Author Archives: caitlinburke

A New Vösendorf Cup

In October, I made a Vösendorf cup – later discovering that I had failed to make it accurately. Using the diagram by K. Rebay-Salisbury, in an article about feeding strategy in prehistoric Europe:

… this week, I made a replacement cup, which I hope to get out of bisque in time for the student show at the pottery studio I go to:

I am feeling good about this one. It’s better than the previous one in every way.

Our Little Medical Marvel

In 2021, we got a pair of kittens from a rescue organization. One of them, Grace, was sheer easy mode. Cute, low maintenance, gentle with her claws and teeth, not a big lap cat, but that’s ok. The other, Horatio, was very sweet and cuddly, a fluffy little orange boy who was underweight for age and ended up being sick all the time – we were at the vet almost weekly for a while there. And the vet finally said “I think we should check bile acids.”

Grace and Horatio shortly after their arrival in our home.

Bile acids aid in digestion, and they are, in essence, recycled by the liver as it processes what comes out of the gastrointestinal tract. A portosystemic shunt is an extra blood vessel (in the simple case) that routes blood around the liver, so the kinds of toxins that the liver is designed to filter keep circulating. Testing for levels of bile acids before and after a meal is a clever way of seeing whether the blood is flowing correctly – if it is, acids secreted in response to the meal will be promptly recycled. If not, they just keep floating around, hinting that other stuff is building up in the blood. In particular, ammonia compounds, and they can cause terrible symptoms – lethargy, vomiting, disorientation. Liver shunt is a developmental defect, and while the effects can be managed with diet and medication, the prognosis is poor. In the right cases (simple, one big vessel, rather than complex, with a lot of little ones) surgery offers a chance at a normal life. The detouring vein is fitted with a ring containing absorbent material that, over time, slowly narrows the errant vessel, and the blood follows the path of least resistance right into the liver, as intended.

We were fortunate that Horatio was diagnosed before receiving surgery – some cats are discovered to have this defect only after they fail to recover from a routine desexing procedure. And Horatio was fortunate that we were easily able to manage his special diet and medication to keep him healthy and growing, and willing to pursue surgical correction. He was also lucky to be a perfect candidate – and we were lucky that he was a perfect little gentleman in the car when we drove him two hours to the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania’s Veterinary School, where our regular veterinarian referred him so he could be treated by veterinarians who had actually done this surgery before.

Horatio was a perfect passenger on the way to the veterinary hospital.

We had a few hiccups getting him onto the surgery schedule, but when the day came, everything went as well as could be hoped. The only real surprise seemed to be that he needed a relatively large ring – a size usually needed only for dogs. We found this pretty charming, because we joke that he’s our little golden retriever: friendly, unflappable, and in love with his tennis ball. The surgery protocol called for a 3-day stay, but after the first day or so, that’s often just to ensure that the animal is getting an appetite back, and Horatio bounced back more or less right away. They invited us to pick him up early, saying, “We’re just sitting around watching him eat!” We got him home, and our other cats accepted him back almost right away (our third cat didn’t love his cone at first but got over it). His incision healed promptly, and his first follow-up bile acids test was normal. All of that is wonderful, but that’s not the marvel.

It’s not unusual (although also not universal) for cats with liver shunt to have bright copper-colored irises. That is also a normal eye color for cats, but in liver-shunt cats whose genetic trait for eye color is lighter, another buildup is probably to blame. Horatio had very arresting, deep, copper-colored eyes.

Horatio at about 7 months old, about a month after diagnosis of liver shunt, clearly showing coppery eyes.

It took a few months, but his eyes did start to lighten, and by about 7 months after surgery (during which he was weaned off his special diet and medications with no ill effects), they were yellow.

Horatio grew to be a handsome adult of about 11 lb, with definitely yellow eyes.

Seeing him now, playing chase with the other cats, hanging out and watching the birds, being a cute lap cat, it’s hard to believe he was ever so frail and sick. And while his coppery eyes were gorgeous, we are more than happy to see this clear evidence, every day, that the surgery worked.

Would you like to use photos of Horatio’s eye-color change? Send me an email and let’s talk!

Can a Fitness Tracker Help You Lose Weight?

