When I was a young and innocent BSc student, I was assigned a study about an Egyptian mummy. I was incredibly proud of my Egyptian boy, whose name was Ptahmose. He was around 35 years old and had his brain removed through his nose, as expected of every good mummy from the Greco-Roman period.
One doubt, however, remained stuck in my young scientist mind for years. Namely, Ptahmose’s skull had signs of scurvy, a metabolic disease related to low intake of vitamin C, often connected to diets poor in vegetables and citrus fruit. Why on earth was a wealthy Egyptian guy, with access to as many greens and fruits as he wanted, lacking in vitamin C? As no information about his diet was available, this question remained locked in a small drawer in my brain for the remainder of my studies. I had the scurvy in my study, but not the orange (or, in his case, the lack of it).
Everyday science in pyjamas
Five years and an MSc in biological anthropology later, I got involved with health, food, and bones once again, but this time in Estonia. I know the first thought that comes to mind when you think of a “biological anthropologist” is flawless Dr Temperance Brennan dressed as Wonder Woman in an episode of the famous TV show “Bones”, with her hot and loyal partner Seeley Booth. Technically, that was forensic anthropology, but this does not prevent me from receiving the evergreen comment: “Hey, you are like Bones!”
I am really sorry to destroy this myth by telling you that biological anthropology is definitely less sexy and glossy, involving hours, days, and sleepless nights in pyjamas, learning how to side a metatarsal or how some vertebrae may develop discal herniation – particularly when your specialization is ancient bone pathology. However, archaeological human remains can tell you rather unexpected tales, sometimes beyond expectations.
Archaeological human remains can tell you rather unexpected tales, sometimes beyond expectations. Image credit: Andres Tennus / UT
Double-checking historians and chroniclers
My research brought me to a PhD project on medieval and early modern Estonian populations. This period was marked by complex political, economic, and socio-cultural changes, which dug under the surface, burned deep into Estonian culture and consciousness, and transmuted this area in the country we know today.