October 31, 2014

Who needs an osteologist? (Installment 20)

This story seems to have slipped my notice over the last two weeks, but a team of radiologists in West Palm Beach, Florida, scanned an Egyptian mummy dating to 30-300 AD in advance of its going on display at the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium.

According to the news reports, which aren't terribly great, 40 years ago the mummy was studied, and researchers thought the mummy was that of a girl between the ages of 4-9 who died of tuberculosis.  The diagnosis rested on missing vertebrae, but those were found when they scanned her.  So based on a small spot, they think she may have died of appendicitis instead.

The analysis seems to have been sanctioned by the head curator of the exhibit, Egyptologist Carolyn Routledge.  But as far as I can tell from the news coverage, no osteologists were involved.  The main way I can tell? -- "Based on the modern scans, doctors say she likely is a Caucasian toddler."

Yeah, no.  Doing an ancestry estimation on subadult bones is simply not a good idea, because they're not in their adult forms (and we don't have solid methods of estimating ancestry from subadult remains, only adult remains).  However, the main reason not to call this child "Caucasian" is because that is a modern classification that is based on the (skin color) analysis of modern people, and she died 2,000 years ago. While you could argue that we could call the mummy "Caucasoid" using the correct forensic terminology, bioarchaeologists do not do ancestry estimations from modern forensic criteria.  When we do, we get issues like the shitstorm that erupted when Kennewick Man was called "Caucasian" and everyone thought that meant Europeans were in the U.S. before Native Americans.  This ancient Egyptian 3-year-old was not Caucasian.  Just... no.

Next time, please call an osteologist with expertise in mummies, or at least don't let doctors speculate on an ancient person's genetic heritage based on poorly understood terminology and poorly applied techniques used in contemporary forensic situations.

Previous Installments of Who needs an osteologist?

Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival LXV

Welp, I seem to have missed last month's RBC.  Oops.  So here's an extra-large helping of Roman(ish) bioarchaeology news for the last couple of months!

Italy and Greece
"Witch girl". Via Discovery News.
  • 23 October. Roman-Britons had less gum disease than modern Britons (Medical Xpress). Over 300 skulls from Poundbury (Dorset; 200-400 AD) were studied for various dental diseases. Only 5% had significant periodontal disease, whereas 15-30% of modern Britons do. The Romano-Britons did have more carious lesions, abscesses, and tooth wear, though.
  • 17 September.  Successful 2,300-year-old brain surgery techniques now being recreated in Siberia (IB Times). An interdisciplinary team of specialists is trying to recreate the form of and tools used for trepanation practiced by the Pazyryk people, who lived in the Altai Mountains (Siberia) and were known to the Greeks as early as the 5th century BC. Specifically, they posit a link between the Pazyryk and the Hippocratic Corpus, which mentions techniques like trepanation.  (This is possible, of course, that the knowledge was shared, but trepanation was independently invented at least several times over the course of human history.)
Asia Minor
  • 10 October. Mystery of mass graves in ancient Roman village under examination (Hurriyet). These mass graves were found in the ancient city of Pisidia Antiocheia and include 24 skeletons. They might be related to an epidemic that swept through between the 6th and 9th centuries AD, and the excavator thinks it may have been a family.
Gladiator blows. Via LiveScience.
Middle East
  • 30 September. Skeletons shed light on ancient earthquake in Israel (Discovery News). Archaeologists have found at least one skeleton (doesn't seem to be an MNI in the article) that they think was a person killed in a violent earthquake in 363 AD in the ancient city of Hippos.
  • 17 October. St. Mary's doctors determine 2,100-year-old "Mummy Girl" died of appendicitis (WPTV News).  For some reason, a bunch of radiologists scanned a mummy that's on display in a museum in West Palm Beach, Florida.  There's no suggestion for why they think she died of appendicitis (which isn't really common in young children, is it?).  They also apparently determined she was "Caucasian" which (even if we buy the idea that we could apply modern racial labels to people from 2,000 years ago, which WE CAN'T) is literally impossible from the bones of a child, so yeah.  No osteologists appear to have been consulted in this, even though there are plenty of us in this state.  Grrrr.  This kind of nonsense annoys me because you can't just xray or CT scan a mummy and assume that you have all the information a highly trained osteologist with expertise on human remains from the past would. (Another report suggests she died around 30 BC.)
News Items Relevant to Roman Bioarch
  • 11 October. The fatal attraction of lead (BBC News). Everyone loves lead poisoning lately, and this is a brief survey of its use over the last couple millennia.
Hope you all enjoy your Halloween!  I will get to last night's Bones as soon as I track down a copy, as my DVR messed up and didn't record it.  In the meantime, here are the cupcakes my 5-year-old made for the occasion:

October 23, 2014

Who needs an osteologist? (Installment 19)

Welcome back to Who needs an osteologist?  Today, we have a special fantasy-chimera edition thanks to my husband, who was recently at GitHub HQ in San Francisco for an all-company meeting.  He snapped this picture of the "skeleton" of the famous GitHub Octocat:

Felis octocatus skeleton at GitHub headquarters

Octocat in the flesh

The sign below the display reads, "Octocat Skeleton. Felis octocatus.  This piece, which GitHub was lucky enough to receive from an anonymous donor, is the oldest known fossil evidence of an octocat. Carbon dating reveals the remarkably well-preserved remains to be approximately 6.3 million years old, suggesting that the evolutionary and taxonomical split between Felis silvestris and Felis octocatus gradually occurred somewhere off the coast of the South China Sea, when a constitutionally robust ancestor of octocatus ventured seaward, most likely as a result of the scarcity of rodent prey."

