First Roman DNA Project Update

An email just went out to all the original supporters of the Roman DNA Project, with the latest information on the analysis.

If you were one of the supporters and do not receive this email today, do let me know ( so that I can forward it.

If you were not one of the original supporters but want to get on the email list for the latest updates, you can Donate $5 or more to the Roman DNA Projectand I’ll add you.

By donating, you will be among fewer than 200 people in the world who get access to exclusive information about the Roman DNA Project before it’s publicly available.

If you have questions, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email at the address above!

Leave a comment

Filed under Results

Roman DNA Project is back from the dead!

Welcome back to the re-launch of the Roman DNA Project!  Yes, it’s been almost exactly four years.  Yes, there have been some major bumps in my time-line, but nothing at all unusual for academic research. I appreciate your patience and continued support of my work.

I have sent an email to every supporter who contributed through RocketHub back in 2011.  If you didn’t get it and want to be on the list, please send me an email ( and I’ll add you.  I did have a dozen or so bounced email messages, so yours may be among them.

The email updates are for original donors only, but I will be occasionally posting here to the blog for the general public as the project progresses.

So, in short, expect to hear more from me… well, shortly.  I’m excited to finally get to work on this project and have a slew of amazing collaborators to help out.

And if you missed out the first time on donating to this project, you can contribute here and get exclusive email updates as the project progresses.  Every little bit of research funding helps push forward the field of Roman bioarchaeology.

Donate to the Roman DNA Project

Leave a comment

Filed under Funding, Results

Thank-you notes

Hi, everyone!  So, I know the project is a little slow to start up, but hang in there.  We’ll have updates coming your way soon!

In the meantime, I have just finished writing all the thank-you cards and will be shipping out the remaining rewards this week.  If you haven’t gotten your card and/or reward within the next couple of weeks, please drop me an email with your name and address, and I’ll make sure it gets there.


Filed under Uncategorized

5 hours left!

Just 5 hours left in our #SciFund Challenge campaign to raise money to test ancient Roman DNA.  In a few short days, the blog and twitter stream will become password-protected.  If you want to keep up on the latest happenings (which will be posted here), you can head over to RocketHub and donate $10 or more.  The funding campaign will close on Thursday at 11:30 eastern time (4:30 AM Friday in GMT), so hurry!

Leave a comment

Filed under Funding

Romans, DNA, and the Weinersmiths

Kelly Weinersmith, who’s running her own #SciFund Challenge project over on RocketHub on zombie fish, invited me to come on the Weekly Weinersmith podcast that she puts out with her husband, Zach (of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal fame).  I enthusiastically accepted and talked to Zach and Kelly for the better part of an hour about the skeletons of ancient Romans.

Click here to go to the podcast!  (Or, you can subscribe via iTunes.)

Feel free to use the comments to start a discussion, give me pointers about interviewing, or ask questions!


Filed under Uncategorized

Research Goals

By putting the Roman DNA Project out to the public, I made the choice to focus on the big picture, on what the results will tell me in general about the people of Imperial Rome.  In a grant proposal to an agency like the NSF, NEH, or Wenner-Gren, though, I would have spelled out my hypotheses more fully and in more technical terms.  This post provides a bit more information on the specific goals of the Roman DNA Project, without getting too jargony-grant-speak-y.

Goal 1 – Use mtDNA analysis to more fully understand the demographics of the population of Imperial Rome.  For this pilot phase of the project, we’ll be looking at mitochondrial DNA to learn more about the maternal genetic lines of the Romans – both the locals and the people that previous isotope study suggested were immigrants.  Very broadly, mtDNA (which is passed on, unchanged, from mother to daughter) will give us additional information about the geographic backgrounds of the people buried in the two cemetery populations, contributing further to discussions about demography in Rome.  We expect to find mostly central European haplogroups, but there may be some African, Iberian, and Near Eastern genes.  In combination with the previous Sr/O/Pb (and to some extent C) isotopes, though, we may be able to say with more confidence that a particular person originated in North Africa, Spain, Asia Minor, etc.  Depending on the data produced, we’ll learn more about the origins of the population of Imperial Rome (tracing it back multiple generations) and the origins of specific people at Rome (immigrants or possibly one generation removed).

