Pop Culture Osteology: Once Upon a Time


Last night was Friday, so being the diligent graduate student that I am, I spent all evening organizing my spreadsheets, editing a chapter that is soon due and working on conference abstracts. Oh wait, no, no I didn’t, I spent it eating cookies and watching trashy American TV. I was immersed in an episode of ABC’s Once Upon a Time, a show noteworthy for its gritty depiction of life in small-town Maine, linear plot, and subtle script (sample dialogue: “I’m a dwarf, Nova. I belong in the mines. You belong with the other fairies, and that’s never going to change”).

However, mid-way through an episode, I was forced to hit pause. Prince Charming (Yes, I know) and Lancelot (Yup, that Lancelot) were journeying to Lake Nostos, a body of water that had formerly been home to a deadly siren, to try and find a cure for a wound inflicted upon Charming’s mother, who was being tended to by Snow White (See what I mean about linear plots?). Charming had slain the seductive siren in a previous battle, and so they arrived at the lake shore to find it empty and barren, drained of all water and hence of all magical healing properties. Charming blames himself, chalking the newfound aridity up to the death of the succubus. However, while traversing the lake bed they come across a skeleton that likely belonged to the siren (as is implied by the crystal crown that Charming hoists off of the remains), and I realized why this woman had had it out for all visitors in the past.

Remains of the Siren...

Wouldn’t YOU be a little tetchy if you had three fibulae?

Labelled Siren Remains

I have helpfully labelled the elements present in this poor woman’s skeleton here. In addition to the two ribs visible in the first photo, her postcranial remains appear to consist solely of a humerus and three fibulae. While the lowest long bone visible at first seems like it could be the distal half of a radius, you can tell it’s a fibula in the photo below based on the extremely long and narrow shaft that demonstrates the characteristic torquing angularity of this particular leg bone.

Fibulae and the crown

No wonder Charming looks so confused.

The intrepid Charming
Image Credits: Once header photo was taken from Comic Con Geek, here. All other images are screenshots that are the property of ABC,etc, etc.

Posted in Osteology, Pop Osteology | Tagged , , | 1 Comment


View from Parc de Montjuïc

In early August the city is a teeming stew of people. Coastline and latitude make for a heady mix of sea air and heavy humidity, and everyone is covered in a constant sheen of  sweat. Attempting to navigate the major thoroughfares in the city center, you metamorphose into a sticky, bewildered pinball, careening into waddling tourists, aggressively welcoming maître d’s, and irritable locals. The metro is the worst: the trains are air-conditioned, but the stations, swaddled under tons of dirt and radiant city warmth, are fetid cocoons of heat. Waiting for a train feels like sitting in a pre-heated oven. Locals and tourists alike are covered in a moist film of sweat and body odor, curls of hair plastered onto their foreheads and glued to the back of their necks.

Of course I had waited to read the city guides until after arriving, figuring I would hit the ground running and sort out my itinerary as I went. I started by browsing online, looking for some expat advice: “The worst time to be here? August. All the locals empty the city and are replaced by hundreds of thousands of sweaty Italians, French, Germans, Brits and Americans wondering where all the Catalans went.” Unfortunately, early August was the only time I had free, and the idea of cutting out of Jaén when the temperature reached its late-summer zenith was appealing. “I’ll go north!” I thought excitedly, dreaming of strong sea breezes, a hint of Catalan chill to the night air, and the edgy art and culinary scene for which Barcelona is justly famous.

AVE view

As soon as I boarded the train I realized that northern Spain was going to be a very different experience than the familiar, slow-paced Andalucian way of life. The northern high-speed rail has more in common with a 1950s airplane journey than it does with Renfe’s slower and more spacious Media-Distancia trains of the south. On these sleeker AVE models, slate gray seats are packed with people, all facing uniformly forward. Neckerchiefed stewardesses offer headphones to watch the American movies playing on the screens overhead, while vested attendants wheel sandwich carts through the aisles. While it took less than three hours to reach our destination, some of the modifications were more odious than others – the bathroom toilet bowls were filled with bright blue liquid that emitted an ineffably bizarre scent, the strong sweet smell of bananas not quite masking the unpleasant stench of sewage lurking underneath it.

