16 December - Vandals destroy a skeleton found at Favignana ( Not much info here, particularly as to date, but it seems that an ancient skeleton that had been partially excavated was destroyed by vandals or tomb robbers.

24 December - Vatican to open poignant ancient Roman cemetery (BBC News). So this is actually really exciting.  The cemetery in the Vatican car park has actually been published (as a large coffeetable book in Italian and in English), and the burials are simply fascinating.  I do not think, though, that the analysis of the skeletons themselves has been published (or even done fully). But there is a whole lot of cool material culture (and even cooler skeletons) from this cemetery, so it's great that it'll be open to the public.  Next time I'm in Rome, perhaps...

27 December - Bioarchaeologist Moreno Tiziani wrote an interesting review of the "Written in Bone" exhibit at the Museo della via Ostiense in Rome.  His review is in Italian, but google translate does a reasonable job with it.

Alright, I hope you all have a great new year, and I hope to see everyone back here next year for more Powered by Osteons!

December 30, 2013

Blogging (Bio)Archaeology: Good, Bad, Ugly

I am slow to join Doug Rocks-Macqueen's excellent blog carnival/SAA session on Blogging Archaeology due to maternity leave, but I wanted to jump in and answer December's prompt before the year is out. Doug asks us this month to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly about blogging. Having written a blog for over a decade (although PbO in its current incarnation is only about three years old), I can honestly say that the positives far outweigh the negatives. So let's start with them...

The Good

The most immediate and lucrative rewards for me have been related to my job. But first, a bit about how this blog began... Although I've been using social media as a platform for my ideas for many years, Powered by Osteons really took off with my "Gay Caveman! ZOMFG!" post in spring of 2011. This post was linked to by John Hawks and was StumbledUpon, tweeted, and Facebooked. As a result, I got a call from CNN seeking a comment for a news story. I was terrified--it was the first time anyone had been interested in my professional opinion (outside of peer review), and I freaked out a bit, dipping into my impostor syndrome fears, but ultimately gave the interview. This minor celebrity happened to fall right before the national physical anthropology meetings, so suddenly people knew my name and started introducing themselves. That's when I decided to keep up the momentum, writing new posts accessible by the public, giving interviews to trusted science reporters, and reviewing Bones to capture another audience.

Without belaboring the point, this sort of notoriety has greatly helped my job. Interest in my posts has generated interest in my publications, and vice versa. Several of my posts here have been cited in peer-reviewed publications, which tells me my colleagues find value in my blogging. My version of outreach is appreciated by my university, which has a large public archaeology program. Social media has even led directly to benefits such as: inclusion in Open Lab (which I plan to count as a publication for tenure purposes), a position writing for Science Uncovered, trips to several countries and US cities to give public talks about my work, research money through crowdfunding, good relationships with science journalists willing to cover my research, and the creation of a social-professional network that cross-cuts various academic disciplines.

The Bad

I see two main negatives to blogging, but I have not yet experienced them myself. First, putting energy into a blog may detract from the time one could put into writing an article or a grant proposal. Professors at research universities, therefore, may not benefit from blogging pre-tenure. In my case, since I am at a regional university with no PhD program, the expectations for tenure rest nearly equally on research, teaching, and service. I am making the case that PbO is primarily service, but inclusion in Open Lab this year also means I'll argue it's a publication venue. The second possible drawback to blogging (and to contributing to any public social media platform) is that you open yourself up to personal criticism, which could affect your job. For this reason, I have a fairly well-crafted blog/Twitter/G+ persona (for lack of a better word) and only write about and comment on topics I feel I can defend. Sometimes the personal spills over into the professional on social media, as it does in real life, but I am generally wary of using a public platform to discuss anything other than superficial aspects of my life.

The Ugly

That said, I am worried about the uglier aspects of use and abuse of social media.  Just the other day, the Board of Regents at the University of Kansas severely curtailed the ability of its professors to use social media to speak their minds. This seems to have been in response to a particularly caustic and tasteless tweet a UK professor fired off in September. That is not the way I use social media (for this very reason), but I don't want to lose my job simply because I blog. What if my post on crucifixion is deemed controversial? Or my criticisms of maternity leave in this country irritate my university administration? I try to use social media as a professional, but I also blog without regard to the fact that I don't have tenure. I stand by my blogging and other outreach endeavors, and I'm not interested in living in fear of professional repercussions.