Sure, but a fitness tracker can’t tell what behavioral changes will result in a change in your body fat percentage or a smaller waist.*

Last week, a Washington Post writer reported “Apple told me it does not track research about weight loss because that is not the focus of the Apple Watch.” So far, good. Then he added, “(That’s disappointing.)” I applaud Apple for declining to make weight claims, because a watch simply cannot “make” that happen. Changing your daily habits consistently enough to change your body in a sustainable way requires a lot of moving parts, and a fitness tracker isn’t a mind reader—it just collects and displays the information that the maker has set as defaults or that you ask it to display. Fitbit, in contrast to Apple, makes weight claims because it has gone in heavy with providing devices to wellness programs and other contexts that have (of course) additional information available for users.

A fitness tracker can nudge you in a particular direction, but you have to have at least the direction (if not a destination) in mind. Is it more steps? Is it more sleep? Is it a particular mix of high- vs moderate-intensity exercise? It is a number of minutes of exercise per week? is it spending less time sitting? It doesn’t know what’s important to you. And I don’t think any of them have integrated food records—food recording is a whole thing with enough twists and turns to earn a master’s degree, and the most a fitness tracker will do is import a calorie total from a dedicated food tracker. And that’s the other common theme, also hit in the article linked above—the writer even passes along the opinion of the WW Chief Scientific Officer to present the typical, binary-opposition response to any discussion of exercise and weight, “But a fitness gadget still can’t automate what Foster considers most important data in weight loss: what you eat.” Of course, says the CSO at the company dedicated to helping people adjust how and what they eat.

What you eat and what your activity pattern is, along with how much and how restfully you sleep, contribute to the condition of your body—from your health to your performance to your body fat percentage to your waist size to your alertness during the day, and on and on. Your fitness tracker can assess your sleep, too—sort of**—but again, just observing it (or including some nudges to remind you that it’s important) isn’t enough to make change happen. People rarely end up with unhelpful eating, activity, and sleep patterns because they want that; they have made a variety of choices against the backdrop of many external factors that are not always easy to change—or, in some cases, identify.

Fitness trackers are undermined by two main issues: People buying one for the first time don’t necessarily know what they want, and once they have one, they almost never know how to configure it to be most helpful. In the early years of Fitbit availability, they were often called “glorified pedometers,” and even the first release of Apple Watch was essentially in that category. There is nothing wrong with a glorified pedometer—for people who just want to nudge more activity into their day (lots of people!), tracking and gradually increasing daily steps is a great approach (and Apple kind of lives this strategy in its track record of offering simple initial versions of hardware and then building on them). But pedometers are simple enough that very little explanation is needed, and as these devices have become more and more glorified, one wonders if people are expecting more simplicity rather than less, as if every new capability is as easy to understand and act on as a steps goal.

Modern fitness trackers are not that simple, and people aren’t prepared to do homework when they get a fun new device (or have it given to them by a workplace wellness program). Someone on Quora recently asked whether it was OK that his watch showed well over 200 “heart points” for the week after he completed a 10k running event, because the “recommended” number of weekly “heart points” is 150. Which brings up another risk: that using a cutesy name to differentiate your exact same base fitness recommendations as every other device—based on CDC, WHO, and AHA† recommendations for the minimum recommended activity level—may increase the probability of that default being misinterpreted.

The WW expert said their users don’t use trackers consistently. This makes perfect sense. WW members don’t need to rely on a fitness tracker; WW is a supportive system that offers them an accounting method for food and basic activity tracking. Indeed, the WW points system is a really nice framework for approaching these things. The recent UCLA assessment of use of the Oura ring‡ (a very simple, screen-free device) found that personalized feedback based on fitness tracker results helps people improve their behaviors and get better results, a classic for the annals of “well, yeah,” but it’s important to have the data. And it’s not like this is easy; having live humans provide that feedback is labor-intensive and costly, and fitness trackers can’t offer that automatically. My own fitness tracker has an “insights” feature that is supposed to do something like this but has literally never, not one single time, told me anything other than the absolutely simplest thing to guess at and thus nothing insightful at all. I have configured that thing to kingdom come and look at it at least 25 times a day, and it still can’t figure out what I care about on its own.