Barcelona brew

I disembarked at the Sants Metro station and was immediately immersed in a brightly colored, multi-lingual crowd. The volume of tourists was unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere else in Spain. Despite its magnificent cathedral and 12th century Islamic fortress, Jaén is far enough off the beaten path to deter most foreign visitors. Madrid, the other only Spanish city I’ve spent much time in, has its tourist-ridden swathes, particularly within a two-kilometer radius around Plaza del Sol, but it’s easy to strike out and dodge the crowds. Even Andalucian epicenters like Granada or Cordoba offer shaded back streets and secluded bars where you can quietly drink a restorative beer, munch on some morcilla, and get away from it all. Barcelona is a different beast. Having unwittingly arrived at the start of the high season, the city felt under attack; inundated, swamped, and overrun with tourists.

Casa Batillo


Feeling the need to see some of Gaudi’s acclaimed architecture, I struck out for the Sagrada Familia as soon as I got in, and found that every majestic landmark in Barcelona is encircled by a rank, gaudy hub of commercialism. Each cathedral, museum, and monument is fettered by a battalion of matching baseball caps and flashing cameras, hemmed in by aggressively multilingual vendors hawking everything from churros to flamenco to sangria. This experience characterized most of the first two days I spent traversing the streets of Barcelona.

Park Güell

Despite the sheer, stupefying volume of tourists, the monuments were impressive. The Sagrada Familia looks like it was designed by Cthulu during a particularly ambitious bout of universe upheaval. The monstrously brilliant cathedral looms incongruously in the midst of bustling restaurants and leafy, Parisian-style boulevards, appearing to have been just dredged up from some inky underwater abyss. I also paid a dutiful visit to Park Güell, the famous Gaudi-designed suburban community on Barcelona’s northwestern outskirts. However, a niggling ambivalence permeated my experience of the park’s bejeweled lizards and tortuous walkways. It’s difficult to appreciate something as innovative and playful as Gaudi’s approach to architecture when its unique character is plastered on every magnet and coffee mug, coated with an oily gloss of commercialism, and rammed down your throat. Craning my neck to gaze at up at the mosaic roof of the Seussian guard house, ambling along the earthen columns of the Pòrtic de la Bugadera, and peering over the Plaça de la Natura to soak in an unparalleled view of Barcelona, I felt somewhat cheated. The park was an anomaly. Deliberately, painstakingly designed to be lived in, the community now served as an abandoned stage-set, an empty wooden background pierced only by the constant whir and click of expensive cameras.

La Boqueria

The Barri Gotico, Barcelona’s famous old quarter, was similarly unsettling. It was possible to get lost amongst its towering dark allies for minutes at a time, emerging every now and again to witness the erupting ramparts of gothic churches, but every few streets were punctuated with reminders that this too was just for show. English signs for youth hostels decorated doorstops, a slue of bars proudly advertised the atrocious Dutch beer they served on tap, and fluorescent souvenir shops cropped up like weeds. After perambulating all the way down to the delightfully tacky Eurotrash beach-front, I threw in the towel. Stopping in a hostel bar staffed by multilingual American-Spaniards who switched accents and languages as easily as blinking, I gave up on my storied Barcelona dreams, and ordered a Brooklyn Brown Ale, the first dark beer I’d had in two months. Heavy with alcohol, sweeter and more flavorful than any mass-marketed Spanish lager, it was delicious. This was the point at which my experience of Barcelona began to change.

Llaminets from Mercado Santa Caterina

Embarrassingly, I’d forgotten the cardinal rule of European travel, one that apparently has yet to be drilled into my brain after years on the ground in tourist hot spots like Prague and Paris. When you visit somewhere new, don’t do what you think you should do. Abandon the Herculean labor of ticking off every box on a Frommer’s checklist, spending tedious hours in overpriced museums and languishing in the interminable lines that snake tortuously around local landmarks. The necessary first step to fulfilling travel is shrugging off the nagging feeling that you have to do or see specific things in order to make your journey worthwhile. I’ve felt this twinge of traveler’s guilt frequently in the past, a little stab of rueful remorse that pricks me whenever I bypass an archaeology museum or spend a day wandering the streets with no set schedule. However, over time I’ve found that the more I ignore that vexing, misplaced sense of responsibility, the more rewarding my travel tends to be.