I'm looking forward to next month's prompt, and to being a little more coherent when I'm back at work and not typing in the dark while my three-month-old sleeps in the crib next to me.

December 21, 2013

December Outreach

This is a bit of a housekeeping post, about some of the stuff I've been up to this month. Hopefully once I return from maternity leave in the new year, I'll have a bit more time to blog about things other than Bones and the Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival. But regardless, I'm pretty much always engaging in outreach...

  • I learned last week that my PbO post on lead poisoning in Rome was chosen as one of the best science writing pieces on the web and will be featured in the 2013 Open Lab anthology. [You can check out the full list of entries here.] This particular blog post has been accessed over 35,000 times in the two years since I wrote it, which is truly amazing, especially considering the article it's based on has been cited 6 times. To me, this is an outreach win: I get the co-author publication important for my job, and I also get to reach thousands of people with a more accessible take on the article. Do check out Open Lab, though, as it features at least four anthropologists this year.
  • The Ancient Studies Articles Podcast that Sarah Bond and I started last month now boasts nearly 200 subscribers. We'd obviously hoped that people would be interested in streaming audio articles, but I didn't expect such a rush of subscribers so quickly. Again, I count this as an outreach win. Best of all, in the new year we will be featuring several bioarchaeology articles, including three courtesy of Elsevier:
And now I'm off to "paint" icing on sugar cookies with my 4-year-old, show my newborn all the twinkly lights in the neighborhood, and make a batch of blintzes. Happy holidays, everyone!

December 7, 2013

Bones - Season 9, Episode 11 (Review)

The Spark in the Park
Episode Summary
Two people out at Lake Anna in the middle of a thunderstorm find a dead body. They take pictures and attempt to protect it from the elements with an umbrella; however, it acts as a lightning rod, and the body gets struck by lightning, exploding in various directions.

The FBI and Jeffersonian teams get called out. Brennan and Booth both note a foul smell, which Brennan describes as amaroidal. Hodgins attributes this to stink bugs. Based on blow fly larvae, he also estimates time of death at three days prior. Brennan says the victim was female based on the small pelvic inlet, and Saroyan notices the torso appears to be pre-pubescent. Slight eruption of the third molars without any attrition means the victim was in her mid to late teens. More notably, her stunted development, multiple fractures, and a metal plate in her scapula lead the team to suspect systemic abuse.

Back at the Jeffersonian, Vaziri and the rest of the team find even more evidence of trauma to the victim, including an avulsion fracture of the olecranon of the ulna (indicating repeated contraction of the tendon of the triceps), spondylolysis in the lumbar spine, prematurely fused epiphyses in the wrist, and a recent fracture of the fibula. A locket found near C4 has pictures of two adults in it, presumably the victim's parents.  Angela uses the two pictures to create an image of what their daughter might look like. This comes up with a match -- Amanda Watters, a nationally ranked gymnast whose father is a physics professor.

Sweets thinks that because of the way the body was placed -- including the face being covered by a cloth -- someone close to Amanda killed her.  Booth initially thinks it was her father, who does not seem to be processing his daughter's death like other people would. Brennan and Booth then check out the gym where Amanda trained.  Her trainer knew her for years and denies having had anything to do with her death. She was injured recently -- the fibula fracture -- by a fellow gymnast named Ellie, but she also denies being involved.  She puts Booth on the trail of Amanda's online school, and suggests Amanda was doing drugs and wasn't planning to come back to gymnastics. So Sweets gets Amanda's computer records and finds that she'd been chatting with Julian Anton about the drug molly. He also denies killing her and tells Booth about her friend Rachel who was always with her.  Booth questions Rachel and her parents; she has multiple bruises and a finger splint from falling down the stairs after her father hit her. She was planning to give up the cello, and Amanda was going to give up gymnastics. Rachel's father hit her because of this, but he denies having killed Amanda.

