February 28, 2014

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival XXXVIII

Some neat stuff this month...

  • 1 February -- Centuries old Beachy Head Lady's face revealed (BBC News). A woman who died in Roman Britain around 245 AD has had her face reconstructed from her skull. The news report is actually quite confusing, since at the beginning it says she's from sub-Saharan Africa, and at the end it says she grew up in East Sussex.
Facial reconstruction of the "Beachy Head Lady"
Skeletons recovered near the Uffizi galleries. (Credit: AFP/Getty Images)
  • 26 February -- Anglo-Saxon Cemetery Results Question Violent Invasion Theory (Past Horizons). New research suggests that the transition from Roman rule after the fall of the Empire was largely cultural (and not a violent invasion).  These sorts of studies are incredibly important, as much of the discussion about acculturation in the Roman world is still focused on forcible changes to/from "Roman" and "other."
  • 26 February -- Genotyping of ancient Mycobacterium tuberculosis strains reveals historic genetic diversity, by Muller, Roberts, and Brown in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, includes data from at least one Roman-era skeleton with evidence of tuberculosis.  By studying skeletons from a wide range of time periods, the authors have shown different strains and ways the bacterium could have evolved over time.

February 26, 2014

You know you're an anthropologist when...

It's almost Mardi Gras, which we take very seriously here in the Florida panhandle, with at least a dozen parades over the course of two or three weeks.  There's predictably an array of Mardi Gras-themed paraphernalia at Target, and this morning I spotted what you see below.  You know you're an anthropologist when... you immediately think of Papa Franz:

Just minutes after I posted it to Twitter, Alison Atkin awesomely tweeted this:

As I'm sure Boas himself would say... Laissez les bons temps rouler!

February 21, 2014

Hyoidkus - 17 syllables about the hyoid

I took an introductory class in human osteology three times, not because I didn't get good grades but because each time I felt like I could learn even more about the human skeleton. And each time I had a different study strategy: as an undergrad, I read the book and did my best in class but completely failed to learn about teeth; as an aspiring grad student, I created note cards to memorize vocabulary; and as a grad student, I made drawings and acronyms in an attempt to push my brain to learn and retain the information in a different way.

by Anatomography [CC-BY-SA-2.1],
via Wikimedia Commons
Although I am an absolutely terrible artist, I found that drawing bones was really helpful. Using the right side of my brain was particularly useful in concert with the vocab-memorization that my left brain was being asked to do.  So this is the approach I take in teaching human osteology: suggest ways that students can use both sides of their brains to learn the material.  This has the bonus effect of helping to engage multiple learning styles.

On the last lab, in addition to asking them to draw a clavicle and create a scapula out of play-doh, I had the students write haikus about the hyoid bone, with the promise that the top three would be featured here at PbO.  Over half of them involved strangulation of some sort, of course.  Here are the top three, judged completely partially by me:

Second Runner-up, Lynn:

What is the name of
the hyoid from Ohio?
It is "Ohyoid."

First Runner-up, Allison:

Fragile hidden arch
gives imagination voice
that ancestors lack.

Winner, Danielle:

Hyoids can be fun
or hyoids can be broken.
That would suck big time.

I've already promised to make them write limericks at some point in the semester, so stay tuned for the winners of those later in the semester!

February 17, 2014

PbO as Bioarchaeological Outreach

A colleague tipped me off to a reference to Powered by Osteons in an in-press article in the American Journal of Human Biology called "Engaging bodies in the public imagination: Bioarchaeology as social science, science, and humanities," by Chris Stojanowski and William Duncan.  I'm always happy to see PbO cited by my peers (as, for example, in the new Bioarchaeology book, and articles in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute and American Anthropologist), but this new article rubbed me the wrong way, particularly the section on "The Public Face of Bioarchaeology."  Here's the most relevant quotation (p. 5, emphasis mine):
The advent of social media has led to the rise of blogs, and blogging has made its way to bioarchaeology (http://www.poweredbyosteons.org/; http://www.bonesdontlie.com/; http://thesebonesofmine.wordpress.com/; Facebook pages such as the Bioanthropology News group and Osteocentric). These blogs provide a valuable service to the discipline, but still represent the perspective of insiders writing largely (we would argue) for other specialists and students. To really gauge the impact of bioarchaeology beyond anthropology, we data mined articles from Science Daily, a successful and popular news aggregator.
Other specialists and students?  Sure, those people read PbO, but they're only a fraction of my audience. The authors' choice to use Science Daily as a way of gauging public outreach is rather absurd, particularly since SD aggregates articles written about research by journalists or university PR people and since this method is just a metric of how interesting a science reporter could make bioarchaeological research.  That is, checking Science Daily doesn't measure how individual bioarchaeologists are reaching the public.