Goal 2 – Use mtDNA analysis to investigate the genetic diversity of the Republican population of Rome.  In addition to learning more about the genetic background of the Imperial population, we plan to look at a sample of people from the earlier Republican period.  A new theory has been proposed recently about the Roman Republic, with the suggestion that the population was highly mobile rather than sedentary peasants – perhaps even as mobile as people were in the Empire.  Looking at mtDNA from the Republican samples (combined with previous Sr/O isotopes) will tell us a lot about the geographic origins of the population, namely whether there was significant gene influx prior to the Empire.  Granted, the Republican sample is a small one, but the data that result should be of great interest to classical historians and demographers and will pave the way for future studies of Republican-era skeletons.

Goal 3 – Use mtDNA analysis to learn more about female mobility in the Empire.  We’re also choosing mtDNA for this pilot phase specifically because it’s inherited from one’s mother.  The mobility of females is a popular question in classics – many people think that women weren’t often taken as slaves and that they didn’t have the freedom to move like men did.  My recent EAA paper compared Sr/O data from M1s and M3s of female immigrants to Rome; I found that women did move, and that some moved multiple times during their lives.  Another interesting question that this DNA project will start to answer is about genetic diversity among males and females.  The Roman family was often neolocal in residence (the nuclear family lived separately) but patrilocal in burial (people were buried with their father’s/father-in-law’s family).  In a Roman burial context, we might expect more genetic diversity in females who were marrying into a family.  But more men moved around the Empire because of the military and slavery, so a cemetery population may have more diversity in males, especially if the cemetery was specifically for slaves.  Eventually, it would be great to do some Y-DNA testing, to look into the genetic diversity of males as well.  But the mtDNA will give us a good head-start on answering questions of sex-specific mobility.

Future Goal – Use DNA, isotope, and palaeopathological analysis to answer questions about disease ecology.  Malaria has long been a topic of interest to classicists; some DNA work has been done in the past (see, for example, Sallares’ 2002 book Malaria and Rome) and shows that it’s possible to identify P. falciparum, the organism that causes malaria, within a skeleton.  DNA analysis, though, could also let me look for genetic anemias like thalassemia, sickle-cell, and G6PD, which confer some protection from malaria and were likely common in the Mediterranean.  Interestingly, I recently charted the oxgyen isotope ratios for people with and without porotic hyperostosis, a bone pathology resulting from anemia, and there is a statistical correlation between high oxygen ratios and presence of porotic hyperostosis.  Higher oxygen ratios mean warmer climates, and may also mean geographical areas with higher (or different) parasite loads.  There’s definitely promise in looking at the disease ecology of Rome/Italy at a molecular level, so I’m hoping that we successfully extract DNA in this pilot phase.


Filed under Cemeteries, Demography, Malaria, Romans, Women

We’re funded!

Thanks to an amazing piece at the CNN blog Light Years by Ed Yong, the outpouring of support for the Roman DNA Project today has been astounding!  In financial news, we have actually exceeded our $6,000 goal, after just 10 days.  That goal was to fund analysis of at least 20 individuals (the immigrants to Rome that I found through Sr/O isotope analysis).  Of course, we are accepting donations through mid-December, so additional funding will be put to good use – studying more ancient Romans!

And I’ve received a dozen or more emails today from people as excited as I am about this project, offering their encouragement, lab services, expertise, and knowledge about the ancient world.  I will respond to all of them, I promise, but it might take a few days!

Again, thank you – all of you reading this – for making this project a reality!

1 Comment

Filed under Funding, Media, RocketHub, Romans

Were these people Romans?

In short: maybe.  “Roman” was a legal status, the status of a citizen, and the rules for citizenship varied depending on time and place in the Empire.  During the time period that saw the burials at Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco, perhaps up to 35% of the population of Rome were slaves, and many of those probably arrived at Rome from somewhere else.  Slaves were definitely not Roman, because they were not citizens, even after emancipation.

