I’ve been reading a lot of research on the bioarchaeology of violence of late, thought-provoking  pieces by Haagen Klaus, Deb Martin and Gwen Robbins Schug that detail the ways in which the ideology of oppression is mediated by violence. In theory, this leaves me spending a lot of time thinking about how structural violence has molded human social interactions since complex, multi-tiered societies first arose. In practice, this means I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in cafés and poking parts of my skull while furrowing my brow, palpating the paths of blunt and sharp force trauma described in text.

This past weekend, in the midst of my phrenological investigations, I ran across an unfamiliar anatomical term. In their 2012 paper examining violence at Harappa, Schug et al., described the pattern of trauma presented by individual II.S.5:

This individual also demonstrates destructive, remodeling lesions from an extensive infection affecting the frontal, parietals and the occipital bones. Circular, crater-shaped lesions are most severe near the left coronal suture. In addition to these healed fractures in the splanchnocranium, II.S.5 has vertical fractures in the right and left central and lateral incisors and canines” (142).

Reading this, I realized that I had no idea what to palpate, because I didn’t know what a splanchnocranium was. At first blush it sounds like the name of a heavy metal band from the 1970s.


While I maintain that this is a missed musical opportunity ripe for exploitation, what splanchnocranium actually refers to is the facial skeleton. Phylogenetically speaking, the splanchnocranium reflects our evolutionary history since it represents the part of the skull that develops from the pharyngeal arches (the structures that go on to become gills in fish).

Splanchnocranium shown in red.

Splanchnocranium shown in red.

In practical osteological terms this means the splanchnocranium, or viscerocranium, includes all of the bones of the face (generally including mandible, maxilla, malars, and the finicky fragile little bones of the face like the nasals, vomer, lacrims, conchae, etc.,):

There appears to be some debate about which bones are considered part of the facial skeleton – sometimes the sphenoid and ethmoid are included, and sometimes they’re considered part of the neurocranium. If you’re looking for explict evo-devo links, this website from the University of the Cumberlands provides a detailed run down of which arches become which bones. And there you have it – the splanchnocranium!

ResearchBlogging.orgSchug, G.R., K. Gray, V. Mushrif-Tripathy, and A.R. Sankhyan (2012). A Peaceful Realm? Trauma and Social Differentiation at Harappa International Journal of Paleopathology, 2 (2-3), 136-147
Image Credits: Spinal tap photo found here. Blue and red cranium found here. Original separated skull photo found at studydroid, here.

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Pop Culture Osteology: Scandal


I was recently unwinding by watching Scandal, a show that I think about entirely in capslock. INTRIGUE. OLIVIA POPE. SUSPENSE. THINGS BEING HANDLED.

Sample quote: “My mother blew up the church that’s costing you your presidency.”

As you can tell, this level of drama makes for pretty excellent television, even despite the objectively terrible romantic choices the female protagonist consistently makes.

Her romantic decisions are questionable, but her snack game is on point.

Olivia’s romantic decisions are questionable, but her snack game is on point.

One of my favorite actors on the show is Joe Morton, a man noteworthy for his absolutely impeccable delivery. He makes every statement he utters an Old Testament pronouncement of unescapable impending doom. Even when ordering pizza I’m sure his toppings preferences are communicated with all of the gravitas of an Othello soliloquy:

Pizza Specialist: And what do you want on that?

Rowan: The. ONLY. thing. WORTHY. ofsuchameal. the. only. thing. ANYONE. couldpossiblychoose. in. THIS. situation.

Pizzeria Employee: I’m sorry?


Unsurprisingly, he's also a big proponent of tough love.

Unsurprisingly, he’s also a big proponent of tough love.

A few nights ago, I was watching the last episode of the third season, in preparation for finally starting the fourth season. I know, I know, I’m behind the times, but I don’t have a real TV. By the time I finally watch all of Game of Thrones, George R.R.Martin may have actually written the sixth book.

In this particular episode we witness a confrontation between Rowan and Harrison about politics/Olivia Pope/recent unspeakable behavior etc., etc. However, I wasn’t interested in the what of the conversation as much as I was interested in the where. The argument took place in Rowan’s office, and the scenery immediately piqued my interest. Princeton-educated Rowan is nominally some sort of “antiquities curator” at the Smithsonian, a cover for his true calling of nefarious black-ops intelligence mastermind. And in this episode, we finally see him….curating antiquities.

“Hmmm…Oh nothing, just hanging out and picking up this metatarsal with tweezers, you know, the usual”

JUST KIDDING. His office is actually chock full of bones:

Rowan's Office

The scene later cut to a blurry close-up of some of the elements on that back table, and it seems like his work space is littered with a mixture of human and faunal remains. I took a shot at grainy identification of some of these below:

I may be pretty far off base on some of these, they're hard to make out.