Yes, this is a cute mock-up of a fake animal.  But I can still rag on it, right?  To wit:
  • Carbon dating can only go back to about 60,000 years, not 6 million.  We can't actually directly date fossils that old; we have to use the context in which they were found (e.g., rock) and we have to use other elements, like uranium, potassium, and argon.
  • Felis silvestris showed up 2 million years ago, having come from the earlier Felis lunensis (around 2.5 million years ago), so it's impossible for Felis octocatus to have diverged from F. silvestris 6 million years ago. 
  • Octopuses have no bones.
  • So, assuming the majority of the skeleton in question would be similar to a cat--domesticated or ancient--it appears that
    • Each of the five arms (yes, the Octocat is a Pentacat) is composed primarily of what look like caudal vertebrae.
    • The rudimentary body is similar to the morphology of large cervical vertebrae, I guess.
    • The nasal opening is far too small for that of a cat.
    • Unless the Octocat is part primate, as it has large, forward-facing eyes and bony orbits more similar to lemurs' and monkeys' than to cats', the eyes are wrong.
    • I'm unaware of any mammal that has bony protrusions for the ears rather than, you know, ear-holes.
I have no artistic talent, though, so can't make a mock-up of what I think the Octocat should look like.  Anyone want to take a shot?

And GitHub... pretty please, could you change the sign so that the C14 information is corrected? A simple substitution of "uranium" or "potassium" for "carbon" should do.  It makes me twitchy.

Previous Installments of Who needs an osteologist?

October 22, 2014

Roman Gladiators' (and a Gladiatrix's?) Diet

A press release is going around about a dietary analysis of Roman gladiator skeletons from Imperial-era Ephesos, headlined "Roman gladiators ate a mostly vegetarian diet and drank a tonic of ashes after training."

While I haven't had time to carefully and thoroughly dissect the publication, which came out last week in PLoS (Losch et al. 2014), it seems reasonably sound. The published C/N isotope ratios are totally in line with what we'd expect from the Roman diet--and also show the variation that we expect to see around the Empire.  (I have to confess I'm a bit miffed that they discuss all the C/N isotope studies from around Rome but not Killgrove & Tykot 2013 from Rome itself.)

The Sr/Ca trace element analysis is potentially more problematic.  Again, a confession: I don't fully understand the mechanics of the process of trace element analysis, nor the major issues with diagenesis (the chemical deterioration of organic skeletal components, like collagen, that can affect measurement of things like trace elements).  I do know that the ability to control for diagenesis has made great advances in recent years, meaning studies like trace Pb analysis are now possible.  But if I trust the researchers that they controlled for diagenesis to the best of their abilities, their Sr/Ca results are very interesting.

Relief of two gladiatrices from Halicarnassus
Losch and colleagues make the case that gladiators were drinking an ash-tonic based on both historical and chemical-ethnographic evidence.  Plant ash (pyxis) is mentioned in Roman texts as having medicinal properties, and as something that gladiators specifically consumed. But they cite another study (Burton & Wright 1995) that looked at a traditional Hopi food (bivilviki) that included ash. Burton & Wright similarly concluded that ash, even if infrequently consumed, could show up in the Sr/Ca of bone.  Pretty cool.  I think that Losch and colleagues may go too far in trying to figure out when the gladiators died based on the "strong gradient or high variation of Sr/Ca-ratios," and the paragraphs on feeding studies and bone turnover rates simply don't convince me that this can be accomplished, as they rely on many assumptions they can't test.

All in all, this seems to be a very well-designed study that answers interesting research questions but leaves others open for more research (from other cemeteries or with other methodologies).

My only complaint (you knew a complaint was coming, right?) is that the "only female to be found in the gladiator cemetery" seems to be treated as an anomalous burial rather than, dare I say it?, a gladiator -- or gladiatrix -- herself.  (I'm not sure what that conclusion was based on; perhaps some archaeological context?)  But, her slightly different diet (higher in millet or millet-consuming animals than the men's diets, and whatever her Sr/Ca ratio was) would be really interesting interpreted against a backdrop of gender differences in gladiatorial games.


Update (10/23/14) - I was asked to comment on this study for a news article in the Biblical Archaeology Review blog, and that led me to this 2008 article in Archaeology Magazine (vol. 61, issue 6) - The Gladiator Diet.  It seems to be based on both a 2007 AAPA abstract (PDF here, p. 139) and some then-new isotope results. I couldn't find anything in between the 2008 news piece and the 2014 publication. The time-delay to publication is curious but not abnormal, especially if the authors had to run additional tests for diagenesis.