Why not gauge direct public outreach, as of the blogs highlighted?  I could provide half a dozen lines of evidence to show how many people I'm reaching and what kinds of information are most read/used, from blog metrics to Wikipedia citations to comments and emails from my readers.  I have most of this information readily available because I'm using blogging in my tenure case to demonstrate successful public outreach.

Also, why not look at individuals who are engaging in repeated, sustained public outreach in bioarchaeology? The authors specifically mention a 3D reconstruction of the Giza pyramid and a palaeopathology database as "more dramatic media" than blogging for "better rais[ing] the profile of other bioarchaeologies in the public consciousness" (p. 7). But this is like comparing apples to oranges; those singular products are completely different from ongoing conversations with readers in blogs.  Creating a blog and growing an audience take a great deal of time, dedication, and tinkering.

So yes, Rachel Wentz's Windover book is great, Alexis Boutin is unrivaled in osteobiography, and Kathy Reichs has raised the profile of forensic anthropology in the public imagination.  But I don't understand why blogging gets such short shrift in this article as a successful method of engagement.  As I write in a forthcoming article with Katy Meyers of Bones Don't Lie, through PbO, I have "found many positive benefits from... involvement in social media and outreach, including publications, citations, funding, contract writing jobs, and new connections with science reporters, colleagues, students, and the public."  I've had my own research written up by science reporters and discussed by a national public radio host; I have personally written about my research in a publicly-accessible way on my blog (in a post that has been accessed 35,000 times compared to 6 citations for the journal article it's based on), and that post was chosen as some of the best science writing of 2013; I've talked about others' research, both for the public and as a peer-reviewer; I write about bioarchaeology and biological anthropology for a popular science magazine; and I reach a whole different audience by pointing out the positive and negative aspects of forensics and osteology in the media.

It could be my utter lack of sleep over the last couple weeks owing to my newborn, but it was hard not to take this article a bit personally -- and my taking it personally is made all the more weird by the fact that although PbO and other blogs were mentioned in the article, their authors were not credited in either the article or the bibliography. What, precisely, are the authors looking for in public engagement in bioarchaeology? (And why aren't these two authors themselves doing it rather than writing an armchair view of public outreach?) I'm a bit mystified.  I do agree with them, however, that whatever it is, bioarchaeologists need to be doing more of it... if possible (there are sometimes insurmountable barriers to public outreach in bioarchaeology, and the authors fail to discuss this).

At any rate, after I get some sleep and get through the insanity that is the month of March, Katy Meyers and I are (spoiler alert!) working on a longer manuscript on blogging bioarchaeology and public engagement, so I'll have some more coherent things to say soon!

In the meantime, if you're a non-student, non-specialist who reads and enjoys this blog, feel free to leave a comment about why you're interested in bioarchaeology.

February 12, 2014

Darwin Day OsteOlympics

Since today is Charles Darwin's birthday, I wanted to do something fun with my osteology class.  And since the Sochi Olympics are also ongoing, I figured I'd meld them into the... OsteOlympics. (Man, I love a good portmanteau!)  We -- my TA Shevan and I -- held four events in class, and each winning individual or team received a very lovely skeleton-themed prize that I picked up for cheap at an online party store.  Events (and pictures therefrom) are as follows:

Bag o' Bones -- We made up six bags with three bones each: one rib, one vertebra, and one cranial fragment.  Students had three minutes to identify as thoroughly as possible each of the bones... without looking!  They then passed the bag along to another person and then another; this way, we only had to make up six bags for 18 students.  No one got all three bones right, so we gave stretchy skeletons for two correct answers.

