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This blog post is adapted from an orphaned journal paper I started writing back in 2017 – as such, some of it may be out of date, but I think the point still stands regarding the potential of adapting zooarchaeological approaches and attitudes to datasets within digital archaeologies.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

References

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. http://www.dead-mens-eyes.org/the-artefactkit-heritage-jam-2017-winner/

Fairnell, E. and Orton, D. C. (2016) Building a National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource. https://historicengland.org.uk/research/current/heritage-science/Building-a-National-Zooarchaeological-Reference-Resource/

Fairnell, E. and Orton, D. C. (2017) National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource (NZRR). http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/nzrr_he_2017/

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.

Hey, is That a Great Auk in My Assassin’s Creed Game?! Reviving an Extinct Species in the Digital World

Okay, so a disclaimer: despite me being a so-called “video game enthusiast”, I have actually only played one out of the 12 games that make up the bulk of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Yeah, I know, feel free to boo me. That said, I was surprised to find out that I actually have more of a connection with the Assassin’s Creed franchise than previously thought. As Shay Cormac in Assassin’s Creed Rogue, you spend a fair bit of time travelling around the North Atlantic, visiting the many islands within that area…and along the way, you run into my favourite extinct species of all time – the Great Auk!

Assassin’s Creed Rogue protagonist Shay Cormac encounters an entire…flock? Herd? of Great Auk

So, who is the Great Auk and why should we care? First of all…how dare you even ask? But seriously, I am extremely biased at this point as I have spent a lot of time with the poor extinct bird during my PhD. The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) was a flightless bird that was, to be frank, an easy target for predators – especially humans, who hunted them for their meat and fat (Svanberg 2014, p. 311). The Great Auk appear to have been an important part of many local meals from as early as the prehistoric period (Best and Mulville 2013, p. 424), lasting until its extinction in 1844 (Serjeantson 2001, p. 43). Sadly, humans have a lot to answer for with regards to the extinction of the Great Auk, as overexploitation truly decimated its populations…however, it was natural history collectors who may have helped to deliver the final blow, as the demand for Great Auk remains for collections increased as populations decreased (Minteer et al., 2014).

One of my favourite finds from our excavations at the Covesea Caves – its an articulated (still held together by soft tissue) leg from a Great Auk!

Allegedly the last reported Great Auk was killed by sailors off of St. Kilda, who had feared that the poor bird was actually a witch (Galasso 2014). And while that may sound a bit strange, it seems to fit into a much older concept of the Great Auk that is still being explored through interpretations of ritual archaeology – for example,  at the site of Broxmouth Hillfort in East Lothian, Scotland, skull fragments of a Great Auk were found alongside a nearly completed horse skull as part of a structured deposit near one of the entrances (Salvagno 2013, p. 473). As part of my PhD research in the Covesea Caves of Scotland, I have also found several instances of Great Auk remains (of really fantastic preservation as well, given the amount of surviving soft tissue observed on some bones!). As these caves have already been identified as potential sites of funerary and ritual activity from the Later Prehistoric Period and possibly as late as the Medieval Period, it is possible that these Great Auk remains were also significant for certain rites. However, there’s other possibilities (they may have been eaten, or they may just represent natural deposits) and not enough concrete evidence to give a confident interpretation right now (Fitzpatrick et al. 2020).

So, why does it matter that this extinct bird showed up in a video game? Besides just being a cool little detail, it is interesting to see the ways in which extinct species are revived digitally. Of course much has already been discussed by archaeologists who specialise in archaeogaming on the ways in which video games can be a form of digital reconstruction of the past (Reinhard 2018, p. 188 – 193), but I feel as though less attention has been placed on digital zooarchaeologies in this context, and I feel that Assassin’s Creed in general has been an interesting case study of digital reconstructions of the zooarchaeological record and how it allows players to engage with extinct or otherwise drastically changed animals from the past.

Anyway, #BringBacktheGreatAuk, am I right?!

References

Best, J. and Mulville, J. (2013) ‘Between the Sea and Sky: The Archaeology of Avian Resource Exploitation in Scottish Island Environments’, in Daire, M., Dupont, C., Baudry, A., Billard, C., Large, J., Lespez, L., Normand, E. and Scarre, C. (eds.) Ancient Maritime Communities and the Relationship between People and Environment along the European Atlantic Coasts. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 417-426.