Update (10/25/14) - I read the article a bit more thoroughly in advance of a comment I gave to NPR's Maria Godoy for her article "Gladiator Gatorade?".  Some further thoughts:
  • First, although the average gladiator diet shows consumption of C3 resources (wheat and barley) and a N value somewhere between beans and terrestrial meat, there is plenty of variation.  There were gladiators who ate a more veggie diet, and those who ate a more meat-heavy diet.  This variation, though, is precisely what we see in other Roman Imperial dietary isotope studies.  The headline that gladiators were vegetarian is not at all right.
  • Second, the Sr/Ca ratios are indeed much higher for the gladiators than for the contemporaneous people.  This is strong evidence for the gladiators' consuming a lot of calcium from a source that doesn't show up in the isotopes -- while ash-drink (likely made from poplar wood, which has a particularly high Sr/Ca ratio and is abundant at Ephesos) is a definite possibility, the authors admit they can't exclude something slightly more mundane, like dairy.
  • Third, the discussion of the "only female from the gladiator cemetery" is confusing.  Based on the sample number, she was from a nearby cemetery context that included other females.  Her C ratio suggests she ate more millet (or animals foddered on millet) than the other locals, and her S ratio also makes a strong case for her being nonlocal. Her Sr/Ca ratio is not as high as the male gladiators'. If she is from the gladiator cemetery, this is really very interesting -- she's from somewhere else, recently arrived, and not taking a Ca supplement.  I'm still not sure why the authors exclude her from being a gladiatrix, nor why they call her the only female in that cemetery. I suspect I'd have to delve into the archaeological context to find out more.
  • Finally, the authors' full discussion of diagenesis is quite good, and I am convinced that there is a significantly higher Sr/Ca ratio in the gladiators.  However, I am not convinced by the bone turnover discussion -- they try to control for physical activity, but they don't take into account things like pathology -- nor their conclusions from it about when the gladiators died.  Still, it's an interesting direction in which to push the data, and I hope that eventually we will be able to confirm this kind of hypothesis when we know more about bone turnover and diagenesis.

Burton JH, & Wright LE (1995). Nonlinearity in the relationship between bone Sr/Ca and diet: paleodietary implications. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 96 (3), 273-82 PMID: 7785725.

Killgrove, K., & Tykot, R. (2013). Food for Rome: A stable isotope investigation of diet in the Imperial period (1st–3rd centuries AD) Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 32 (1), 28-38 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2012.08.002.

Lösch S, Moghaddam N, Grossschmidt K, Risser DU, & Kanz F (2014). Stable Isotope and Trace Element Studies on Gladiators and Contemporary Romans from Ephesus (Turkey, 2nd and 3rd Ct. AD) - Implications for Differences in Diet. PloS one, 9 (10) PMID: 25333366.

October 17, 2014

Bones - Season 10, Episode 4 (Review)

Episode Summary
Two tween boys trying to evade their parents' internet block manage to find a dead body on a satellite map of the shore along the Potomac River. Offscreen, the body is recovered and brought to the Jeffersonian.  Brennan and intern Jessica Warren see a narrow sciatic notch and partially defined lower extremity of the pubic face to conclude that the individual was a white male in his 20s. Hodgins estimates based on blowfly larvae that the body has been on the bank for two and a half days, and Saroyan places time-of-death at 6 days ago. Hodgins notices that the removal of the victim's eyes, nose, lips, and ears was likely the result of taphonomic processes -- namely, predation by an eastern snapping turtle

On closer examination, the team finds the victim has perimortem injuries suggestive of a beating, and his arms were torn off.  There is also a fracture to his right temporal as well as fractures to lumbar vertebrae 3 and 4. There's blue discoloration on his incisors, and his last meal was Chinese food.  Angela manages to reconstruct the face by approximating the soft tissue that was eaten, and the super spinny skull comes back with a missing persons hit -- Hayes Robertson, a multi-millionaire video game designer.

Booth and Brennan go to visit Noah Gummersoll, Hayes' roommate.  He didn't know Hayes was dead and only left the house twice in the last three months. He has a joint checking account with Hayes and therefore stands to inherit all of his money; Noah denies having anything to do with Hayes' death, though.  Booth and Aubrey then head over to Hayes' work, Immersion Games, to talk to his fellow programmer (and Noah's former girlfriend) Anne Schamberg. She shows them where the fight-actors play out game scenarios in motion-capture suits.  She also introduces them to Jen Parker, the CFO who seems to hate Schamberg and refuses to talk to Booth and Aubrey, handing them her lawyer's card instead. 

Back at the Jeffersonian, Warren notices a ring fracture to the base of the skull.  She suspects that the temporal fracture they initially thought was an exit wound from a gunshot was actually the result of blunt force trauma sustained when Hayes' body was thrown into the Potomac from a great height. Hodgins decides to build a human slingshot rather than use the Angelatron (or simple math). They reason that the killer dragged Hayes' body to the bridge, tied weights on his arm, and threw him off. Based on their experiments, the bridge was 85 to 90 feet high. This leads the FBI to the bridge in question, and they find Hayes' arms, which Hodgins and Warren deflesh after noticing deep perimortem lacerations and defensive wounds on the arms and hands. Warren also notices remodelled microfractures along the sternal rib ends bilaterally, especially ribs 6 and 8, along with two additional fractures on rib 4 on the right side.  She suspects these were caused by punching. 

Booth and Aubrey confront one of the fight-scene actors on stage at Immersion Games, as he is seen punching his opponent in the same way that would have caused the injuries to Hayes.  He admits to have beaten up Hayes one night when he saw him on the street, as he felt Hayes stole his idea for a game.  But when a diamond bracelet tumbled out of Hayes' pocket, he decided not to fire the fight actor and said all was forgiven. Angela hacks into Hayes' computer and into his cell phone to find that he went several times, in the middle of the night, to a specific address. Aubrey finds that Chloe Blanchard was on the lease; Chloe is Noah's new girlfriend. However, when they track down the last occupant of the apartment, it was someone named Alice Kelly.  She does not recognize Noah, although he recognizes her. It comes out that he never met her, just saw a picture and chatted with her online.  Booth realizes that Hayes was catfishing Noah so he could control him and break him and Anne up.

