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.

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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.

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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 PoweredByOsteons.org 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.

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Big News…

… coming soon!  Thanks to everyone’s contributions, the Roman DNA Project is currently the best-funded one on #SciFund.  And thanks to all of you who’ve been sharing on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and DNA/genealogy sites, the project is starting to get interest from the media.  Next week should bring some big big news, so check back early next week to see who’s talking about the Roman DNA Project!


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Day 2 of the #SciFund Challenge

My project has been posted on RocketHub for just under 48 hours, but already I’m 25% of the way to my financial goal!  I am simply blown away by the outpouring of both financial and moral support from people around the internet.  The project has already been covered by anthro, archaeo, and classics bloggers – Dienekes PontikosShawn Graham, and Rogue Classicism – and even made it to the front page of RocketHub as a featured project.  Plus, I’ve gotten about a dozen emails from people interested in genealogy and DNA, all asking good questions about the project and offering me good advice on other potential people to contact to drum up support.  I hope that I can sustain this level of interest through the remainder of the #SciFund campaign, and then through analysis, interpretation, and publication.

At the end of the campaign, this blog will become password protected so that my supporters can access news and developments.  If you want to get updates, please consider donating to the project – just $10 gets your name on the donors page and access to blog and Twitter feeds.

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Roman DNA Project is live on RocketHub!

Early this morning, all of the projects in the #SciFund Challenge went live on the crowdfunding site RocketHub.  Along with 50 other scientists, Dr. Killgrove is seeking funding from people like you for DNA analysis of skeletons from ancient Rome.  Donations have been coming in throughout the day, and names immediately go up on the Donors page.

The entire #SciFund project has gotten some awesome press from Boing Boing already.  This sort of collective attempt at crowdfunding science hasn’t been done before, so we’re all excited to be a part of it.  The Roman DNA Project also got a shout-out on Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog, and there’s a lively discussion in the comments section.

If you’re interested in being a part of this project, please head over to RocketHub and make a donation to the Roman DNA Project!

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Welcome to the Roman DNA Project!

Donors to this project will receive exclusive access to this blog, where I will post the latest updates on analysis, results, and publications from this project and where you can weigh in or ask questions.

Head over to RocketHub in November and make a small donation so that you can get live updates as this pilot project gets off the ground!

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