However, throughought the course of the scene, Rowan only has eyes for one bone, a small element that’s apparently so delicate that it has to be handled with tweezers (Note: This is not common osteological practice). He first examined the bone several minutes before this scene while making an important phone call, and then picked it up again during his confrontation with Harrison.

“Harrison, can’t you see I’m trying to examine this metatarsal using these tweezers? I don’t have time to talk to you!”

Given the shape of the bone I’d identify it as a metatarsal, one of the five bones that comprise the anterior sole of the foot, articulating just posterior to the toes. Based on its chunky proximal end, it’s probably an MT3 or MT4.

This provokes so many questions. What kind of a fake curator IS Rowan? Is he a paleoanthropologist? A skeletal biologist focusing on the morphology of the human foot? A forensics specialists intent on determining best practices for teaching non-specialists how to differentiate faunal and human bone? Where did he get his osteological training? What is he looking for when examining that MT3/4? Why is his office home to a scattered and clearly non-comparative assortment of human and faunal remains?

Yes Rowan, I did have one final question –why are you using metal tweezers to pick up a bone!? You’re the head of a covert intelligence operation, surely you’re smart enough to know that metal instruments can damage bones and leave striations that can be mistaken for cutmarks during analysis! I mean honestly.

Image Credits: Scandal header found here. Wine and popcorn found here. Angry Rowan found here. Original third metatarsal drawing found here.  Rowan gif found here. Other photos are screenshots taken from Scandal 3×19.

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


One of the little known benefits of studying ancient human teeth is that during my weeks or months of analyzing skeletal remains, I suddenly become EXTREMELY CONCERNED about my own dental health. Brushing twice daily, flossing, gargling with mouth wash, you name it – for the entire duration of data collection, I am a dentist’s dream. Once I’m out of the field these tactics drop off precipitously, and my abiding love of Coke Zero, or anything containing sugar quickly works to balance the scales.

However, one of the reasons I’m so assiduous about my dental health in the field is that many ancient teeth show evidence of pathology related to diet and lack of access to dental care. In particular, I tend to grow concerned about my fondness for saccharine foods when I see things like this:

Distal view of loose teeth. Teeth with caries circled in red.

Distal view of loose teeth. Teeth with caries circled in red.

Colloquially known as “cavities”, dental caries represent areas of tooth demineralization that result from the fermentation of sugars by acidogenic bacteria that grow on dental plaque (Goodman and Martin 2002; Roberts and Manchester 2005). Teeth vary in their susceptibility to caries, with anterior teeth like incisors and canines less likely to be affected. Posterior teeth like molars are more cavity-prone (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994). Caries are also more likely to be found on occlusal surfaces with complex topography, or in the spaces between neighboring teeth, where food can become trapped and difficult to dislodge. They can also occur on tooth roots if the root is exposed to cariogenic bacteria due to periodontal disease (Ortner 2003). Caries can be differentiated from taphonomic damage because the holes are smooth-walled and rounded, almost as if an insect had bored into the tooth. In contrst, post-mortem damage tends to be sharp-edged and fractured.

The prevalence of caries has been shown to significantly increase with the global transition to agriculture, likely due to the increased dependency on sugar-rich domesticated crops (Cohen and Armelagos 1984).

Me in the morning. Blank, befuddled stare also accurate.

Me in the morning. Blank, befuddled stare also accurate.

Or in my case, due to the increased dependency on Poptarts brought about by the significant environmental stressor of dissertating. Which reminds me, I should probably go to the dentist soon.

Note: For a great article on how the Romans handled caries, head over to Forbes and check out Dr. Kristina Killgrove’s piece “Roman Forum Yields Stash of Teeth Extracted by Ancient Dentist

Image Credits: All images taken at the Museum of Jaén in Summer 2014.

Buikstra, Jane and Doulgas Ubelaker (eds) (1994) Standards for Data Collection from Human Skeletal Remains. Fayetteville: Arkansas Archaeological Survey Research Series No. 44.

Cohen, M.N., and George J. Armelagos (1984)Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture. Academic Press, New York.

ResearchBlogging.orgGoodman, Alan H., George J. Armelagos, and Jerome C. Rose (1980). Enamel Hypoplasias as Indicators of Stress in Three Prehistoric Populations from the Lower Illinois River Valley Human Biology, 52 (3), 515-528

Ortner, Donald J. (2003) Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains. Academic Press: San Diego.

Posted in Bioarchaeology Vocab, Human Teeth | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

NSF Funding Needs Your Support!