Warren finds some further fractures to the carpals where the arms were tied to a heavy weight.  But it's the fracture to the humerus that gives them cause-of-death: a splintered fracture caused by blunt force trauma from a rounded object would have lacerated the subclavian artery and caused Hayes to go into shock and bleed to death. Grey paint found in the humerus is similar to that found on the motion-capture suit balls, and Brennan suspects that the shield used in the fights was the murder weapon. Based on the Angelatron, and using the motion-capture from the weapon, they find the murder was likely about 5'8" and 120lbs, right-handed, but weaker on the dominant side. Brennan and Booth subpoena Anne's medical records and find that in high school she suffered a bad injury to her right knee, which caused her to compensate with her left side. Her height, weight, and old injury line up with the profile of the murderer.  Under interrogation, Anne admits to having killed Hayes with the motion-capture shield because he had broken her and Noah up, saying that they were just pawns in his game.

  • Forensic
    • Narrow sciatic notch is fine for identifying the victim as male.  I can also buy the partially defined lower extremity of the pubic symphysis to give a general age range in early adulthood.  Dunno where "white" came from, unless they were going based on the copious soft tissue that remained (and then they'd use that for figuring out sex).
    • Why did the team think Hayes had a gunshot exit wound when there was no entrance wound?  Only one side of the head was fractured.
  • Plot
    • Who reported Hayes missing, if his roommate, his boss/CFO, and everyone else (except the killer) didn't know he was gone?
    • Was the blue discoloration on Hayes' incisors from the murder weapon?  I feel like that was never dealt with.  The motion-capture paint was grey.
    • So did Hayes rent an apartment in a fake name, then rent that apartment out to a woman whose picture he stole so that he could catfish Noah?  And he gave Noah the address so Noah could send gifts, but Hayes intercepted them (and didn't worry that Noah would ever, you know, go to the address?).  But then whom was Noah talking to after Hayes died?  He said he was still talking to Chloe after Hayes' death.  Why would Anne take over the catfishing?  So confused.
    • Why didn't the FBI look for, say, blood in Anne's car?  How did she get Hayes to the river?
  • Dialogue
    • "Mama said size is determined genetically." -- Christine, when Booth tells her to eat her breakfast so she'll grow big and strong.  (While Brennan is right that genetics are important in determining body size, she seems to have forgotten that the environment is also important. If a child doesn't get sufficient food and nutrients, the child will not reach its height potential.  So Booth is also right.)
    • "Without the vitamins D, C, and E in the food, you can suffer from asthma, anemia, and truncal and limb ataxia, sweetheart." -- Brennan, convincing Christine to eat
    • Not dialogue per se, but I appreciated the visual pun of Saroyan holding the intestines while Warren suggested that it was good to go with your gut instinct.
    • The plot about Christine's Kindergarten was not terribly interesting, even though I can completely relate to it, having just gone through the same seemingly interminable and confusing process to pick one for my older daughter.

Forensic Mystery - B-. Mystery was alright, I guess.  No sense of urgency in it, though.

Forensic Solution - B. Everything but the entrance/exit wound issue seemed reasonable.

Drama - D+. Again, no sense of urgency in catching a killer.  Everyone was super civilized about everything. And the plot was super confusing.

October 12, 2014

Philip Who? On the recent reanalysis of skeletal remains from Vergina

Facade of the tomb at Vergina
When I was an undergrad, one particular class lecture on Greek archaeology made a big impression on me.  We were learning about the amazing tomb discovered buried underneath a mound of dirt at Vergina in the late 1970s.  It's sort of a house-tomb style, with a gorgeous facade, wall paintings, and a slew of artifacts.  We also learned that the excavators had found the remains of at least four people in three tombs -- but that's all we learned, as classical archaeologists in the 1990s almost never waded into the analyses of biological material, preferring to stick to artifacts and architecture.  The debate about who was buried in the tomb at Vergina was kicked off as soon as it was discovered, though, with many researchers hoping it was Alexander the Great, but others insisting it was his father, Philip II.  Contemporary, scientific approaches to bioarchaeology were only just beginning when the tomb was discovered, and even by the late 90s when I was in school, there was precious little analysis of the remains.

Last week, though, a team of Greek researchers promised big changes and new information.  I've been waiting for a full report of their findings, which unfortunately hasn't been forthcoming in the media, perhaps owing to the fact that the remains were studied by Greeks and the English-speaking news media isn't great at fully covering finds in Greece.  Or perhaps it's because the Amphipolis Tomb has been overshadowing everything coming out about ancient Greece for the last six months or so.  Let's take a quick look back at the analysis of the human remains from Vergina before tackling the spotty coverage of the recent reanalysis.