Marzipan at La Boqueria

As soon as I abandoned the guidebook itinerary, Barcelona had a lot more to offer. I happily spent the next several days doing things that I would have done if I lived in the city year round. The town has a burgeoning craft beer scene, and a trip to BierCAB, a relatively new cervecería that has 30 beers on tap, was just what the doctor ordered after months of Cruzcampo. Sampling a range of home-grown Barcelona fruit ales, American Black IPAs and a deliciously sour Danish cuvée, I remembered precisely why big-city living is so addictive. I was also amused to find that the bartender, a genial bearded man with a high tolerance for foreigners mangling his language, was also from the south. When I explained that I lived in Jaén he let loose a torrent of furious and incomprehensible Spanish, from which I only managed to pluck out the phrases “only one type of beer”, “don’t know anything” and “terrible”. A visit to Fàbrica Moritz, the restaurant and micro-brewery that produces one of Barcelona’s most beloved beers, was similarly rewarding. The original Moritz was an Alsatian immigrant, and the restaurant pays homage to his heritage by melding traditional Spanish cuisine (patatas bravas, jamón Iberico), with typical northern French fare (flammenkuchen, rösti) with mouthwatering results.

BierCAB bounty

Since I am nothing if not an incorrigible glutton, I was likewise captivated by the city’s food markets. Even La Boqueria, an overwhelming, overpriced assault of color and sound, was well worth the visit. In true frugal graduate student fashion I bought nothing of substance except an apple, spending an hour wandering the stalls and gaping at all the purveyors had on offer, from meticulously molded marzipan candy to whole hocks of jamón Iberico. I made up for lost opportunities later that afternoon at Mercado Santa Caterina, only a twenty minute amble from the far more crowded and bustling Boqueria, sampling llaminets and amassing a collection of morcilla, fuet and manchego baixa en sal for a balcony dinner later that night. However, even the cornucopia of Barcelona’s neighborhood mercados could not prepare me for what I stumbled upon at the summit of Parc de Montjuïc. The entire amble from the Para-lel furnicular to the top of the hill was punctuated by whiffs of a scent that smelled tantalizingly like pancakes. When I arrived at the stock medieval market outside the castle gates, I finally identified its source: a stand devoted entirely to churros, sprinkled with cinnamon, rolled in sugar, dipped in chocolate and, most decadently, stuffed with caramel.

Caramel-filled churro outside of Castle Montjuïc

And so, my last afternoon in Barcelona, I wandered around the grounds of Montjuïc Castle contentedly festooned with diaphanous strands of escaped caramel, taking in the blinding glare of the sun over the Balearic as I watched freighter ships and passenger planes traverse the long stretch of cerulean water. I paused for a minute before heading back down the hill towards Poble Sec. Gazing north over the spires of the Olympic Park and out across the grandiose sprawl of the city itself, I was filled with a momentary regret that it had taken me so long to settle in and appreciate the all that Barcelona had to offer. However, I took comfort in the realization that even though my first visit got off to an rocky start, my second trip to Barcelona will be even better.

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Bone Quiz 13

Today is a great Friday. Not only is it a tolerable 31˚C here in Jaén, but the new materials I’ve requested from the museum storage units won’t get to the museum until Monday afternoon. This means that I get to take a two day weekend, that will no doubt be filled with predictable amounts of excess and debauchery.

It has been a long week, involving sorting, identifying and analyzing around 80 teeth a day, while screening material that looks  like this:

Dry screening

and unpacking insidious little bags that look like this:

DSCN9941in order to find even more teeth. I’ve just hit the 1500 mark, and I’ve only gone through about one third of the material associated with this necropolis. September will be a busy month.