Crossteologyword Puzzle -- While students were competing individually in the Bag o' Bones, the rest were completing this crossword puzzle featuring osteology vocab terms we've covered so far this semester.  My original goal was for those who got at least 12 answers right to win a prize. Apparently, the puzzle was too hard and the time given too short, so we gave out participation prizes: skull erasers.

Ben draws the glenoid fossa of the scapula.
Dead Pictionary -- We split the class into two teams. One person at a time from each team came up to the chalkboard to draw whatever was listed on the card s/he picked.  I made cards with vocab like bone, feature of bone, cranial landmark, nonmetric trait, etc.  The winning team received skull stampers.  This was by far the best event of the OsteOlympics, as students got excited about guessing what their teammate was drawing, teasing one another about their drawing skills, and just generally giving me blank looks when I asked them to draw things like diploĆ« and the sphenooccipital synchondrosis. My department chair even stopped by to see what all the commotion was about and participated in one round of pictionary.  Teaching win!

Teams start laying out their skeletons
Who needs an osteologist? -- And finally, we split the class into three groups (since we have three long rows of tables), and gave each team a disarticulated skeleton.  The task was to put the skeleton in correct anatomical position as quickly as possible, thereby bringing shame to everyone who needs an osteologist.  The winning team (who put their skeleton together in 15 minutes with only 4 errors) was awarded femur-shaped pens.  I forgot to get pictures of the laid-out skeletons.  Considering we haven't done the pelvis or any of the appendicular skeleton yet, they were pretty good. I was surprised how many teams, though, had glenoid fossae or acetabula pointed towards the midline.

In the end, every student got a couple packets of bone-shaped sweetarts for their efforts.  Much fun was had by all.  Hopefully, much learning was had too...

Stay tuned because next week, my osteology students craft hyoidkus (haikus about the hyoid, of course), and I'm planning on making them do osteology charades at some point as well.


February 10, 2014

Who Needs an Osteologist? (Installment 10)

Finally getting around to watching the otherwise good BBC/NOVA special on the skeletons in the Roman catacomb of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus.  Unfortunately, someone needs an osteologist to re-label this graphic...

Previous installments of Who needs an osteologist?

February 2, 2014

Bones - Season 9, Episode 15 (Review)

The Heiress in the Hill
Episode Summary
A giant chunk of dirt and bones is delivered to the Jeffersonian from Antietam Battlefield Park. Based on one of the right tarsals, the skeleton is female. Her right pinkie toe was severed prior to death. Although the remains were doused in lye to speed decomposition, Saroyan places time-of-death at around 24 to 36 hours ago. Brennan notes that the tooth-to-pulp ratio means she was in her mid-20s, and the angular nature of her eye socket means she was Caucasian. Damage to the teeth suggests someone was trying to ensure she wasn't found, and it means that dental records won't help ID her.

Much of the trauma to the victim's skeleton is perimortem. There is repeated trauma to the back of her head along the sagittal suture, but it is not the cause of death. Saroyan finds a DNA match - Lauren Frank, whose father is the CEO of a software company. Booth and Brennan talk to Mr. Frank and his wife, Lauren's stepmother. They had recently received Lauren's toe in the mail from a kidnapper and were told not to contact the police. The angle of the incision on the toe that the Franks have and the incision on the body in the Jeffersonian match. There was no sign of struggle in Lauren's room, however, and the security alarm was not set in her room. Booth takes Lauren's computer back to Angela, who finds out that Lauren's last appointment was an afternoon Spanish tutoring session. Booth questions Maurizio, the tutor, who insists he and Lauren were planning to run away to South America together but that he didn't kill her. Booth returns to Lauren's house to question the guy who's in charge of the house and sees Buddy the dog-walker sneaking in over the wall because he forgot his key card. Buddy tells Booth that Lauren wanted to escape her family and that she had seen her stepmother having an affair with her personal trainer. 

Back at the Jeffersonian, Fisher notes microfractures on the pisiform, triquetrum, and lunates bilaterally, as well as on her calcanei. Coupled with the cranial fractures, Brennan realizes this could have been from Lauren having a seizure. Booth digs deeper into the stepmother's life. She had taken out a kidnapping policy on her whole family, but it turns out that Lauren's father actually did it and put it in her name. Angela manages to track the cell phone that was making the texts to Lauren's father... and it was inside Lauren's house. Brennan and Booth find Lauren's phone in the stepmother's home gym. But since the stepmom is not computer savvy and the phone was sending automatic messages, Booth does not think she did it.