Male skeleton from Tomb 2 at Vergina, on display
at the University of Bristol, date unknown. (via LiveScience)

Right eye socket of male occupant of Tomb 2, supposedly
showing a healed injury attributable to Philip II.
In 2010, LiveScience covered the analysis of the Tomb 2 occupants in Tomb Twister: Skeleton May Be Alexander the Great's Father. I'm not clear why it was news in 2010, as researchers Jonathan Musgrave, John Prag, and Richard Naeve had already posited that the male occupant of that tomb was Philip II (rather than Philip III, Alexander's half-brother), back in the 1980s. Their identification rested mostly on an injury to the skeleton's right eye socket, which was consistent with a wound Philip was known to have sustained in battle.  In 2000, however, a paper came out in Science written by Antonis Bartsiokas showing that the previous researchers had misconstrued normal variation (and some amount of taphonomy related to cremation) as an old, healed injury to the eye.  Essentially, the practice of bioarchaeology had advanced significantly in the 20 or so years since Musgrave and colleagues looked at the right eye orbit, so the reanalysis was warranted and revealed they were incorrect.  Bartsiokas' new analysis attributed the eye changes to taphonomy -- namely, cracking during cremation and improper reconstruction after excavation. In fact, Bartsiokas' paper in Science showed that numerous "injuries" reported in the 1980s were simply taphonomy.  This led Archaeology magazine to trumpet that the male in Tomb 2 was "Not Philip II of Macedon" in April of 2000.

I haven't heard anything about the Vergina remains since the 2010 LiveScience piece, so it was a bit of a surprise when a new research team, headed by Theodore Antikas, announced the other day that they have confirmed the male in Tomb 2 was Philip II and that the female was a Scythian warrior princess (no, her name was not Xena).  The announcement, though, has only been covered at length by Discovery News and very briefly by eKathimerini in English, and my google-fu has revealed one article in Greek that doesn't have much more info (at To BHMA).  It seems that Antikas and his team, which includes archaeometrist Giannis Maniatis, reanalyzed 350 bone fragments from Tomb 2 looking in particular at activity markers (or musculoskeletal markers of stress), trauma, and other pathologies that could point to a positive identification with an historical figure. Discovery News reports that Antikas and the research team engaged a whole bunch of new technology in their analysis and have thousands of photographs to back up their conclusions. So, what makes them think this is Philip II?
  • Demographics -- The deceased was male and in his 40s when he died.
  • Frontal and maxillary sinusitis -- The researchers suggest that the male individual may have suffered from these as a result of an old facial injury, such as the arrow wound Philip II is known to have gotten in battle.  This, however, is a bit of a stretch, as sinusitis is reasonably common and has an easy explanation as a primary pathology, rather than secondary to another injury.  So I'm not convinced by this.
  • Chronic pathology in the visceral surface of several lower ribs, suggesting pleuritis -- Somehow, the researchers attribute this to when Philip II's clavicle was shattered in a battle.  This also seems like a stretch, attributing a condition that could have been a primary pathology to a secondary disease (and not attributing it to a disease like tuberculosis but rather to trauma).  So I'm still not convinced.
  • Sharp trauma to the left hand, possibly caused by a weapon -- Specifically, the fourth metacarpal (although the To BHMA article says metatarsal). And this relates to Philip (and no one else) how?
  • Degenerative lesions and musculoskeletal markers suggest an older individual who rode a horse frequently -- I'm not fully convinced that MSMs can tell you someone rode a horse, but let's say they do.  We have an older dude who rode a horse, which I'm guessing was relatively common in ancient Greece.  So, again, not conclusive evidence of Philip II.
  • Fully fleshed cremation -- The older analyses in the 1980s and 2000 suggested the cremation occurred after some amount of excarnation, so the remains were more likely those of Philip III.  But the new taphonomic reanalysis suggests a fully-fleshed cremation, consistent with the historical record of Philip II's death and burial.
  • Traces of gold near the head -- CT scanning revealed gold at the cervical vertebrae and shoulder bones. Given the gold wreathe found in the tomb, the researchers believe it was cremated with the deceased.
  • Identity of the female buried in Tomb 2. The association of the Scythian greaves with the skeleton of a young female suggest she was the daughter of Scythian king Ateas, whom Philip II defeated -- The linking of the greaves with the skeleton is interesting in its own right.  The female skeleton had a fracture and associated atrophy of the left tibia, and the greaves were mismatched in length, which is a really strong link between artifacts and the deceased. The researchers talk in To BHMA about this being the "first ever case of a disabled royal," which is probably not true but interesting nevertheless.  But there is no historical information about who this woman was nor that Philip II had a Scythian princess as a wife-concubine.
If we add up all the circumstantial evidence provided in the Discovery News piece, the identification of the male in Tomb 2 as Philip II is pretty strong.  But it's not conclusive by any definition (not by modern forensic definitions, and not by forensic archaeology definitions, as the identification of Richard III through DNA shows).  The To BHMA article in Greek mentions something about DNA, but my modern Greek knowledge is poor and Google translate struggled with the second half of the article for some reason.  Can any Greek speakers fill me in on the DNA bit?

Bone, purple cloth, and gold wreath from larnax that
held the male skeleton in Tomb 2. (via Discovery News)
The Discovery News piece mentions that the findings were to be detailed at a news covered at the University of Thessaloniki on Friday, October 10, but I have not seen any coverage of this, unfortunately, outside of the eKathimerini piece that spends just one paragraph on it, and one paragraph on the artifacts in the Vergina tomb.

Interestingly, Discovery News also notes that additional information has been found about the remains in Tomb 1.  Namely, Antikas and his team found a bunch of bone that had never been analyzed before in "three recently found plastic bags." From the 70+ bones, the team came up with an MNI of 7 -- adult male, adult female, a child, four perinates (8-10 lunar months), and one fetus (6.5 lunar months).  Considering early investigations simply talked about scattered remains in Tomb 1, and later investigations mentioned a man, and woman, and a child, this reanalysis is really very cool.  I'm honestly more interested in it than in whether or not Tomb 2 held Philip II.  Granted, the individuals in Tombs 1, 2, and 3 are probably all related somehow.  I'd like to see much more work done on the other two tombs to learn more about who merited burial at this amazing tomb at Vergina.

