The Hard Stuff that Remains

I think shows like Bones and CSI made forensic science more popular with the general public. (Since I never watch Bones, I did not know until two days ago that Stephen Fry guest stars in some of the episodes, which means that I totally have to watch those now!) Of course, being TV shows, they made it more popular at a certain cost, namely, accurate portrayal.

I’m guessing that actual science of reading human bones is both more pedestrian and more exciting. On the one hand, 99% of the time, there is no crime to be solved, so discoveries are less dramatic. On the other, the discoveries made, however slight and undramatic, are actually really new knowledge: not just use of existing knowledge to put a detective puzzle together, but actually stuff that nobody knew until that moment.

What made me think of this was a biological anthropologist, Kristina Killgrove who blogs at Powered by Osteons. For example, she reports on three Italian bio-anthropologists (archeologists? bone scientists, in any case), Belcastro, Fornaciari, and Mariotti who dug up and examined the bones of one Carlo Maria Broschi, also known as Farinelli. It appears that this is “the only osteological analysis of a castrato or eunuch.”

(Farinelli’s remains are circled.)

It’s almost banal to hear what they had to say about him: he was 6’3” and had good oral hygiene. The really interesting thing, though is that his cranial bone was quite thick, which is almost exclusively found in postmenopausal women. It appears that his castration caused a hormonal imbalance, which over time caused the thickening of the bone. See, not very dramatic news, that: eighteenth century castrato had a hormonal imbalance. But it is interesting in a (very) geeky way, and it will surely get people thinking about connections between hormones, bones, sex, age…

Interestingly, Killgrove is not crazy about digging up famous people’s remains. She reports on certain scientists wanting to dig up Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the woman thought to be Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or William Shakespeare. Most recently on her blog, she discusses why it’s not a good idea to dig up Cervantes. Not only can it not be confirmed with 100% accuracy that any bones found are Cervantes’, but the things they want to find out, can’t be deduced from the remains. Facial reconstruction (to see what he actually looked like) and whether cirrhosis was actually the cause of death.

As much as I too would want to know more about Cervantes, I have to side with Killgrove. Would we enjoy Don Quixote, the Mona Lisa, or Macbeth if we knew what these people looked like? What would this knowledge really do for us? It turns out, methinks, that attempts to dig up these three are much like Bones and CSI. Sensational stuff. Looks great in the newspapers, but hardly the stuff science is really made of.


2 Comments to “The Hard Stuff that Remains”

  1. If you ever do get around to watching last season’s Bones, be sure to check back at my site for reviews of the science behind each episode. I may also do this season, but haven’t decided yet. 🙂

    • Kristina,
      Thanks for your comment!
      Honestly, I got my hands on a couple of episodes of Bones (the ones with Stephen Fry in them, of course!), and watched one. Oh boy. I cringed throughout – that’s how much I disliked it. Couldn’t bring myself to watch the other one.
      Can I just read the science on your blog, or would I not get it without seeing the show?

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