However, today is also a fantastic day because one of my good friends, the illustrious Caroline VanSickle, defended her dissertation on the Neandertal pelvis this morning.  Caroline is heading to University of Wisconsin – Madison, as the first recipient of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies prestigious Feminist Biology Postdoctoral Fellowship. Over the next two years she’ll be teaching upper-level seminars exploring the intersection of biology and gender, while continuing her research on changes in childbirth anatomy over the course of human evolution. I will miss her constant presence in the osteology and paleoanthropology lab, as well as her invaluable tips on Excel, Word, and the appropriate number of M&Ms to consume in a single afternoon. However, I’m happy that she gets to start her exciting new postdoc so soon!

The lab will miss you, but I will make sure to always keep a bag of peanut butter M&Ms on your desk to honor your memory.

The lab will miss you, but I will make sure to always keep a bag of peanut butter M&Ms on your desk to honor your memory.

Anyhow, partially due to my excitement at all of the good tidings this Friday has brought, and partially due to the 660ml of caffeine I have just imbibed, I’m presenting you with the following FIENDISHLY difficult bone quiz.

While I was sorting through a bag of fragmentary bone today I found a tooth root that had the crown broken off of it as the result of post-mortem damage. However, I gave identifying it a shot anyways, by using the shape and length of the root and the shape of the tiny fragment of crown still visible. I felt vindicated after laying out all of the teeth from that particular bag, because my (now clearly justified) screening methods had also produced both portions of the fractured crown. When I refit them, I realized that my initial identification had been correct. If I can do it, you can too! I’ve oriented one photo as if this were a maxillary tooth, and one photo as if it were a mandibular tooth, so as not to bias your identifications. Without further ado:

1. Permanent or deciduous;

2. Tooth category (Incisor, Canine, Premolar, Molar);

3. Upper or lower;

4. Location in arch (e.g. 1, 2, 3 or 4);

5. Left or right;

Buccal/Labial View – 3 cm Scale 

Lingual View – 3 cm Scale

Lingual view

                  Shape of the occlusal surface at around the level of the CEJ                                                         (lingual half is lower in the photo)



Answers will be posted when the next bone quiz goes up. Have a great weekend!

Image Credits: All osteological photographs were taken at the Museo de Jaén in summer 2014.


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Osteology Everywhere: Pebble Edition

Yesterday afternoon I was staggering home from a nine-hour stint alone in the museum basement, when I was so struck by something I saw on the sidewalk that I went back to take another look. Now, to fill you in on my frame of mind lately, my days have been filled with things that look like this:

Opening a bag of loose dentition

and this:

Please note the exploding bag - not a fun morning.and this:

Sorting fragments.
So it comes as no surprise that I immediately noticed the following pebble.
See it yet?

This pebble is clearly a worn upper third molar, with an enormous and bulbous protocone.

Can you tell that I’m starting to go a little dentition crazy? TGIF and have a great weekend everybody!

Image Credits: All photographs were taken at the Museo de Jaén in summer 2014.

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Microexcavation of a Prehistoric Human Cranium

CraniumThis afternoon I decided to take care of a few unpleasant tasks that have been loitering at the top of my data collection to-do list for the past few weeks. First up was dealing with some sediment-encased crania that I needed to clean in order to hunt for the human teeth I’m using in my dental MNI. The excavators of the necropolis I’m currently working on decided to take a hands-off policy with complete crania, usually leaving them encased in blocks of hardened, dry sediment. I call this process of cleaning these crania “microexcavation”, because I effectively have to hunker down in the museum basement and use tiny tools to excavate out any scraps of bone I can see. This would be a relatively easy undertaking were it not for the fact that these chunks are essentially sedimentary cement, and often contain other human bones. So far I’ve pulled fibular ends, carpals, metatarsals, and phalanges out of some of these cranial pedestals. Depending on the state of preservation of the cranium, I soak it in water before excavating it out with a dental pick, spot clean it with a mixture of alcohol and water before using small tools to pry the drying sediment off, or dry clean it with tooth picks in the rare instance the sediment is soft enough.

Today, however, I was confronted with a particularly thorny conundrum:

CraniumAs you can see, some of the dentition was still articulated in the maxilla, and soaking this entire cranium in water might lead the teeth to come loose, or worse yet, destroy the cranium itself. The solution I hit upon was to pour a small amount of water over a clearly defined area, and then excavate quickly while the sediment was still soft enough to dislodge. Because this individual was so beautifully intact, I wound up using a dental pick to excavate out the contours of the face and basicranium (and, as it turned out, some of the flesh of my left thumb, as the above photo  demonstrates). Unfortunately, since the surrounding sediment was so hard, using less destructive tools like tooth picks or wooden skewers was not an option.