Is the discovery of Philip II "confirmed"?  No.  At least, not from what I've read in the press.  But there is a massive amount of circumstantial evidence to support this conclusion.  I hope to see the results detailed further by the press or in a peer-reviewed publication, although I suspect that may be a while in coming.  I've been waiting for better analyses of the Vergina bones since I was an undergraduate, though, so I think I can wait a little bit longer.

Updated 13 Oct with information from and a link to the To BHMA article in Greek - Τα οστά του Φιλίππου του Β' βρίσκονται στους τάφους των Αιγών.

Who needs an osteologist? (Installment 18)

A new "vampire" grave was just announced this week in Bulgaria.  But I'm not writing about the interpretation of the way the skeleton was buried, which honestly seems to fit with the current theory that, prior to the understanding of germ theory, many of these "revenant" graves are related to keeping the dead in their place so they don't infect the rest of the population with whatever plague was going around.

No, the picture that accompanies every news story I've seen of the Bulgarian "vampire" is below.  The article in The Telegraph, however, notes the individual was male and 40-50 years old.  See if you can figure out why I don't believe this...

... do you see the unfused epiphyses of the humeri and femora?  This is the skeleton of an older adolescent or young adult.

At any rate, the Daily Mail has a slew of additional photos, so maybe The Telegraph simply picked whichever picture they thought was most neato-keen and ran with it?  It's unfortunate, since that's the photo that's being carried by the news media when it's clearly not the individual whom the article is about.  *sigh*

Update - 14 October.  Bioarchaeologist Alison Atkin pointed me to this photo of the skeleton in the UK's Mirror, which has a close-up of the... well, it's not a stake through the heart:

Yeeeeeup, that's a manubrium.  Wow.  Just... wow.

Previous Installments of Who needs an osteologist?

October 10, 2014

Bones - Season 10, Episode 3 (Review)

The Purging in the Pundit
Episode Summary
A couple of private school girls on their way to volunteer at a soup kitchen find a dead body under an underpass.  It was stuck part way in a drain, and stoats had eaten the flesh off most of the upper half, leaving the lower half clothed and intact. Hodgins estimates time-of-death at 3 days prior, Brennan guesses from the orbital margins the person was male and Caucasian, and Saroyan confirms because the genitalia are intact. The gabardine pants and Italian leather shoes suggest the deceased was wealthy.

At the Jeffersonian, Dr. Rodolfo Fuentes is back to help out the team.  He notices osteophytes in the lower thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, a common problem in obese adults. The deceased's upper left central and lateral incisors are fractured, possibly by a blow from a right-handed assailant. Based on the bi-iliac breadth and femoral head diameter, Brennan puts the deceased's weight at 136kg. The team immediately identifies him from Angela's facial reconstruction as Hutch Whitehouse, a well-known right-wing talk radio host.  Booth immediately interviews his wife, Miriam, who is quite liberal and also stands to be quite rich now that Hutch is dead, but she has an alibi. She suggests Booth talk to Hutch's producer and co-host at the radio show, but they deny any involvement and point Booth and Aubrey to crank letter-writers.

Fuentes notes that the damage to the upper half of the body is minimal and superficial. Saroyan sees low cortisol levels and high oxytocin, suggesting Hutch was happy in his last minutes. Fuentes sees perimortem ligature marks on the radius, scaphoid, and trapezium suggesting Hutch was bound. Bilateral microfracturing of the hyoid is interesting but would not have been fatal. The slight damage to the wrist bones and the "calcification" Brennan sees on the pelvis and wrist bones tells her that Hutch was not tortured; rather, he was into S&M.

Angela tracks down one of the craziest letter-writers: William Beyers, who thought Hutch was too liberal.  He is building a fertilizer bomb in his apartment.  Booth questions him, but he denies involvement, even though he has a manifesto and is just super crazy.  Booth and Brennan head to Hutch's sex dungeon, which Angela found through an accounting paper trail.  They see plenty of bodily fluids as well as blood.  This causes Dr. Fuentes to reevaluate his assessment of the nasal fractures.  He thinks that if Hutch had a ball gag in his mouth and was hit in the nose, his nose would have swelled up and the blood and gag would have made Hutch unable to breathe. Booth questions Hutch's dominatrix, but she insists she left him bound in cuffs with safety releases and thought he was fine. Fuentes sees that the marks on Hutch's tibiae and fibulae were made after death, as his body was dragged--the killer used a deer hoist to move his body.

Booth questions Bob Gordon, Hutch's radio show producer, who is a deer hunter. He confirms that he moved and tried to dispose of Hutch's body, but denies having killed him.  Gordon came upon Hutch in his sex dungeon after talking to Miriam to find out where Hutch might be.  Gordon didn't want the police to see Hutch the way he was, so he cleaned him up, dressed him, and dumped him.  Booth re-questions Miriam, who admits she has a shaky alibi because she was doing drugs that night. Based on a tip from Gordon, Hodgins and the gang go through a bag of Hutch's personal effects found in the sewer.  There is a piece of tooth with lint on it, and Fuentes guesses that Hutch was hit in the face with a cell phone.  Booth and Brennan confront Alan Spaziano, Hutch's radio show co-host, whose voice Angela found on Gordon's voicemail, pretending to be Hutch.  Spaziano quickly admits to the murder, but insists it was an accident.  He went to take photos to blackmail Hutch, but didn't realize Hutch could get out of his restraints.  When Hutch tried to come at him, Spaziano smacked him with his cell phone.  Aaaaaaand, forced him to keep the ball gag in?  Watching him bleed to death?  I don't understand this part.  And then something something about thrush on the phone, on the victim, and in Spaziano's mouth, so they have DNA evidence?