Is it possible to build something inexpensive and easily accessed that can help a person get the most out of a fitness tracker from day 1? I think it could be done to some extent in a booklet or website—and working on a project like that sounds like a dream job to me—but it would go far beyond the user manual (“this option is on that screen”) and deep into helping people identify and prioritize different kinds of goals at a much more granular level than “fit into the clothes I used to wear.” Indeed, it would probably end up being a kind of choose-your-own-adventure curriculum of quizzes and knowledge base that would require a multidisciplinary team and regular updates to do well. Because at the end of the day, a fitness tracker is not a trainer or a coach (or a doctor or a dietician). It’s a compass. It can help you stay on your route, but it can’t plan the route for you.

*The notion of weight loss in and of itself is of no interest to me, and in many cases it is harmful. For example, weight loss is a common feature of serious illnesses such as cancer and dementia. A more rational goal is loss of excess body fat, and while there are no good, cheap, easy options for measuring that with precision, what most people are looking for in a way to track whether a “weight loss” plan is working (losing excess fat, not key body tissues) can be estimated from changes in waist measurement.

**Sleep tracking in a fitness tracker is generally a mix of accelerometer and heart rate data, trying to estimate a rest state from a lack of motion and using heart rate patterns that have been observed in sleep studies to be correlated with one sleep stage or another. Any avid “quantified self” enthusiast can tell tales of a watch that said they were in deep sleep while they were reading in bed or perhaps in REM sleep while playing a video game.

†CDC ; WHO, ; AHA, .

‡”Lifestyle Modification Using a Wearable Biometric Ring and Guided Feedback Improve Sleep and Exercise Behaviors: A 12-Month Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study.” The study compared simply using the ring with some generic information provided with using the ring while also receiving personalized, reinforcing messages. You’ll never guess which group showed the most improvements.

A Detour to Kalenderberg

I’m not just interested in sippy cups. The pottery from this era and region has many wonderful features (including a variety of large vessels with multiple bull’s head spouts), and the cups found in excavations range from primitive vessels to elegant ware with distinctive curves and handles, and some with elaborate incised or pressed decorations.

A large number of such wares were found in Kalenderberg Group graves (eastern Hallstatt Culture, early Iron Age). Let’s take a look at some cups, comprising two general styles, Kalenderberg and Pseudo-Kalenderberg, described by Roberto Tarpini (translation here thanks to Google Translate):

“Roughly simplified, the typical decorations of the “classic calendar mountain ornament” are garland or angular notched strips and small knobs as fillings, which in turn are implemented in the “pseudo calendar mountain ornament” in the form of fluting and impressions (Fig. 6).”

Der Topf im Grab: Überlegungen zur Beigabe von Ritualkeramik in Bestattungen des Osthallstattraums. In: P.C. Ramsl, K. Rebay-Salisbury & P. Trebsche (eds.) Schichtengeschichten. Festschrift für Otto H. Urban. Universitätsforschungen zur Prähistorischen Archäologie. Bonn: Habelt.  328: 441– 457 

Admittedly, surface decoration is not a major focus of mine. I am more interested in forms. Here is Figure 6, mentioned above:

What on earth is going on at the bottom right? All these perfect normal – and extensively decorated cups – and then … Leggy Cup. So of course this one went on my list. My priority was getting a stable cup with such long legs and such small feet. I chickened out a bit on the feet, making them broader than the original and lightly connected at the heels. I also kept the general form of the cup a bit more compact. And I feel good about the result. In fact, this cup brings a smile to my face every time I think of it.

My earthenware adaptation of the Pseudo-Kalenderberg cup with
tall legs, an Eastern Hallstatt Culture cup dated to the early Iron Age.
This was bisque fired and will not be glazed.

This takes me to the end of my class this fall. I have a few pieces to repeat, refining their shapes to get closer to extant originals, and I’ll be working toward more period production techniques. There are also some larger forms I’m interested in working on. See you next year!

Vösendorf: the Cup That Made Me Fall in Love

Without a doubt, the most charming cups among the Hallstatt feeding cups for children are the Vösendorf cups held at the Natural History Museum in Vienna.

Small feeding vessels found in a burial site in Vösendorf, Austria, dated to c 1300 to 800 BCE.

Several years ago, I attempted a vessel based on these, and it was just terrible. Also, it was very unstable, and at some point after it was bisqued, it fell over, and its head broke off.

This year, I finally felt ready to go back to this shape and do it better.

My earthenware copy of a Vösendorf burial cup. Shown here in its
greenware state, this was later bisque fired and will not be glazed.

I felt pretty good about this one. The feet seemed a little clunky, but I think I had the general idea. It really looked like the example on the far right had a little bunny tail, and I leaned into that. No spout, but I figured for something so whimsical, it was likely ceremonial.

Of course, well after it was bisqued, I discovered this one should have had a spout. (You may be thinking, “I don’t think I’d want to drink out of that end, even figuratively.” But it’s probably easier to get a grip on the horns, the udder/teats on a live animal are back in that general direction, you don’t want to put your eye out, and would you really want to drink out of front end, for that matter? Back to the article this illustration comes from: it also had a photo showing a [20th Century] mom feeding a baby right from a goat’s udder.)

Photographs and line drawings, showing interior space, for the second Vösendorf cup from the left, judging by that lean in the left leg. Wonderful illustration by Rebay-Salisbury.

So, yeah, I’ll definitely be remaking this one.

A Ruminant Head … and Paws?

There is a little cup from Znojmo, now Czechia, that doesn’t have the spout but has an animal head with little horns and 4 legs with very small nubbin feet that look a bit bigger than hooves but not clearly human feet, as with some other finds from this period. It was found in a settlement context, and is one of the cups listed in Table 1 of Dunne et al. Compare a similar era cup from a burial site a couple hundred miles to the south – far more literal, identifiable cattle features with definite hooves. But, as great a find as it is, let’s face it, not as cute as the cup on the left.

This is such a sweet little round animal shape, and the “paws” really get me.

I admit, I’ve been shying away from the abrupt, tall, upright mouths on top of some of these cups, modeling my adaptations to show a smoother transition from the cup to mouth.

With this one, I broke my own rule about picking up pieces from the pottery studio (wrap in at least one layer of paper and place in a box or bag with handles) and carried my copy out to the car in my stupid butterfingery hands. As I stepped out of the front door, I dropped it, and it broke in half + its horns broke off. Whoops. Oh well. Now it’s glued together like a real archaeological find. I will probably revisit this one, and make its proportions reflect the almost hippo-like spacing of the original’s legs.

My earthenware copy of the Znojmo cup. This was
bisque fired and will not be glazed.

Starting Simple

These small spouted cups are documented in Rebay-Salisbury et al. The one on the left is one of the cups documented in Dunne et al. as having contained ruminant milk. It was found in Grave 80 (of a child under age 6) of the Dietfurt-Tennisplatz site, dated to c 800 to 600 BCE. On the right is a cup found in a settlement context, in Regensburg-Harting, dated to c 1200 to 800 BCE. It is described as “contaminated, low level of lipids.” Both the originals reside in the Historisches Museum Regensburg.

The Dietfurt cup is completely round from the top, but I ended up making it in an oval shape. I ended up making the Regensburg-Harting cup in a slightly fatter, spherical shape (it is described as “lemon shaped”), with 3 feet. I couldn’t tell from the photo whether it had 3 or 4, and I go back and forth on whether I screwed up. Still, these little cuties crack me up with their exaggerated duck faces.

I did a little burnishing on these, just to smooth out the surfaces a bit. Both were started as pinch pots, which I think is the most likely technique for making cups of this size (easy to work in the palm of one’s hand). I made the straws by rolling some clay and, after it set up, using a coring tool to take out the middle. This could have been done with a thick needle or wire, especially with such a short straw.

My adaptations of the Bronze Age Dietfurt and Regensburg-Harting cups, made using a pinch-pot technique and coring tool for the straws. Show here in their greenware state, these are made using Standard 104 earthenware and were bisque fired and not glazed.

A Cup With Feet

I had made one attempt a couple of years ago of a cup with feet and an animal head spout. It fell over at some point after it was bisqued and before I picked it up, and its head popped off, but also its proportions were terrible and its feet awkwardly placed. As I was exploring the sippy cups that had been featured in the lay media articles when Dunne et al. came out, I entered into the wide world of Hallstatt zoomorphic vessels and found many different examples with different proportions, some with 4 legs. Celtic groups in Bronze Age Central Europe (referred to as Urnfield, Hallstatt, and La Tène cultures, among others) were pastoral, and they included a lot of cattle imagery in their material objects. They also added human feet to many of the smaller vessels.

During this period and before, zoomorphic vessels are found pretty much everywhere you look, throughout the world, of varying sizes, sometimes with wheels, in excavations of residences and temples. There are also examples of vessels with human feet, notably a famous Egyptian bowl and an Iranian amphora that ups the ante with shapely ankles as well.

Earthenware jug with animal-head spout, Iran, c 1450 to 800 BCE
Bull rhyton, Cypriot, c 1450 to 1200 BCE
Ram-headed vessel, Mesopotamia, c 2500 BCE
Bowl with human feet, Egypt, c 3700 to 3450 BCE
Vessel with two feet (and shapely ankles), Iran, c 1000 to 800 BCE

I was already charmed by the Bronze Age sippy cups, but the combination of animal features and human feet really intrigued me, and I decided to start working on the “two human feet” balancing issue with a high-handled bowl similar to a Greek kantharos.

I modeled some needlessly sturdy feet (I hollowed them out, they were so thick), placed one handle, and then didn’t get back to the studio for a while, so rather than try to rehydrate the other side for the matching handle, I just left it with one. The Hallstatt piece is considerably more elegant, with its shaping, but I just wanted to be sure I got the thing to stand. So far so good!

Made using Standard 104 earthenware. Shown here in its greenware state,
this was bisqued and will not be glazed.

Exploring Sippy Cups for Children from the Bronze Age

In 2019, a group published a paper showing that cups found in Bronze Age children’s graves had contained ruminant milk, demonstrating that children were likely being given at least supplemental nutrition of animal milk. These are graves with children in them, so it’s possible that they were receiving milk as part of an attempt to kept them fed while ill (and indeed anyone might receive such easily consumed calories on “bed rest”). But some of these children-associated cups were particularly whimsical, having little legs or even animal heads. Admittedly, the cups that had residue analyzed were fairly pedestrian “bottle” cups:

Dietfurt biberons, approximately 800 to 600 BCE, buried with infants

But other cups, particularly a set of older cups from Vösendorf in Austria, were thoroughly delightful:

Not surprisingly, many editors chose to use the Vösendorf photos for lay-audience media about the discovery.

This sent me down a little rabbit hole about these ancient finds – discovered both in excavations of settlements and as grave goods, in varying shapes and sizes, some more like little animal models, and some simple vessels with spouts or “straws” on them. So I’ve decided to start replicating them.

Pottery in Bronze Age Europe was earthenware fired a single time in pits or in simple, only modestly insulated kilns. The potters in that place and era did not have the high-efficiency kilns already being used to vitrify stoneware and glaze it in the Far East. They used burnishing and polishing to process the surfaces of their pottery, although it would not have been as water-tight as modern glazed pottery.

Pottery in this place and era tended to have a distinctive brown color or to be burnished with a blackening material, like graphite, or painted. I don’t have easy access to brown low-fire clay, so rather than stain red clay, I’m just going ahead and use the red clay as is as I explore these shapes, trying to stay close to the single-fire process, first with electric kilns at the local pottery studio and ultimately, I hope, advancing to pit-firing.

I am fortunate that the same group that published the 2019 Nature paper has collected information about feeding vessels likely used with children, including assembling a wonderful table of extant finds listing their context and sizes, publishing it in 2021 in Feeding Babies at the Beginnings of Urbanization in Central Europe. Stay tuned as I work my way through these shapes. (And beyond!)

“Is a fitness tracker right for you?” A repeatedly missed opportunity in mainstream media

The Washington Post recently dropped a link to this article from December in one of its newsletters, and I finally realized I’ve seen a lot of these takes over the last few years as wearables have become ubiquitous: maybe you should stop using a fitness tracker, if you’re letting it tell you what to do and it’s making you anxious. These articles feature lots of precious quotes about losing the ability to simply enjoy taking a walk and so on. Not infrequently, the tracker that ends up getting junked is one that was provided gratis by an employer or an insurance company. It’s a basically good idea for an article that is routinely undermined by superficial and extremely incomplete treatment.

Employers and insurance companies often provide simple trackers such as devices from Fitbit, who aggressively courts this business. Based on wristwatches, these devices are easy to use and interact with, and they promise to provide a wealth of data (particularly around notoriously hard-to-measure activities such as sleep). It is common to fall down a whole series of rabbit holes, seeing what it tracks, seeing how you can influence that, and fretting about numbers that don’t seem “good enough.” If you learn more about the technology or just observe very closely, you soon see the weaknesses in the measurements themselves or in the conclusions drawn from them – from simple miscounts of steps to poor extrapolations of mileage to some truly laughable “sleep detection” failures. And once the trust is gone, the brain goes all kinds of bad places.

One problem with mainstream media articles on issues around fitness trackers is that they almost always assume a Fitbit-like wrist device and flatten the discussion to the category of “trackers” as if that is the only form factor. Although some “rah rah fitness tracker!” product pieces discuss the wide variety of options, I don’t think I have ever seen an article about user ambivalence go on to discuss the different types of trackers available. Some people will prefer a simpler device that gives them gentle nudges to move about more during the day, or something that tracks without constant readouts a glance away. Bellabeat makes jewelry-style trackers that can be worn as clips, pendants, or bracelets and that have no screen. There are several simple – and inexpensive – pedometers that can be clipped on or hung from a loop for people who just want to track a step goal, which can also, for that matter, be done with free apps on a smartphone. I understand a bit about how an article is planned in these environments, but this is a great example of how a specific focus robs the piece of value for the reader. In this case the reader is invited to relate to the person who is stressed by the tracker (or to judge that person as weak or not “getting it”), nothing is learned, and the comments section fills up with predictable trash.

Another problem with these articles is the narrative around the value – or risks – of the fitness tracker. Like a lot of issues involving productivity, health, and happiness, the dysfunctional-fitness-tracker story is typically framed around the individual who either can’t seem to get the process right or who is, perhaps rightfully, frustrated by being told what to do by a little piece of metal and plastic. Very few issues involving productivity, health, and happiness are fully in the individual’s control. Between schedules, commutes (or home environments that making working there a challenge), family commitments, and everything else, any change a person wishes to make almost always touches multiple moving parts, many of which touch other people who might push back in ways that are impossible (or inappropriate) to reject.

This willingness to, in essence, blame the individual is particularly annoying to me when a very reasonable quote about the challenges of developing a good food pattern comes from someone who sells coaching or instruction in “intuitive eating.” If it’s intuitive, you don’t need a coach for it. But it’s not even intuitive – the term is used for a variety of practices that involve deliberate food choices, changing your emotional relationship with food, and otherwise being more present and mindful and positive about eating (as opposed to using a reward/punishment frame). I love all those things, and I definitely love an anti-dieting frame for talking about eating, but calling any of that “intuitive” just seems like an extra twist of the knife in the back of everyone who finds it nothing of the kind, ie, almost everyone.

Most surprisingly, I can’t remember seeing a mainstream media article address both user ambivalence AND the source of the tracker. There is a separate genre of article – the discussion of privacy issues around insurance- or employer-provided devices (example linked above) – that clearly details the contextual issues that probably should make an individual reluctant to use a device from those sources. But even mentioning those issues is rare in the “is your fitness tracker making you obsessed” articles, even when quoting people who received the tracker from an employer or insurance company. It beggars belief that these articles have no room for a single quote along the lines of “Yeah, maybe the company-provided device or wellness program isn’t the right path. Some people just need [a different form factor | a free phone app | something that lets them control their data in a particular way].”

The end result is the same careful instruction in learned helplessness that characterizes the fitness / health / wellness industry as a whole: A small insight into a problem. A narrow, narrow discussion of one way of resolving it. An overall emphasis on the individual, with near-zero acknowledgement of the family, work, and social contexts that individuals spend their whole lives in. And no meaningful information about the kinds of questions a person should ask about what they want from a fitness tracker (or other form of accounting – could be a paper calendar with stickers!) that will help them get what they need when embarking on a deliberate change or management of a behavior – or even a hint that such self-understanding is a possibility.