Fitzpatrick, A., Bond, J., Büster, L., & Armit, I. (2020) A Brief Consideration of the Later Prehistoric
Appearance and Possible Significance of the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) in the Covesea Caves of
North-East Scotland. The Glasgow Naturalist 27(2)

Galasso, S. (2014) When the Last of the Great Auks Died, It Was by the Crush of a Fisherman’s Boot. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/with-crush-fisherman-boot-the-last-great-auks-died-180951982/

Minteer, B. A., Collins, J. O., Love, K. E. and Puschendorf, R. (2014) ‘Avoiding (Re)extinction’, Science, 344, 260-261.

Reinhard, A. (2018) Archaeogaming: an Introduction to Archaeology In and Out of Video Games. Berghahn Books.

Salvagno, L. (2013) ‘Bird Bone’, in Armit, I. and McKenzie, J. (eds.) An Inherited Place: Broxmouth Hillfort and the South-East Scottish Iron Age. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, pp. 471-473.

Serjeantson, D. (2001) ‘The Great Auk and the Gannet: a Prehistoric Perspective on the Extinction of the Great Auk’, International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 11, 43-55.

Svanberg, I. (2014) ‘Great Auk’, in Hund, A.J. (ed.) Antarctica and the Arctic Circle: A Geographic Encyclopedia of the Earth’s Polar Regions. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, pp. 311.

Ubisoft Sofia (2014) Assassin’s Creed Rogue. Ubisoft.


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.

“Hypnospace Outlaw” and the Archaeological Internet Site

Note: This blog post will have slight spoilers for the recent video game Hypnospace Outlaw, which I highly suggest you play if you haven’t already done so!

Last month, I played through Hypnospace Outlaw, a new video game in which the Player is basically the new moderator (called an “Enforcer”) of an early form of the Internet during the late 1990’s, known as “Hypnospace”. This was a community of early Internet users who utilised a technology known as the “Hypnoband” to traverse various pages and “hubs” on the Internet during their sleep. As an Enforcer, the Player scrolls through listed and unlisted (or hidden!) community pages, learning via contextual clues more about the individual members of the communities and their relations as played on via the Internet.

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Just an example of the sort of 90’s, early Internet vibe that “Hypnospace Outlaw” delivers (Image Credit: Cecilia D’Anastasio, Kotaku)

In the last third of the game, the story jumps to the current year and the Player finds themselves part of a group of ex-users of the now-defunct Hypnospace who are attempting to archive it for posterity. And of course, this immediately sparks my interest as an archaeologist!

The concept of an “Internet archaeology” isn’t necessarily new, of course – one of the earliest considerations of such a framework was as early as 1997, when Quentin Jones wrote about the idea of “cyber-archaeology“. This theoretical framework viewed Internet communities as “virtual settlements”, where virtual interactions and activities are analysed as a sort of material record from which behaviours and relations can be interpreted from. With the rise in Internet archival systems, we’ve seen iterations of cyber-archaeology in practice – for example, there’s the Deleted City project which archives the now-defunct online community GeoCities after its closure in 2009 (Vijgen 2012). Today, a lot of what we would consider “Internet Archaeology” is part of the much wider field of “digital archaeology”; for an example related to GeoCities, Matt Law and Colleen Morgan (2014) have written about the sustainability of digital sites and how utilising previous archaeological websites that have since been long abandoned, we may be able to learn more about methods of archaeological outreach, ultimately applying the sorts of skills we learn and use in “traditional” archaeology towards the digital sphere. Similarly, Lorna Richardson has done much in digital/public archaeologies, particularly in studying the ways in which archaeology is both communicated and experienced in the Digital Age (Richardson 2013).

What I really like about Hypnospace Outlaw is how, whether or not it was intended, it really is a great example of an archaeology game. The mechanics of the game are basically those found in any detective game, but I’d argue that the method has much more in common with Jones’ concept of cyber-archaeology, particularly with the idea of an “Internet archaeological record” including textual interactions and conversations between users within the community.

I’d also argue the game creates tools that would actually be useful for an Internet-based excavation. The main tool used during the archival section of the game (see image below) is not unlike a Harris Matrix, which is used by archaeologists to show the sequencing of archaeological contexts from a single site. In fact, the tool allows for the Player to change between specific periods of time, allowing webpages to be seen not just as static objects but as constantly changing ones that are updating and changed by their users over time.

Although the HAP (Hypnospace Archival Project) tool is clearly created to allow for Players to see where they are missing content and allows them to 100% complete the game, I am really fascinated about this – and similar tools – as a means of actually participating in an “Internet excavation“, so to speak. The game also requires the Player to download certain programs to allow them access to hidden and secret pages, which again leads me to think – what kind of advances in coding and programming would be required for Internet archaeology? As we lose access to HTMLs and other sources of media and content, how do we attempt to navigate around that? When giant networks like Facebook and Twitter finally end, will we be able to archive all of that material? How will we maintain access to these digital/archaeological sites over time?

