Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sample bias

At the TLS, Mary Beard considers two new books on the ancient Romans. Here, a description of Estelle Lazer's work on the bones of the dead of Pompeii:
Apart from some celebrity skeletons and plaster casts of dead bodies on display to the public, most of the human remains that survived the Allied bombing raids on the site during the Second World War were piled up in two main stores, each in an ancient bath building not normally accessible to ordinary visitors. Lazer spent most of her research time, months on end over seven years, in these depots – ill-lit (she worked for part of the time with a hand-held bicycle light) and infested by wildlife. The identifying labels once attached to the bones had long ago been eaten by rodents; many of the skulls had provided convenient nesting boxes for the local birds (covering the bones and what Lazer calls the key “skeletal landmarks” with bird lime); in one store a “cottage industry” had been established, which used the human thigh bones to make hinges to restore the ancient furniture on the site. “This has contributed”, as Lazer writes, with deadpan understatement, “a novel source of sample bias to the femur collection.”

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