Hodgins finds evidence of rust in the osteons and canaliculi of Lauren's bones and sets some dermestid beetles on the remains to deflesh them. When he tests the beetles, he finds high levels of penicillin. The saw marks on Lauren's ulna and C7 that were made postmortem suggest hesitation marks, as if the person who did it knew her. Brennan notes that Lauren had a particularly virulent strain of tetanus, likely from the implement that severed her toe. Penicillin, while useful for fighting infection, could have harmed Lauren, who was allergic to it according to her medical chart. DNA on Lauren's toe comes back as belonging to her dog. When they test Buddy's grooming clippers, they find that they were used to cut off Lauren's toe.  Buddy spills the whole story: Lauren wanted to get money from her family so orchestrated the whole kidnapping. But when her toe got infected after she cut it off, Buddy got her penicillin from the vet's office, since she didn't want to go to the hospital. The penicillin made her sicker, and she had a seizure and died. Buddy tried to dispose of her body. Ironically, Buddy thought that he and Lauren would run away together, but she was setting him up for the kidnapping so that she could get away with Maurizio.

In the B plot, Hodgins has a long-lost brother who has only come into his life because he is institutionalized with schizoaffective disorder and Hodgins' trust hasn't been paying the bills since he lost all the money.
And in the C plot, Brennan makes a lot of money, and Booth doesn't, which makes him whiny. He first wants to give Brennan's book advance to Hodgins and Angela for the new brother, but they decline it so Booth donates it to the Wounded Warrior Project.

  • Forensic
    • An unnamed tarsal gives you sex of the deceased?  Really?
    • What the hell is "exposed tooth-to-pulp ratio"? I might buy that someone would call dental wear the enamel-to-dentin ratio, and the writers have, in the past, often used dental wear to estimate age-at-death. But the phrasing above makes no sense at all. I mean, she's in her 20s. She's not going to have dentin showing, much less pulp.
    • Also, if the teeth are so broken that dental records won't work, how are they good enough to estimate age-at-death?
    • Compared to the above, using the eye orbits alone to figure out ancestry looks like fantastic forensic work.
    • Fisher says PIE-si-form rather than PIH-si-form. Both are fine, but I prefer the latter.
    • Bashing your head against the ground wouldn't cause fractures to the sagittal suture. Lambdoidal suture, sure.
    • As usual, in the layout of Lauren's skeleton, the L and R clavicles are swapped.
  • Plot
    • Booth and Brennan have been married for a while now. Even if they don't have joint accounts, doesn't he have to have some clue how much money she makes?  Also, he's a federal employee, sure, but he's got his own fancy office and is clearly high up in the FBI. He makes well over $75K a year.
    • Why was Lauren's DNA on file such that Saroyan could match her in a database?
    • How much older than Jack is Jeffrey supposed to be? Schizoaffective disorder usually first manifests in, like, the teenage years. 
    • Also, why did Jack's parents not leave some special earmarked money for Jeffrey's care?  What happened to the Hodgins parents anyway? Why didn't they leave, say, a note in a safety deposit box telling Jack about his brother in the event of their deaths?  I know it's a plot convenience, but it's still annoying me.
    • Did the antibiotics cause Lauren's seizure? Or the tetanus? 
  • Dialogue
    • "With the traditional male-female dynamic changing in society, your reluctance to commingle your finances implies that it touches on issues of manhood and your status in the relationship." - Sweets to Booth

Forensic Mystery - C. Pretty obvious Lauren orchestrated it. Other than kerf marks that weren't ever fully explained, there wasn't much forensic stuff going on in this episode.

Forensic Solution - D. Age-at-death and sex estimations were super sketchy, as were some of the perimortem injuries.

Drama - C-. Not sure why the writers feel the need to inject a brother into Hodgins' life. The whole plot reminded me of a Kingdom episode. And yeah yeah, Brennan makes loads of money from her books.

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