The people whose DNA we will study are an unknown population: without inscriptions, without historical records, without grave goods, all that can be said is they were of the lower-class, which composed just under 99% of the population of Rome.  These were average people – men, women, children… free, enslaved, freed… workers, parents, subjects of Imperial power.

The title of this website – the Roman DNA Project – is then a bit of a misnomer.  We’re not going to know if we’ve found “Roman” DNA, but it’s also impossible to say what “Roman” DNA would be since that changed quite often over the duration of the Republic and Empire.  What we will get is DNA from people buried at Rome, which is pretty cool in itself.

1 Comment

Filed under Romans, Skeletons

We’re big in the Netherlands!

Lucas Brouwers wrote about the #SciFund Challenge and highlighted my project in particular in his piece at the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad!  Thanks to this coverage, the project has already started receiving donations from interested folks in the Netherlands.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why crowdfunding?

Crowdsourced funding sites have been around for just about five years but have gained attention and popularity in the past year or so, perhaps because of a downturn in the U.S. economy.  The economic model of sites like RocketHub and KickStarter isn’t new – it’s a way of raising funds by offering rewards, such as the much joked-about tote bag from PBS fund drives.

What is new, though, is using crowdfunding to support archaeological science.  The first project I saw to use this method was Colleen Morgan’s Maenander Project, which raised over $5,000 to support archaeological excavation in Turkey.  Since I launched the Roman DNA Project, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about my reasons for using crowdfunding to raise money for my research.  There are actually several factors that encouraged me to become involved in crowdfunding in general and in the #SciFund Challenge in particular.  In no specific order:

  • I got my PhD last year but haven’t landed an academic position yet, as the job market for bioarchaeologists has taken a nose-dive since the early-to-mid 2000’s.  Sometimes the job market feels like a catch-22 – like you need to have a research project to get a job, but you need the academic affiliation a job provides you to apply for grant funding for your project.  There are granting opportunities for independent or adjunct scholars like myself, and I’ve applied for them (such as the Hunt Postdoctoral Fellowship through Wenner-Gren and a summer stipend through the NEH), but not having a permanent affiliation means I can’t apply for many large research grants.  Crowdfunding is therefore a great way to launch a research project that I’m incredibly excited about without waiting until I am tenure-track faculty.
  • The funding situation for science in the U.S. is bleak at the moment, with government- and state-level budget cuts lessening the pool of money available to fund researchers.  I’ve received money for previous research from granting agencies, but the time between submission of a proposal and (successful) funding is often quite long. In anthropology, it might be a year between the submission of a grant application and successful funding.  If your proposal is unsuccessful, you’re back at square one, and have to spend more time applying for money.  Another problem is that, even though many anthropologists are doing cutting-edge science, as a discipline we’re fairly poorly funded because we’re not a “hard” science.  Submitting the Roman DNA Project through a crowdfunding site is an interesting way of raising money outside of the traditional bounds of academic/governmental granting agencies.  I don’t think crowdfunding can fully replace the traditional avenues of science funding, since our best bet to raise $20,000-100,000 for an archaeological dig or other large-scale project is still through NSF, Wenner-Gren, or NEH, but it’s an excellent way of drumming up financial and moral support for a pilot project, which might in turn generate enough data to make a larger grant easier to get.
  • I’m committed to bringing science to the public, and I try to communicate my passion for my research through multiple media: in print in academic journals, of course, but also through blogging (at and as a guest blogger elsewhere), tweeting, and public talks (you can catch me at Middle Tennessee State University on Wednesday at 4pm!).  I’ve had an online presence for years, but I’ve never directly engaged the public in my research.  Joining the #SciFund Challenge seemed the perfect way to do this – to bring my research to the people who are most interested in it and to convince them to become stakeholders in the process of science.

The short answer, then, to the question, “Why crowdfunding?” is that joining #SciFund with a bunch of other scientists seemed like a great way to jumpstart my professional career with a research project that the public might be quite interested in supporting.  With over $1,600 raised in less than a week and with people tweeting and sharing the project all over the internet, I’m thrilled that people are intrigued by my project and am really looking forward to carrying out this research.

1 Comment

Filed under Archaeology, Funding, RocketHub, SciFund