Though somewhat tedious, microexcavation of this nature requires  an intimate knowledge of the contours of whatever element you’re excavating, or else you’re likely to damage some of the more delicate bones.  A harrowing hour or two later, I’d finally managed to extract it:

Microexcavated craniumAs you can see, there were a number of other bones, including a scaphoid, rib head and proximal phalanx, that were encased in the block of sediment below the cranium. And while the process was time-consuming, it did allow me to learn something very important about the individual.

My challenge for you is to describe what, precisely, I was able to learn just from excavating out this cranium. I’ve added a few more photos below as a hint. The more specific you can be, the better!

Anterior view of the lower face:


Right lateral view:
Inferior view:

Inferior View

Whoever guesses correctly wins ten osteology life bonus points.

Image Credits: All images were taken at the Museo de Jaén in summer 2014.

Posted in Bioarchaeology, Cranium, human teeth | 6 Comments

Identifying Human Teeth: Human Dentition Cheat Sheet

I took my first osteology class my second year of grad school. The evening before we were scheduled to have our preliminary tooth quiz, I found myself on a plane ride back from visiting family up north. I sat nursing a Coke Zero, furiously scouring White and Folkens Human Bone Manual and jotting down any scrap of information that would help me identify or side the enigmatic loose dentition I knew I would be confronted with the next morning. The middle-aged man sitting next to me watched me curiously for awhile, taking in my frazzled expression, stained clothing and messy hair, before finally biting the bullet. “I’m sorry to bother you,”, he said “but I just have to know. Are you a dental student?”.

While the impression that I gave off that evening was misleading, the disorganized sprawl of a dental cheat sheet that I produced is actually something I’ve used quite frequently in the years since. At this point, it’s covered with pencil sketches of the occlusal surfaces of molars, hastily crossed-out swathes of scribbled notes about tooth roots, and irregular splotches of highlighter. While I always have the Human Bone Manual on hand, there are times when I don’t want to flip through the twenty pages on teeth when I’m trying to figure out something specific, like the directionality of wear on lateral incisors. Laziness, a detailed knowledge of the lay-out of my hand-written cheat-sheet, and the fact that I often don’t have the lap or table space available to flip through a book, have combined to make the cheat-sheet an analytical crutch for me. However, for anyone else, trying to navigate its tortuous organization and impenetrable short-hand is a feat akin to trying to decipher the Voynich Manuscript.

My original dental cheat sheet


For the sake of my sanity, I’ve reconfigured my cheat-sheet into four neatly organized pages. All of the tips and techniques are cribbed from the Human Bone Manual, often-times copied out exactly. The only difference between this and what’s in the HBM is in the organization. Instead of having to hunt through multiple pages to find what you’re looking for, this organization provides all of the information each specific tooth category on one page. So, if you’re a budding osteologist and just learning your way around human teeth, it’s a useful supplement to the Manual itself. Know you’ve got a canine, but can’t tell if it’s an upper or a lower? Forget whether the wear on lower molars slopes lingually or bucally? This cheat sheet provides an easy way to answer those questions, so long as you know what category of tooth (e.g. incisor, canine, premolar or molar) you’re working with.

Key points for starting off

Incisors Canines Premolars Molars

Or, if you’d prefer a printable pdf, you can download the following :


Note: Because I’m working on an enormous amount of loose human dentition right now (today’s work brought the tooth count for this necropolis up to 794, 78% of which have been loose), I’m going to be starting a series of posts called Identifying Human Teeth, that go into more detail about the differences between specific types of tooth categories. But for now, I’ll leave you with the broad-scale cheat sheet.


White, T. D. and P.A. Folkens. (2005) The Human Bone Manual. Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Image Credits: All photographs were taken at the Museo de Jaén in summer 2014.