But, alas…I don’t know anything about coding or computers so don’t look at me!!

Screenshot_2019-06-30 Hypnospace Archival Project
The tool used for the Hypnospace Archival Project (Image Credit: Merchant3y3z, Hypnospace Outlaw Wiki)

 

You can download Hypnospace Outlaw for the PC via Steam or GOG, for the Nintendo Switch, or for the PS4

References

Jones, Q. (1997) Virtual-Communities, Virtual Settlements, & Cyber-Archaeology: A Theoretical Outline. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 3(1).

Law, M. and Morgan, C. (2014) The Archaeology of Digital Abandonment: Online Sustainability and Archaeological Sites. Present Pasts 6(1). pp. 1-9.

Richardson, L. (2013) A Digital Public Archaeology? Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 23(1). pp. 1-12.

Tholen, J. (2019) Hypnospace Outlaw. Manchester: No More Robots.

Vijgen, R. (2012) The Deleted City: A Digital Archaeology. Parsons Journal for Information Mapping.


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.

Preserving Play: Video Games as Digital Artefacts and the Status of Games Preservation

Archaeology and video games have been a hot topic in the past few years – not only is it a growing sub-discipline of its own (for more information, check out archaeogaming.com or the new Archaeogaming book that has come out of that website), but we also seem to talk about video games and archaeology a lot on this blog (see: Fallout, Skyrim, Dragon Age…plus many more in the near future!). However, this all utilises the video game as its own digital space, inside which archaeological theory can be applied. But what about the video game as an actual artefact?

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(Image Credit: Nintendo of Europe)

Like any artefact, video games have been the focus of preservation efforts for some time. Not only is preservation vital for digital academics and historians, but many game enthusiasts appreciate the ability to play games from their childhood that may be inaccessible any other way. Two of the main methods of preservation have been migration and emulation. Migration refers to the movement (also known as ‘porting’) of a game from an older and/or obsolete gaming system to another, more recent/active one. Emulation is arguably a more popular method, where a program is created to emulate both the game and the original software it ran on, creating a more “accurate”, preserved version of the game.

Video game preservationists include designated research groups, such as the Preserving Virtual Worlds Project. It has also become an industry in its own right, with new re-releases of classic games and systems and large scale conventions becoming more popular as “retro gaming” and nostalgia become extremely marketable to the general public. However, most preservationists consist of hobbyists and fans who seek to not only preserve video games, but to make them accessible to everyone, usually by making emulated games and emulators free to download online.

This latter group of video game preservationists have found themselves in hot water recently, as Nintendo, a popular video game company, is taking legal action against two major emulation websites for illegal distribution of their copyrighted games. While this may seem understandable, it should also be noted that many of these emulated games have not been in distribution for a long period of time and will most likely never been regularly distributed again in stores. So the situation is slightly more complex – how can we preserve these games if the game companies will not?

So, what is in the future for video game preservation? Some propositions for going forward with a more “formal” (read: without breaching copyright or including illegal downloading) preservation approach include utilising the museum approach and returning to more backwards compatible consoles (in other words, allow for newer consoles to play older games on them), as well as a more organised push towards migration/emulation of all games.  However, the heart of game preservation will arguably remain with the hobbyists and fans who will continue to produce downloadable versions of well-loved games online, regardless of the legal issues ahead.

Perhaps archaeologists and heritage specialists should consider video game preservation as part of our respective fields? After all, if we consider the video game as a historical/digital artefact, doesn’t that deserve saving as much as the more physical artefacts? With the growing popularity of “archaeogaming”, it seems like more archaeologists might find themselves looking more into preservation techniques of ATARI games instead of looking at pottery! And to be honest…that sounds awesome. Maybe I got into the wrong archaeological field?

References

Barwick, J. et al. (2011) Playing Games with Cultural Heritage: A Comparative Case Study Analysis of the Current Status of Digital Game Preservation. Games and Culture. 6 (4). pp. 373-390.

Guttenbrunner, M. et al. (2010) Keeping the Game Alive: Evaluating Strategies for the Preservation of Console Video Games. The International Journal of Digital Curation. 1 (5). pp. 64-90.

McFerran, D. (2018) The Retro Gaming Industry Could Be Killing Game Preservation. Eurogamer. https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2018-02-09-the-retro-gaming-industry-could-be-killing-video-game-preservation

McFerran, D. (2018) What Does Nintendo’s Shutdown of ROM-Sharing Sites Mean for Video Game Preservation? NintendoLife. http://www.nintendolife.com/news/2018/08/feature_what_does_nintendos_shutdown_of_rom-sharing_sites_mean_for_video_game_preservation 


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.