I was describing the nature of my blog to someone recently and glossed its contents as consisting essentially of “Amusing pictures of animals. And some osteology.” However, in sharp contrast to my usual tongue-in-cheek self deprecation, this is one of the few more serious posts I’ve written. In the past week and a half I’ve received a deluge of emails from the Society for American Archaeology, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and the Director of the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology here at the University of Michigan, all calling attention to the issue of a threat to National Science Foundation funding. The House of Representatives recently passed a bill that proposes a 45% cut to social, behavioral and economic NSF funding, that passed by a close vote of 217-205. The bill will soon move to the Senate, where members of the  Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee (CST) will begin working on a Senate version. You can read more about the nuts and bolts of the funding cut at Inside Higher Ed.

National Science Foundation funding drives anthropological research in the United States. It supports projects that uncover what it means to be human, from understanding the morphology and behavior of our earliest hominin ancestors, to unravelling the origins of agriculture, and unpacking the complex relationship between human genes and the environment. Without NSF support I could not have conducted my dissertation research, which examines how mortuary practices in early complex societies shape and were shaped by agricultural intensification, population aggregation and political centralization – circumstances that still have a significant impact on human societies today. If you’re interested, you can read more about my NSF-funded research here.

So if you’re an American reader of this blog who values learning about the human past, and you believe that fields like Archaeology and Biological Anthropology are worthy of support, please take a moment to read the information below and consider emailing your senator. If you make it all the way to the end, there MAY even be an amusing picture of an animal.

Originally distributed by the Society for American Archaeology:

Last Wednesday, in spite of strong opposition from nearly every scientific organization (including the SAA) and research university in the country, the House passed a National Science Foundation reauthorization bill (H.R. 1806) that would make a drastic 45% cut to the NSF’s research funding for the social sciences.  The legislation was adopted by a vote of 217-205.

Now the bill goes to the Senate, which we’ve been told wants to take a better, more traditional approach to funding the NSF–one that lets scientists decide where best to allocate research dollars, not politicians.  We believe this is the way to go, but we need your help to make sure that the members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee (CST), which will begin working on its own NSF reauthorization bill soon, hear from you.  We have included at the end of this message the text of a basic letter that can be used to email or phone your senator, if he or she serves on that panel.  If one or both of your senators are on the CST (listed below), please take the time to contact them and register your opinion on this crucial matter.

Finally, even if your senators do not sit on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, please consider using the second basic letter included below to contact them and urge them to talk with their CST colleagues.

Republican Members

Democratic Members

If your senator is on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee:

Dear Senator [NAME],

I am one of your constituents, living in [CITY]. I am writing to you because you sit on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, to urge you to assure that the National Science Foundation receives its full funding this year, and that the Committee takes its traditional approach to funding NSF: letting its scientists decide how best to allocate research dollars.

The House has passed the COMPETES Act (H.R. 1806), which includes a targeted, 45% budget cut to the Directorate of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. I believe this is not only a dangerous break with congressional relations with NSF but also not in the national interest. SBE programs foster a better understanding of how the brain works, how to deliver food, water, and energy to people, how people in the past coped with climate change, and how cultural diversity interacts with today’s pressing issues. We cannot afford as a nation to play politics with this kind of research. Thank you for keeping all of NSF well-funded.

If your Senator is not on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee:

Dear Senator [NAME],

I am one of your constituents, living in [CITY]. I am writing to you to urge you to talk with your colleagues on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, to ask them to assure that the National Science Foundation receives its full funding this year, and that the Committee takes its traditional approach to funding NSF: letting its head scientists decide how best to allocate research dollars.

The House has passed the COMPETES Act (H.R. 1806), which includes a targeted, 45% budget cut to the Directorate of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. I believe this is not only a dangerous break with congressional relations with NSF but also not in the national interest. SBE programs foster a better understanding of how the brain works, how to deliver food, water, and energy to people, how people in the past coped with climate change, and how cultural diversity interacts with today’s pressing issues. We cannot afford as a nation to play politics with this kind of research. Thank you for encouraging your colleagues to keep all of NSF well-funded.

As promised.

As promised.

Image Credits: NSF logo found here. Original goat standing on tortoise found here.

Posted in Anthropology, Archaeology, Biological Anthropology | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

I’m Internet Famous! (Not Really)

Me, on my way to campus.

Me, on my way to campus.

I heard yesterday that an article co-authored by Katy Meyers Emery and Kristina Killgrove  was published in the journal Internet Archaeology. It was a piece I was particularly interested to read because last year Meyers Emery and Killgrove contacted me to ask if I’d answer some questions  about blogging as a bioarchaeologist. In their article they discuss their own blogs, Bones Don’t Lie and Powered by Osteons, and also contacted a number of other bioarch bloggers, including myself, These Bones of MineStrange Remains, and Deathsplanation. I was pretty pleased with myself because I’ve met three of the five other bloggers (Alison and Dolly, watch out, I’m gunning for you at the next conference).