Back at the Jeffersonian, Angela and Hodgins work on a card they found on Amanda's body. It turns out, she had possession of her father's swipe card to get into his building on campus. She brought him dinner the night she died; he didn't remember this, which makes Booth again question whether he killed her. But Vaziri and Brennan finally figure out cause of death. The fracturing on the outer surfaces of ribs 6-8 and on the posterior plane of the sternum are signs of struggle, as is the hemorrhaging of the scalp where a chunk of hair was torn out. Subluxation and fractures to the C3 and C7 are exactly 10.16cm apart -- roughly the width of a balance beam. Booth and Brennan return to the gym and find the balance beam in question based on the traces of vomit on it; Brennan also finds a piece of Amanda's tongue that she bit off while being strangled. Booth thinks the trainer may have done it, since his passcode was used at the gym, but he denies it, saying all the girls had it. Finally, Vaziri notices that the asymmetrical fracturing to the hyoid indicates someone whose left hand was weaker than the right, and Brennan realizes the killer is Rachel.  When confronted with evidence of vomit on her injured fingers and Amanda's DNA in her car trunk, Rachel admits to having killed Amanda because she was backing out of the plan to tell her father that she wanted to quit gymnastics. Rachel had already lost her parents' trust, and she was upset with her closest friend for not going through with their pact.


  • Forensic
    • Brennan figures out the sex of the victim based on the small pelvic inlet, which is weird considering women have much wider pelvises than men. Since babies come out of the pelvic inlet/outlet, the victim should have a large one. However, it's just bad form to figure out the sex of a subadult, especially based on size alone. Given the pelvis, she would have had, say, the unfused iliac crest to tell her this was a subadult and she shouldn't be so quick to determine sex. Estimation of age-at-death, however, seemed pretty reasonable.
    • I didn't find any articles in a quick search on dead bodies that had been struck by lightning. It would be an interesting case study and paper.
    • Why in the world did they have to use some sort of weird parental morphing software to get an ID? First, the skull was far less damaged than most of the ones they use for facial reconstruction. Second, they had plenty of other traits to distinguish the remains: height, hair color, etc. And third, ugh, parental morphing software?  Really?
    • When Saroyan is holding up the victim's foot... is it just me, or does that look like a giant man-foot?  It was HUGE. Good work, prop people.
  • Plot
    • Dayyyyyum, Professor Watters' office is nice.  Can I have it, please?
    • Like last week's episode, this week's yes-this-person-did-it moment was based on traces of bodilly fluid remaining after three days.  And again, I don't buy it.
    • Apparently this all took place in one day (Saroyan is wearing the same dress throughout).  That's a lot of work for one day!
  • Dialogue
    • Vaziri inexplicably pronounces spondylolysis as spon-dy-LOL-y-sis.  I did indeed LOL at this. (And yet again, a medical dictionary agrees with the pronunciation on Bones. This always makes me wonder why/if anthropologists pronounce these words differently.  I'm pretty sure I've alwasy heard it spon-dy-lo-LY-sis.)

Forensic Mystery - C+. I thought it was pretty obvious who killed the victim and who didn't. So this episode was just eh.

Forensic Solution - B-. Other than the pelvic inlet/figuring out sex of a subadult, it was a pretty reasonable episode with a bunch of decent forensic work.

Drama - C.  See above; the mystery was ok. I did think the actor playing the professor was quite good. The stuff about Saroyan was lame. The writers are really struggling to give her some personality and plot outside the lab, aren't they?

December 3, 2013

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival XXXV

This carnival is a wee bit late owing to Thanksgiving and, well, my forgetful mama-brain.  But here are your links from November...

New Finds

  • 1 November - 6000 years of occupation at a site in eastern France. Human remains include a very awesome skull with cranial modification from the Merovingian era.  This type of modification is very uncommon in Europe, but it's thought that the practice came over with the Huns.
  • 11 November - Roman child's coffin opened for the first time (BBC). This is a very cool find, as the child was buried in a lead sarcophagus.  These sarcophagi aren't all that common, especially for kids.  Unfortunately, the news media(?) has insisted the child needs a fake name. Since they don't know if the child was male or female yet, it seems particularly premature to select a name (and pretty much every option appears to be male or neuter, in spite of the fact that jewelry typically associated with girls was found in the sarcophagus). Not that I think we need to rename skeletons anyway; they had names. It's kind of disrespectful to give them new ones just because we don't know them. Pictures after it was opened.
Roman lead sarcophagus (via Archaeology Warwickshire)
The Iron Age skeleton from Castione (via RSI)

In the News Again

Social Media

  • Sarah Bond (Marquette U) and I have created the Ancient Studies Articles Podcast.  There's a link to subscribe at the PbO post.  (It's not yet indexed on iTunes, but I hope that's happening soon.) If you like what we're doing, help us by recording an open-source article on ancient history!

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