Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival XXXVII
It's pretty much all about Roman Britain this month, with a slew of articles and news pieces on some really fascinating skeletons...
- 12 January. The Independent - Mystery of Alexander the Great's Death Solved? Ruler Was 'Killed by Toxic Wine' Claim Scientists. In the latest theory of what caused the prolonged death of Alexander the Great, a New Zealand toxicologist has suggested it was Veratrum album or white hellebore, a poisonous plant of the lily family that historically was used as an emetic in ancient Greece. This can't, of course, be proven... but it could make for an interesting episode of Bones.
|Head-hunted Roman. (via The Guardian)|
- 14 January. The Guardian - London Skulls Reveal Gruesome Evidence of Roman Head Hunters. A new examination of a few dozen skulls excavated in the late 1980s has revealed that the heads were likely exposed for a while after decapitation. The Romans did display dead people (think of Cicero's hands and head being displayed on the rostra), so it's not a huge surprise, but it's cool that these bioarchaeologists could tell that from the remains. This news piece is based on Becky Redfern and Heather Bonney's new article in JAS. Here's another story in Discovery News with nice pictures, and Becky Redfern gives her own account on the Museum of London's website.
- 21 January. The Guardian - Carthaginians Sacrificed Own Children, Archaeologists Say. So, the discussion about whether or not Carthaginian tophets were places of ritual child sacrifice continues in the pages of Antiquity. The latest article is by a bunch of archaeologists and historians. I'm not thoroughly convinced by any of the arguments, but if I had to come down on a side, I'd believe the bioarchaeological evidence (or lack thereof).
|Not a brothel baby. (via English Heritage)|
- 24 January. LiveScience - Ancient Roman Infanticide Didn't Spare Either Sex, DNA Suggests. This news story (which quotes me) covers a new JAS paper on the so-called "brothel babies" that were reported in 2011. I'm glad to see that the original osteologists who claimed these were neonates of prostitutes in a Roman brothel have reversed their stance after DNA testing, as "brothel babies" had become somewhat of a running joke in the Roman bioarch community. I am a bit disappointed, though, that only LiveScience has covered the update. Of course the BBC, Daily Mail, Telegraph, etc., that originally ran with the "brothel babies" story haven't issued any sort of update.
- 27 January. ScienceDaily - Plague or Black Death Could Re-emerge: Cause of One of the Most Devastating Pandemics in Human History Revealed. More new research on the pathogen that likely caused the Plague of Justinian.
|Fig. 3 from Mays et al. 2014|
- Jan-Feb. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, "An infant femur bearing cut marks from Roman Hambleden, England," by S. Mays et al. This article is a fascinating look at some perimortem trauma to a perinatal femur of a Roman-era child in England. Mays and colleagues suspect it resulted from the practice of embryotomy, or cutting a perinate out of the mother due to obstructed labor.
- Jan-Feb. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, "Age-related cortical bone maintenance and loss in an Imperial Roman population," Beauchesne & Agarwal. This study of bones from Velia revealed no sex-specific bone loss (which we tend to see in Western populations, in which women are more prone to osteoporosis).
- 3 January. Ancient Studies Articles Podcast - Food for Rome (Killgrove & Tykot 2013). I took some time to read aloud my Roman diet paper from last year. You can download it from the ASAPodcast. I think it's also going up on the Elsevier site at some point (since I got permission from them to record this).
- 20 January. LiveScience - Can 'Skull Theory' Reveal Sex of an Unborn Baby? This was a fun story to comment on. Just before I gave my human osteology students a lecture on assessing sex from skull morphology, Stephanie Pappas of LiveScience pointed me to a website that suggests you can use the same morphology to tell the sex of your unborn baby on ultrasound. I told her immediately that it was nonsense (and that it's sex, not gender) but did a bit of background research to make sure I had data behind my knee-jerk reaction. All the juvenile osteology textbooks assert that using sexually dimorphic morphology (e.g., the size of the mastoid process) to assess sex isn't possible until about puberty when, of course, sexual dimorphism from secondary sexual characteristics becomes apparent. At any rate, this article was a good way for me to talk to my students about the shortcomings of assessing sex based on skeletal remains.