Posted in Osteology, Teeth | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment


Alcázar arch
Trains in southern Spain are always flooded with light. The abundance of sun provides a sharp counterpoint to the blessedly cool Renfe air-conditioning. You often don’t realize how crisp the air is until you move through the train and are momentarily hit with a blast of stuffy outdoor heat in the accordion spaces between cars.

There are only two routes that have Jaén as their terminus: one heading north to Madrid’s bustling Chamartín station, the other veering west, to the sea-side city of Cadíz. I’d taken the Cadíz train on my way to Córdoba earlier this summer, but had never gone so far along the track. There was significantly more topography this far west. At one point we sped past an impressive castle on a small, high hilltop, its town spread out around the hillsides below, an urban skirt that had been shaken out and settled. We flashed past it at such a velocity that I had barely had time to noticed the castle was there before it vanished on the track behind us. Piecing my route together later I realized it must have been Almodóvar del Rio, an eighth century Muslim stronghold that rises up out of a curve in the train tracks about 25 kilometers south-west of Córdoba. At the next stop, an older couple boarded the train, faces and arms tanned leather by the sun. They carried taut plastic bags full of possessions, and hoisted a hamster cage in front of them as they navigated the narrow passage way. When they moved down the aisle, I saw that the cage held a tiny, quivering white puppy. Eyes wide with uncertainty, he whimpered for the first ten minutes of his ride, then sprawled across the bottom of the cage, fast asleep.

We arrived at Santa Justa in the late afternoon. After confusedly spilling off of the track into the streets, a friendly train-station employee helped me find my bearings, and we struck out for Calle José Leguillo. I realized immediately that Seville is a city in which the contemporary horizon battles for space with the much older strata lying underneath it. Glimpses of antiquity abound. Turn your head at an intersection with a modern-day pharmacy and Cruzcampo café-bar, and out of the corner of your eye you’ll see ancient walls erupting out of the entrepreneurial florescence of twenty-first century life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Encarnación Square, where the undulating futuristic waves of the Metropol Parasol hunker contentedly amidst the ornate spires of sixteenth-century churches. Tellingly, the recently completed space-age structure is far more popular with the city’s younger crowd: shirtless young men one-up each other with bike tricks on its expansive terrace, and gaggles of well-dressed teenage girls swill sodas and text on its stairs and escalators.

Metropol Parasol
The next morning we set out for Plaza San Marcos, an easy place to find due to the consistency of its entrepreneurs: the square held not only Taberna Dos Leones de San Marcos, but also Farmacia San Marcos, Supermercado Bazar San Marcos and Drogueria San Marcos. Breakfast was a bollito de leche, carefully selected after a focused perusal of the square’s sole panaderia. These sweet, yeasted rolls are made with milk and painted with egg yolk. The dough is airy and fluffy, the top of the bun burnished with gold. Tearing off lightly sweetened chunks of bread, your fingers become adorned by the large granules of sugar sprinkled atop the bread as a finishing touch. My hands rapidly received a thick coating of the saccharine dust – it was difficult to eat attentively given the tortuous nature of the route that leads from Plaza San Marcos to the Catedral.

Bollito de leche

Tall, narrow, and winding, the alleyways of Barrio Santa Cruz are notorious for confounding visitors. Tripping along the cobblestone streets, shaded from the persistent sun by the sheer height of the surrounding buildings, you hear only the quiet echo of distant footsteps far behind you. Navigating the neighborhood, you feel temporarily caught outside of time, removed from the touristy hum of surrounding streets and lost in the urban equivalent of a sheltered grove.

Patio de las Muñecas
Santa Cruz finally relented and spit us out in front of the Alcázar, a sixteenth-century palace built to mimic the majesty of the Alhambra. It was predictably breathtaking, the intricacy of the architecture matched only by the sheer volume of people flooding its corridors. Islamic palaces in Andalucía are remarkable for their awesome detail; an entire visit can be spent in a single room, slowly taking in the decades of artisanship incarnated in ornate swirls of scriptured marble and brightly painted mosaics. Fully appreciating the aesthetic requires a gradual immersion, like lowering oneself into a cold pool in the heat of the summer. Stand in front of a wall and you are first aggressively assaulted by the sheer grandeur of it: height, symmetry, color, composition. Soon you realize that not a single surface has been left unattended to – every doorway is carved, every cornice embellished, every wall panel costumed in bright tile. The final epiphany comes in your appreciation of the most delicate details: the tiny dolls’ heads and nautilus shells nestled in the columns of the Patio de las Muñecas, the infinite tiled tessellations of the Patio de las Doncellas, the symmetrically oscillating hues of the menagerie decorating the walls of the Cenador de la Alcoba. These last glimpses belie the craftsmanship inscribed into the walls, the undaunted tenacity of artisans who spent years tenderly carving, sculpting and painting intimate details they knew most visitors would never notice or attend to.