The article is well worth a read, particularly because it’s open access, a rarity in academic publishing. The piece serves as a call to arms  for bioarchaeologists to put their money where their mouths are (or rather, to put their fingers where their keyboards are) when it comes to publicizing bioarchaeological research:

“While a solid cohort of bioarchaeology bloggers does exist, there is much room for growth and expansion of our group to fill the gaps in coverage and add their voices. Additional interest in digital outreach through blogging can only strengthen the broader field of bioarchaeology, and there are numerous ways for scholars to contribute to the causes of furthering disciplinary engagement and expanding our repertoire of communication practices. The public is already spellbound by bones and bodies; blogging about bioarchaeology helps paint a more nuanced picture of the biocultural nature of humans. The public interpretation of our research cannot be left in the hands of journalists and fiction writers — we, the bioarchaeologists, must be the protagonists and advocates of our discipline” (Meyers Emergy and Kilgrove: 2015).

Internet Archaeology


If you’re interested in reading the rest of the article, which covers the existing bioarchaeology blogger demographic, the relationship between blogging and public outreach, the personal benefits of blogging, and some best practices advice, here’s a link to the online article, as well as the pdf version.

Online: Meyers Emery, K., Killgrove, K. (2015). Bones, Bodies, and Blogs: Outreach and Engagement in Bioarchaeology, Internet Archaeology 39. http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.39.5

PDF: Bones, Bodies and Blogs: Outreach and Engagement in Bioarchaeology

Finally, if you JUST CAN’T GET ENOUGH of my thoughts on blogging and bioarchaeology, here are my responses to their questions in full.

Image Credits: Little dog enjoying its own parade found here. Internet Archaeology logo is from the journal website, here.

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Nutrient foramen

A nutrient foramen is a small, smooth-walled hole for blood vessels found on the external surface of a bone. Size-wise these tend to be in the range of what you’d expect if you poked the tip of a pen through the bone itself, especially for the largest foramina that appear on long bone shafts. There’s some variability to the locations of nutrient foramina, particularly on irregular bones, though on long bones they’re almost always found on the shaft.

Fortunately, the directionality of the apeture itself is a constant that you can use to help orient long bone shafts, even if the proximal and distal ends are broken off. Generations of osteologists have even taken the time to distill their knowledge into one strikingly memorable line of verse, right up there with “Had we but world enough and time” or “Turning and turning in the widening gyre”. To orient a fragmentary long bone shaft, all you have to do is repeat the mantra that nutrient foramina go to the elbows, and flee the knees, which is catchy enough that you don’t even need to be into the metaphysicals or modernists to remember it.

I always find thinking about what direction a needle would point if I stuck it into the foramen to be a useful trick. In the case of the tibia below, the tip of the needle is “fleeing the knees”, or pointing distally, a trait that would allow you to side this bone even without access to a larger portion of the shaft.

Posterior tibial shaft. Proximal end is up. Nutrient foramen circled by red dashed line.

Posterior tibial shaft. Proximal end is up. Nutrient foramen circled by red dashed line.

Image Credit: Sewing needle found here. All photos of bones taken at the Museo de Jaén, summer 2014.

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Glenoid fossa

The term glenoid fossa can refer to a smooth indentation on either the scapula or the temporal bone.

On the scapula, the glenoid fossa is located on the lateral side of the bone. It comprises a smooth, oval, and lightly indented surface where the head of the humerus articulates with the edge of the shoulder. In contrast, the glenoid fossa on the temporal bone is much smaller; it’s located on the inferior and anterior aspect of the bone, present as a little thumb-sized divot for the top of the mandibular condyle.

The Glenoid Fossa

The glenoid fossa is also one of those perplexing terminological decisions that makes you wonder whether early anatomists ever pulled their heads out of their cadavers and communicated with their living colleagues:

Old-Timey Anatomist 1: “I’ve just found an absolutely fascinating indentation on the lateral scapula! What have you been up to all morning?”

Old-Timey Anatomist 2: “Oh, still examining this temporal bone, and let me tell you, there’s a doozy of a dimple where the mandible articulates…It’s really something!”

Old-Timey Anatomist 1: “How curious that we’re both focusing on areas that remind me of a socket that a pupil or eyeball could fit into! Say, what’s the word for that in ancient Greek?”

Old-Timey Anatomist 2: Glēnoeid?

Old-Timey Anatomist 1: That’s it! Well, we should probably focus on our work and avoid talking to eachother for the next decade or so while we get these features mapped out. Cheers!”

If you’re still curious, here’s an  excellent post on the etymology of the term glenoid by Dr. A. Carey Carpenter, whose blog Anatomy Words scores extremely high on the osteo-nerd scale.

Image Credits: Photo of the scapula from Study Blue, here. Inferior view of the temporal bone and maxilla originally from smc.edu, here.

Posted in Anatomy, Bioarchaeology Vocab | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments