Standing on the Shoulders of Animals: Applying Zooarchaeological Approaches to Data in Digital Archaeology

Note: This blog post is adapted from an orphaned journal paper I started writing back in 2017 – as such, some of it may be out of date, but I think the point still stands regarding the potential of adapting zooarchaeological approaches and attitudes to datasets within digital archaeologies.

The Dynamic Imagine Engine user interface from the Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project (VZAP) (Photo Credit: Betts et al. 2011)

Zooarchaeology as a discipline has always held a longstanding association with the generation of large amounts of data. In its earliest iteration,  zooarchaeological data sets were often relegated to the appendices of archaeological reports, sometimes referred to as “laundry lists” (Lyman 2015). Over the past few decades, zooarchaeology has developed into a proper discipline with its own individual methodological approaches to understanding the archaeological record and particular frameworks that sufficiently utilise animal remains to interpret our collective past. Throughout this process of expansion and development, the cultivation and management of data remained a key aspect of zooarchaeological methodology.

As digital archaeology and heritage developed into its own formidable area of study, zooarchaeology found success in applying these new digital pedagogies to zooarchaeological data. Projects with this focus include digitising references and measurements, to developing new methods of creating and archiving meta-data for future use. Although zooarchaeologists have largely adapted digital approaches to data, there has been comparatively little engagement of zooarchaeological methodology by digital archaeologists. This is unfortunate, but understandable – digital archaeologists may not initially see the potential in zooarchaeological pedagogies due to the narrow focus on faunal remains in our discipline; however, I would argue that there is much within zooarchaeology that can be extrapolated and applied as methods for cultivating, managing, reusing, and repurposing data. Perhaps by examining zooarchaeology not just as the study of archaeofaunal remains, but also the study and management of data, the practicality of zooarchaeological methods for digital application will become more apparent.

Zooarchaeology has arguably always been a data-focused discipline at heart. Prior to becoming a full-fledged discipline, early zooarchaeological “analysis” consisted of quantifying faunal remains found during excavation into pages and pages of datasets found in the appendices of site reports. Eventually, conversations about zooarchaeological data changed from “why should we quantify these remains” to “how should we quantify these remains”; this ultimately led to the creation of unique quantitative approaches such as NISP (number of identified specimens), MNI (minimum number of individuals), and MNE (minimum number of elements), although there is still some debate over which method is best for quantification (O’Connor 2000: 55-57; Steele 2015).

Probably one of the most important developments in zooarchaeological methodology has been biometry, or analysis focused on the bone measurements of fauna (Albarella 2002). Biometrics became part of the structural frameworks of many species identification methods (von den Driesch 1976; Hillson 1992) and would also become a huge influence on how zooarchaeologists would further cultivate data based on available material, regardless of the level of preservation and wholeness.

As zooarchaeology continued to transform and progress, attention moved from the generation and collection of data to finding new ways to utilise this data. Much of this work has only been possible due to the ability to share these datasets both within the discipline and outside of it – collaborative research across zooarchaeology, biology, and zoology has often led to the development of many valuable theories and frameworks for analysing archaeofauna.

There are numerous resources for bone identification as the result of various collaborative efforts between zooarchaeologists, biologists, and osteologists in an attempt to further digitise zooarchaeological data (including biometric measurements and reference images) in both meta-data and 2D/3D modelled forms (Fitzpatrick 2018). One of the largest and most ambitious projects in digital zooarchaeology at the moment is the National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource (NZRR). This collaborative project between Historic England and the University of York sets out to create a database of zooarchaeological reference collections and associated metadata, including contact information, access policies, and range of species available – this allows zooarchaeologists to quickly locate collections suited to their needs and learn exactly how best to gain access from the curators (Fairnell and Orton 2016; Fairnell and Orton 2017).

Given the high level of engagement that zooarchaeology has with data and data management just by the nature of its discipline, it is surprising to see that there has been little cross-pollination of ideas between digital archaeologists and zooarchaeologists. There is an arguable wealth of information that can be derived from zooarchaeological approaches to the cultivation, management, and curation of data that may be applicable to digital scholarship in archaeology, particularly with regards to standardisation and the creation of reference resources.

If we examine zooarchaeology as a discipline of collaboration through data, feasible applications in digital archaeologies may become more apparent. Many zooarchaeological projects, like the NZRR, place emphasis on accessibility – that reference data must be open access for all and that through collaborative work, the access to various reference data can be extended greatly. This concept has already evolved into a larger movement within archaeology as a whole, with many Open Access platforms now available for archiving various categories of archaeological data (Steele 2015). In addition, previous zooarchaeological work, specifically those that utilised archival data in collaborative projects, have also highlighted a crucial part of accessibility that must be considered: the need for standardisation. In the case of zooarchaeology, this refers to having a shared set of terminology and recording techniques so that data integration and data sharing can be accurate and precise (Atici et al. 2012). By allowing zooarchaeological data to be open access and standardised in a way that is understandable to others, the discipline has been able to further develop methods to extrapolate more use from obtained data – for example, by utilising datasets to develop broader interpretations and patterns across specific environments and regions.

By looking at the discipline and work of zooarchaeology not just as a study of archaeofauna, but also of cultivating and managing large amounts of data, we can see that there is a wealth of possibilities for application of certain methodologies to digital archaeology. There is also clearly a case for more emphasis on improving archival processes and accessibility to primary data based on the zooarchaeological tendency for data reuse.

Of course, this is all mostly theoretical at this point – what are the actual practicalities of applying zooarchaeological approaches to digital archaeologies? Digital archaeologists will almost certainly run into similar issues that zooarchaeologists face when dealing with archival data: mistakes that may need correction, certain terminologies that may be ultimately untranslatable, etc. (Jones and Gabe 2015). Some fine-tuning of the methodology will always be necessary – for example, following meta-analysis of archival collections from New Mexico, Jones and Gabe (2015) found that biases in the recording and curating processes resulted in errors once they were incorporated into the larger datasets. Similar to Lau and Whitcher Kansa (2018), they suggest that transparency in future work – i.e. acknowledging possible biases in site reports, fully detailing methodologies and processes – would be helpful; otherwise reconciliation of certain collections may become impossible.

There is also the fact that applying zooarchaeological methods to digital archaeologies will not always be a one-to-one trade-off; not all data generated from digital scholarship will be able to be recorded and/or quantified using the same methods that work best for archaeofauna. Again, this will have to be a case-by-case situation in which digital archaeologists determine what works best for their data – this paper is merely using zooarchaeological methodology as an example of how interdisciplinary processes can be used in conjunction with digital datasets, after all.

The increasing interest in digital zooarchaeology could imply that more collaboration between disciplines is on the horizon, particularly in the ways in which we can access and utilise reference material not just in our physical reality, but also in virtual reality (Means 2014; Eve 2017; Maschner et al. 2017). By expanding our view of methodological processes into considering other disciplines within archaeology, it is almost guaranteed that the future will constantly bring us new and even more innovative approaches to archaeological data.


Albarella, U. (2002) ‘Size Matters’: How and Why Biometry is Still Important in Zooarchaeology. In Dobney, K. and O’connor, T. (editors) Bones and the Man: Studies in Honour of Don Brothwell.   Oxford: Oxbow Books. 51-62.

Atici, L., Whitcher Kansa, S., Lev-Tov, J. and Kansa, E. C. (2012) Other People’s Data: A Demonstration of the Imperative of Publishing Primary Data. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 20, 663-681.

Betts, M.W. et al. (2011) Virtual zooarchaeology: building a web-based reference collection of northern vertebrates for archaeofaunal research and education. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(4), p. 755e1-755e9.

Eve, S. (2017) The ARtefactKit – Heritage Jam 2017 Winner. Dead Men’s Eyes.

Fairnell, E. and Orton, D. C. (2016) Building a National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource.

Fairnell, E. and Orton, D. C. (2017) National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource (NZRR).

Fitzpatrick, A. (2018) The World Wide Reference Collection: Zooarchaeological Twitter and the Case for an International Zooarchaeological Database. In Computer Applications in Archaeology Twitter Conference. 

Hillson, S. (1992) Mammal Bones and Teeth: An Introductory Guide to Methods of Identification. London: Institute of Archaeology.

Jones, E. L. and Gabe, C. (2015) The Promise and Peril of Older Collections: Meta-Analyses and the Zooarchaeology of Late Prehistoric/Early Historic New Mexico. Open Quarternary 1 (6), 1-13.

Lyman, R. L. (2015) The History of “Laundry Lists” in North American Zooarchaeology. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 39, 42-50.

Maschner, H., Betts, M. and Schou, C. (2017) Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project.

Means, B. K. (2014) Virtual Curation and Virtual Collaboration. In Rocks-Macqueen, D. and Webster, C. (editors) Blogging Archaeology.    Landward Research Ltd. 121-144.

O’Connor, T. (2000) The Archaeology of Animal Bones. United Kingdom: Sutton Publishing Limited.

Steele, T. E. (2015) The Contributions of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites: the Past and Future of Zooarchaeology. Journal of Archaeological Science 56, 168-176.

von den Driesch, A. (1976) A Guide to the Measurement of Animal Bones from Archaeological Sites. Harvard: Peabody Museum Press.

If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.