Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Skeletons in the Closets of Skeletons

Man, lately, there have been a lot of bones that have been dug up all over the place. Skeletons here, skulls there, detached femurs everywhere. I always find it amazing that the guys who do all of the digging, the digginators, are able to find anything at all. I mean, they're out there in this vast expanse of clay and dirt and sand in temperatures which hover (during the cooler months) at right around 120 degrees. And they're out there with their digging tools which seem to equate to not much more than a paintbrush and a tea spoon. How long have they been out there brushing the sand off of rocks with that little brush?! Quite a while, I'm guessing.

But then when they find the bones or the broken cup (which really excites those archaeologists. If they find a 'shard' of something (it's only a 'piece' of something if you're one of the layfolk. If you're an archaeologist, you find 'shards'.), they are just giddy. It's like they have found the Holy Grail of Christ when they run across a little piece of porcelain. Hey, but to each their own, I suppose. It seems to make them happy and it keeps them from digging in my yard, so I guess we're all good.

But it's the descriptions and the conclusions that the digginators seem to come to which confuddle the bejeezus out of me. For example, there have been several stories lately regarding the unearthing of skeletons. Not from those on the unfortunate end of an encounter with a serial killer, but those from 'ancient' time period. I don't even know what qualifies as 'ancient' anymore, as some of the remains that were found were determined to be about 4,800 years old. Is that 'ancient' or is that just 'old'? I don't know either and I don't think the folks who assign an age to the bones know any more than you or I do. In fact, I'm pretty sure that most of the conclusions that they've arrived at have come about through the process that they used which is otherwise known as "guessing".

But after bones are discovered somewhere and they're dubbed to not be from someones dinner a week or two ago (there's a big difference between human remains and the remains of those ribs you scarfed down during the Monday Night Football game.(Mmmm....ribs.) and it's announced to the public (whose most emotional reaction so far to this type of news has been, "Huh."), then they start giving details about how the bones lived when they weren't just bones. For example, they found four skeletons somewhere in Germany and those skeletons were declared to be"... the remains of a father and mother with their two sons represents the oldest genetic evidence of a nuclear family. Scientists also say the family met a violent end." That's a lot of detail to get from bones. Seems to be just a wee bit o' extrapolation at best.

They caption the photo above with "Wound marks found on the skeletons suggest the family members had defended themselves against a raid at the time of their deaths." They do? Why doesn't it suggest they were killed and dumped in a grave? Do you think that they were just covered up with dirt where they lay dead? I'm guessing they were moved at some point and not left to be. And it continues with "The mother and one of the sons appeared to have skull fractures, possibly the result of an attack involving stone axes and arrows." Huh. Stone axes and arrows, you say? 4,800 years ago? Really? So then, you're pretty sure that those were about the only weapons that were available 4,800 years ago? You've narrowed it down to 'weapons made from the elements', have you? Now, you're sure it wasn't a machete, a machine gun, trebuchet projectile, hand grenade, waterboarding, BB gun, air rifle, or land based rocket launcher? Genius, I tell you, that they were able to deduce that the weapons used were the only things around at the time. Genius.

Down below we have "...the skeleton of a young woman was found in a third-century grave in northern Greece." OK, so far, so good. But then, here they go with, "...the large hole in the skull is evidence that doctors were performing brain surgery 1,800 years ago. The woman died either during or soon after the surgery." It is? They were? How come it isn't evidence that they cracked open the ol' noggin after she croaked? Was there a manual nearby? "Brain Surgery For the Barely Evolved", perhaps? "You, too, Can Lead the Way in Ancient Surgical Procedures!" I'm picturing a Time-Life series at hand on a shelf nearby.

But my favorite part was about when she died. It was either "during" the surgery or "after" the surgery. No S, Sherlock. Do ya think?! That's like saying, "The man likely died either before he was buried or after the heart attack that killed him." Again, it's what? Genius, that is correct.

Our next discovery comes from Egypt, where they're always digging stuff up all the time. You can't swing a dead pharaoh without hitting a bunch of bones. This time, "...archaeologists unveiled artifacts in the tombs of a butler and a scribe in Saqqara, Egypt. Both of them lived more than 3,000 years ago." I'm picturing Alfred the butler and Robin from Batman. Obviously, Robin would be the scribe as the butler position is already taken by the aptly named "Alfred the butler". That picture doesn't look like it's so much of an 'artifact' as it does of a 'wooden carving of a dude'. How do they get 'butler and scribe' from the Egyptian version of the totem pole there? (I'm also wondering if 'butler and scribe' is Egyptian code for 'Mr. and Mr. Ramses', if you know what I mean. Ah, don't' ask, don't tell.)

There's also the trend of having photos that are kind of related to the story you're reading, but you're not sure how or why they're related. For instance, we get this photo:

And then we get this caption: "Excavations at London's St-Martin-in-the-Fields church in 2006 unearthed a headless skeleton in a Roman sarcophagus dating from A.D. 410." See where that's confusing? They totally left out the part about how it has to be looked over wistfully by a priest at all times. Why is he there? Did he dig it up? I don't think he did. And where's the head? How come there's no mention of some sort of ritual or surgery or sporting event at which the skull was essentially de-nogginized from the rest of the body, causing the individual to croak sometime "during" or "after" the event that killed him? It's all very selective, I'm sure you can see that by now.

Meanwhile, over in the sidebar inane link box, we have links to these lovely stories:

  • Taboo Lifts on Sex in Nursing Homes (Wait. What? It does? It is? Should it? Never mind! I don't want to know!)

  • Gremlins Thought Extinct, Found After 85 Years (Wait. What? There were gremlins? Only 85 years ago?! Holy crap! What the hell? Put them back!)

  • Engineers Create 'Nanobamas' (Wait. What? Look, while I don't know much about that (Translation: ANYTHING at all), this is the closest I think I'm going to get to being able to squeeze this little Obama creation of mine into a topic. It's tougher than you'd think to find relevancy with some things. But like I said, it's the closest I think I'm going to get (and that's not very). Behold! Copacobama!

Everybody! Her name was Lo-la! She was a show-girl. You know the words! With yellow feathers in her hair! I can't hear you! And a dress cut down to there! OK. Alright. That's enough of that. Keep this up and it's going to start getting silly.

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Basiorana said...

"That's a lot of detail to get from bones. Seems to be just a wee bit o' extrapolation at best."

Actually, no, they use the same techniques to evaluate these bones as they do with a more recently deceased person. They can match the cut marks in the bone to a kind of blade (and tell if it was stone and not a sharp stick, and if it was artificially sharpened or just picked up); they can tell by healing in the bone how old relative to the individual's death the injury was, and they can tell if the victim was alive or not when the injury happened by staining on the bone and fracture patterns. Seriously, they can tell so much just by dried-up bones. A specialist will be able to tell you the person's gender, health problems from their entire life, their diet, if they died from trauma or certain other conditions, and if it was trauma, even what angle they were attacked from and the approximate height of their attacker.

Seriously, watch the Fox TV show Bones (or look it up on the net). While it's not an accurate depiction of how modern crimes are evaluated, it IS an accurate depiction of the technology that is out there available to people with enough money and time, like academics who study old bones for a living.

Mare said...

That still sounds an awful lot like that technique I mentioned called "guessing." =)

Oh, but I kid. I will try to catch an episode of this 'Bones' of which you speak.

I'm actually quite the fan of those of any scientist genre. And I find the bone guys to be quite fascinating.

I just need to poke fun at everyone equally and it was their turn that day.

Hey, thanks for reading!