After several hours of immersion in Mudéjar splendor, we ambled back out into the streets. Ominous clouds massed behind the cathedral, accenting the gothic grandeur of its weathered gray stone, the ornate Giralda spire and flying buttresses piercing the gathering storm. The weather was the result of the unseasonably cool temperatures – Seville in July is noted for its abominable, inhumane heat, normally sweltering in the low forties. We, however, were gifted with the summer low of only twenty-eight degrees.


Bolstered by this unusual meteorological blessing, we spent the rest of the weekend traversing the city. First we struck out for the east bank of the Guadalquivir, strolling past the squat, tawny cylinder of the Torre del Oro, finally crossing the river at the Puente de Isabel II. The neighborhood on the opposite bank is named Triana, a lively quayside sprawl of houses, bars and restaurants that was just setting up for its feria, or celebration week, with a row of riverside tents serving beer and wine at all hours of the day and night. This area had a distinctly more local vibe. Well-dressed denizens ambled along the bustling thoroughfare of Calle San Cantio or relaxed in the shade of restaurant umbrellas for an afternoon beer, while small children raced around the streets, covered in ice cream. We returned the next day after a stroll through the expansive, bird-infested swathe of Parque Maria Louisa, watching the ongoing feria preparations from across the river over a plate of boquerones drenched in lemon juice. From the opposite bank it was clear that even the skyline silhouette of the city bristles with architectural contradictions, magnificent cathedral spires jostling for space with brand new apartment buildings, the gaudy 18th-century coloring of the Plaza de Toros underscored by the ascetic severity of the modernist sculptures decorating the river-bank in front of it.


The tug-of-war between modernity and antiquity had also leaked into our own neighborhood. Elaborate, colorfully-roofed churches sprung up every few blocks and blue-lettered tiles still spelled out street names, but recent construction was eating up Calle San Luis. The entire center of the road had been gutted and surrounded with metal fencing and cautionary netting, a patient abandoned mid-operation still draped in stretcher sheets. This did not prevent locals from determinedly going about their business; despite the late afternoon hour, the neighborhood café-bar was still bustling. We walked in off the street, noticing an immediate drop in temperature in the concrete cool of the cerveceria. The proprietor was a cheerful, rotund man with a sun-creased face. He pushed up the shirtsleeves of his paper-thin blue button-up, set his hands staunchly atop the metal bar, and looked at me expectantly.

It was the ambiguous Spanish hour of siesta, that span of time that starts sometime late after lunch and stretches until at least seven at night, when some establishments are still open for business, but others are firmly and decidedly closed. There were still people in the bar, but it was clearly a neighborhood joint, where the line between friend and customer was blurred, if it existed at all. “¿Es possible de tomar una cerveza?” I inquired uncertainly. His face split into a grin. “¡Si, si, por supuesto es posible!” he chuckled, gently teasing me for my foreign timidity. He bustled off to fill small glasses with ice-cold beer, calling out “¿Algo mas?” as he levered the taps. When I asked for the bill he jotted the total in white chalk on the hammered tin countertop, then wiped it away immediately with a rag.

We caught the last train back to Jaén, forging north-east as dusk slowly settled over the landscape. The journey itself had been characterized by the full spectrum of Iberian light; the shadowed morning hour lost in the narrow streets of Santa Cruz, the eerie, midday darkness of a summer storm Plaza del Patio de Banderas, and the blinding assault of the late afternoon glare on the Calle San Luis. The return trip proffered one more example, as the sun gradually retreated across the country-side, soaking the rolling hills and squat olive trees with the last orange-gold vestiges of the day’s light.

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