  • Forensic
    • I don't think "calcification" of the bones of the wrist/pelvis is a thing.  No idea what it would mean.
    • Blunt eye orbits can tell sex but not ancestry.
    • No positive ID was ever made (just an ID from facial recognition).
    • Neither bi-iliac breadth nor femoral head diameter is a good method for reconstructing weight of the deceased.  Bone mineral density and femoral neck width, however, are.
  • Plot
    • Wait, why couldn't Hutch get the ball gag out of his mouth?  He wasn't cuffed or anything.  A nose fracture wouldn't kill him immediately, as it takes a while to suffocate.
    • I honestly didn't get the part about thrush.  Candida albicans is really common.  How does that tie Spaziano to the murder? And where did they find thrush on the decomposed victim? His bloody ball gag that had been in a sewer for 4 days?

  • Dialogue
    • "Sex and violence are two of humanity's most primal urges. An amalgamation of them is a logical byproduct." "Bones, S&M isn't a peanut butter cup!"
    • "I will not have my science dumbed down just because you don't know Latin!" -- Oh my, I believe I have a new personal motto.

Forensic Mystery - C. Serviceable mystery. Obviously S&M and not torture. Eh.

Forensic Solution - C+. Serviceable forensic anthropology. As always, outlandish Angela-science.

Drama - C. Meh. I hope next week is more interesting.  This episode was too procedural for even a procedural.

October 6, 2014

Which girl? Witch girl!

Today's news brings word of the skeleton of a 13-year-old adolescent unearthed from a cemetery in Italy that dates to the 5th-16th centuries AD.  From what I can glean from the report in Discovery News, the burial stands out because the adolescent was buried prone (face-down), which is abnormal for this cemetery.  I don't have time or energy at the end of a long Monday to thoroughly dissect this, so here are the highlights:

First, the news media is calling this a "Witch Girl," in spite of the fact that you can't tell sex from an adolescent skeleton and DNA has not been done in this case.

Second, the burial has not been C14 dated yet, so can fall anywhere within the millennia of burials at the cemetery, but let's assume the excavators are right that this is Late Antiquity (so, the early end of the range).  Excavators insist that the prone burial is related to "an act of punishment."  While this may be true in later periods, when we see the so-called "vampire" skeletons with possible evidence of treatment of "deviance" in the burial record, this is Late Antiquity, not long after the height of the Roman Empire.  And in the Roman Empire, we have evidence of subadults being buried face-down with artifacts, and these cases are not interpreted as evidence of deviance or punishment. Although prone burial is rare in Roman cemeteries, it's not so rare among children as to suggest deviance.  Until there is better dating and therefore better burial comparanda, I cannot yet buy the explanation of prone burial as punishment.
Prone adolescent burial from a 5th-16th c AD Italian cemetery
(via Discovery News)

Third, the adolescent had evidence of cribra orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis, two very common skeletal indications of iron-deficiency anemia.  The excavator is fairly cautious in interpreting this evidence, speaking of a cause as simple as dietary iron insufficiency.  Iron-deficiency anemia is very easy to diagnose, but very difficult to figure out the root cause of.  It can indeed be dietary, it can be related to lead poisoning, malaria, thalassemia, G6PD, any sort of parasitic infection... anything that affects the production of red blood cells.  Making a leap from an extremely common skeletal lesion to the adolescent's possible appearance of "pallor... hematomas and fainting" is, well, a ginormous and problematic leap. (My paper on the problems with using cribra orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis to estimate health of Romans is not out yet, but here's a link to a summary of the presentation/article.)

Finally, the excavators' final word is telling and essentially sums up what I've been telling my Bioarchaeology class for the last 6 weeks: "A precise dating of the skeleton and further research on similar burials might help in finding more clues."  Yes, please do that so we can understand this burial for what it was and not what the media wants to sensationalize it as.  But I may have to give up hope considering how much of a media darling the "Vampire of Venice" is.

October 4, 2014

Bones Review - Season 10, Episode 2

The Lance to the Heart
Episode Summary
Booth and Brennan are desperate for answers to Sweets' murder but get nowhere on the phone.  At the Jeffersonian, Brennan, Daisy, and Edison examine his remains. Brennan notes a linear fracture to the right femur and Edison points out fractures on the greater cornua of the hyoid as well as crushing injuries to the thyroid cartilage.  The neck trauma makes Brennan think Sweets' killer was military trained. But Sweets' cause of death was an aorta tear as a result of the killer striking him hard enough to break left ribs 3-8. Hodgins analyzes a fibre found on Sweets' body and traces it to a very specific car: a Mercedes designo edition.

Booth and Eyebrows McGee find the car, which had been stolen.  A blood trail is found from the car into the mud.  Booth suspects that the killer sought out higher ground but was injured. They go to the roof of a nearby building and find rats eating the face of a dead Kenneth Emory, who was at Quantico with Eyebrows. Emory left to join the Navy Seals, was accused of assaulting a female cadet, but all charges were mysteriously dropped. When Booth and Eyebrows relate this to FBI head Stark, he gives Booth carte blanche in the investigation. 

Back at the Jeffersonian, the team is working on Emory's body.  They note avulsion fractures to the right second, third, and fourth proximal phalanges, likely broken by Sweets in their struggle. Sweets' 4th and 5th metacarpal fractures correspond to microfractures on Emory's temporal bone. A tiny nick on Emory's first lumbar vertebra shows that he was stabbed by a small blade, and Edison thinks he was then shot, as a coverup, and bled out. 

Meanwhile, Hodgins gets the blood off Sweets' notebook and Angela reconstructs his writing. She also starts looking into connections among the key players in the conspiracy to figure out who was involved and who may have the stack of documents. Miss Julian points out that they can't get another warrant on Sanderson, since he complied with the first one and they have no good cause to get another one. Booth freaks out and buys a crapload of guns, but Brennan threatens to leave him and points out he can't just go kill Sanderson.

At the Jeffersonian, Daisy communes with Sweets' skeleton, noting all the remodeled fractures and other peculiarities of his skeleton: remodeled fracture to the foot, to the left ulna and radius from falling out of a treehouse, extended articular facets on metacarpals from playing the piano.  Brennan looks at the histoimmunological study of Cooper's marrow finally.  She and Edison see a strange tumor-like cell growth that was not the leukemia.  They suspect that Cooper's killer accidentally injected some of his own DNA. Eyebrows helps fill in the person to whom J. Edgar Hoover might have passed down his blackmaily documents: Desmond Wilson, who had a fallout shelter built just before Hoover's files were to be destroyed.  Hodgins and Eyebrows go check out the shelter and find a wire from a wire recorder. They play it with help from Angela and a Jeffersonian artifact, and they hear JFK talking about the Cuban Missile Crisis and coming on to a secretary. 

Although Wilson's house was owned by a Sanderson company, Brennan finally fills in the last piece when she notices Durant, as a child, in a photo with Wilson, his step-father.  Wilson must have groomed Durant for years to take over the documents. Brennan and Booth confront Durant so that Booth can be plausibly pissed off; he punches Durant, thereby getting a sample of his DNA.  It matches the DNA found in Cooper's puncture wound from 16 years ago. Although this is enough evidence to try Durant for Cooper's murder, it doesn't solve the problem of the files.  Using Sweets' notes on how the conspiracy was like a religious cult, Booth, Brennan, and Eyebrows reason that the files would be hidden somewhere "holy" -- Hoover's office, which is now a Jeffersonian exhibit.  The files are literally hidden in plain view; no one thought they were real.

So, the conspiracy is solved.  And the gang goes to scatter Sweets' ashes, while singing Harry Nilsson's "Coconut."

  • Forensic
    • Extended articular facets of metacarpals as an indicator Sweets played the piano?  Yeah, no.
  • Plot
    • Oh my, so very many questions and loose ends.  How did the nipple-ring-microchip guy get the files?  How did Durant collect all the stuff he was using to blackmail all the recent people? Where did Norsky fit in (working for Durant?)? Who killed Emory, and why did they bother? Et cetera.
    • Wasn't Sweets terribly abused as a kid?  Why are all his healed injuries that Daisy sees the result of normal kid things, like falling out of a treehouse?
    • And poor Sweets doesn't get his own song?  Nigel-Murray's favorite song was "Coconut."  The gang sang it at his funeral.
  • Dialogue
    • "Sweets must have broke them..." - Edison, uncharacteristically grammatically incorrect
    • "It's like a eukaryotic phagotrophic bacterivore..." - Hodgins
    • "The concept of God is merely a foolish attempt to explain the unexplainable..." - Brennan
Forensic Mystery - B. In spite of all the loose ends and confusing bits, it was an interesting enough mystery, especially since it involved Sweets.

Forensic Solution - B. Everything seemed reasonable enough, except the DNA transfer morphing into a tumor in Cooper.  I am not believing that.

Drama - C. Eh. Even though this was the culmination of several episodes, it didn't feel very high stakes at all.

October 3, 2014

Who needs an osteologist? (Installment 17)

While this discovery is very cool -- embryotomy, or the surgical removal of a fetus, dating to more than a century ago -- both LiveScience and the University Museum in Chieti-Pescara need an osteologist:  Mummified Fetus Reveals Ancient Surgical Procedure / Mummified Fetus Discovered in Italy (Photos).

First, the LiveScience reporter writes about an "ancient" (is 1840 "ancient"?) "surgical procedure" performed on a fetus (embryotomy, I'd argue, is a surgical procedure performed on a pregnant woman, although I suppose it directly affects the fetus).  She also writes that the researchers "were not able to establish the sex of the fetus, as they could not determine the morphology of its pelvic and jaw bones, which scientists use to identify sexual characteristics of skeletons."  What's needed in that sentence?  The word "adult," at the very least.  There is simply no way other than DNA to tell the sex of a fetus or of most subadults (up until the age of 14 or so, boys and girls are not very sexually dimorphic).

Anywho.  What got me was this photo.  I physically cringed when I scrolled down to it:

Aaaaaahhh, why are the heads separate from the bodies?  Even if they were found that way, why are the heads being displayed in a giant group like this?  Is that a giant sheet full of mummy bits in the upper righthand corner?  Jeez, this seems like a tasteless photo.

The fact that the fetus was buried is really interesting to me, though.  It makes it more likely the fetus was dead, or either the fetus or the mother was in distress, than that it was a late-term abortion.  Cool find, bad reporting.


Previous Installments of Who needs an osteologist?

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