The World Wide Reference Collection: Zooarchaeological Twitter and the Case for an International Zooarchaeology Database

The following text is an expanded version of a Twitter conference paper I presented back in 2018 (remember the world pre-pandemic?!) for the Computer Applications in Archaeology Twitter Conference. As such, it’s a bit out of date – however, I think some ideas from the paper are still worth considering, particularly as Open Access and digital engagement both become bigger topics in academic discourse across disciplines.

A brief overview of what an open access, world wide digital reference collection could look like (from the original presentation).

Social media platforms such as Twitter have allowed for a substantial increase in collaboration between academics, allowing access to information and advice from one side of the world to the other. This is especially true among both archaeologists and zooarchaeologists, who often turn to Twitter with faunal bones that they have been unable to identify so that another pair of zooarchaeological eyes can help. In many cases, Twitter has allowed access to reference collections that would have otherwise been inaccessible due to distance and monetary reasons.

Based on numerous experiences in using the zooarchaeology community on Twitter to successfully identify archaeofaunal bones, this paper proposes that the next logical step for continuing collaboration among zooarchaeologists to is to develop an international digital database of faunal bone references, crowdsourced from reference collections of zooarchaeologists and institutions around the world. This database could bring zooarchaeology into the Open Access movement that will arguably define the future of archaeology in the digital world.

With the rise in popularity and use of social media networks such as Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, it has never been easier to collaborate with academics across the world. This is especially true for the archaeology community on Twitter, in particular with zooarchaeologists. There are many instances of interactions on Twitter where zooarchaeologists and others in zoology-related fields have helped in the identifications of faunal remains based on photos posted by others. This has led to a common practice when faced with a mystery bone to tag photos with the hashtag #Zooarchaeology to get the attention of this community on Twitter. Of course, this is not only limited to one website – even before the rise of social media, the zooarchaeology community was helping each other with identifications and other issues through the JISCMail emailing list, which is still in use today with an online archive of answered questions. On Tumblr, another social media network specifically catering to bloggers, there are resources such as “Bone Identification”, which has readers send an anonymous Tumblr user photos of bones to be identified. This Tumblr blog has been in use since 2014 and is still actively identifying mystery bones, arguably due to the continuous interest in the identification, care, and collection of faunal bones often referred to as “vulture culture” online. With these examples in mind, I propose that the natural progression of these resources is an international digital reference collection that is open access to everyone.

There is precedence for such a large scale project in the form of numerous individual digital collections; some examples include BoneID (Abel and Butler 2016) and the University of Nottingham’s Archaeological Fish Resource. With advances in virtual technology, there have also been interactive, 3D references, such as the free paleontological models available from the Witmer Lab at Ohio University (Witmer 2015) and the specimen models available from the Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project (Maschner et al. 2017).

The foundation for this hypothetical project has also been laid recently with Historic England’s project, led by David Orton and Eva Fairnell with consultation from other zooarchaeologists in Britain, called the National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource (NZRR); this online database hosts information regarding several British collections, including what kind of specimens are available, policies for access, and location and contact details. This allows for a “shortcut” of sorts, where zooarchaeologists and others in need of a specific specimen for reference can easily locate nearby collections that may be useful for their needs. Orton and Fairnell have stated that future plans for the NZRR may include consultation and support for further digitisation of collections and resources (Fairnell and Orton 2016; Fairnell and Orton 2017).

A future platform like that is clearly in demand, but I would suggest that the final goal should take the concept a step even further, based on the recent push for open access resources in archaeology: the creation of an internationally-sourced, digital reference collection. I propose that this occurs in stages, as I understand that such a large scale digitisation project will be logistically difficult to not only organise, but maintain over time. However, in this hypothetical case of having the time and labour available for such a project, I would first suggest that the existing NZRR continue to be built upon by supporting and encouraging digitisation projects, as suggested by Orton and Fairnell. By creating a database of these digital resources, hopefully other institutions will follow, seeing the increase in popularity and use of such resources. The ideal goal should be that this, in turn, leads to a collaborative effort between institutions around the world to synthesize digitised collections into one, all-inclusive one – not only would this promote the institution’s collection by providing the sort of details, but also increases the accessibility to the collection. Open access means that the resource needs to be able to be used by anyone, no matter their situation; as of now, some archaeologists are unable to physically visit reference collections that may be vital to their research. A digital reference collection would be vital in increasing this accessibility. Ideally, success in this sort of endeavour could create opportunities for the creation of more specific digital databases: paleopathology, butchery, taphonomy, etc. For zooarchaeologists, this would be a particularly useful collaborative effort, as it could help unify a lot of research around such topics that may otherwise cause confusion due to differences in opinion (i.e. the vague use of the word taphonomy, no real uniform definitions for types of butchery marks).

It is understandable that there could be concerns that the existence of such a database would render zooarchaeologists redundant and ultimately unnecessary. On the contrary, I’d argue that such a resource would help increase the interest in zooarchaeology. Again, the increased accessibility would not only aid in current research, but it may also introduce the field to others and allow for greater collaboration with what some may consider a relatively “niche” discipline.  As older textual resources become harder to access, creating more open access databases will become more important to survive in the future.

Of course, the actual logistics of a large scale collaborative project like the one proposed in this paper would be difficult, if not impossible without many resources, time, and labour. And in truth, I do not have the answers to questions on how this should specifically be undertaken (although I am always open for suggestions and collaborations). However, I believe that this is a worthy goal that we, as zooarchaeologists, should try to achieve in the future. As the Internet continues to move us all closer together in the electronic world and allows us to work alongside each other despite the physical distances, I think archaeology as a whole must be fully committed to progressing towards a more open access future, lest the discipline is left in the past with the materials it studies. 


Abel, S. M. and Butler, E. B. (2016) BoneID.

Anonymous Archaeological Fish Resource. University of Nottingham.

Anonymous (2000) Zooarch Homepage.  JISCMail.

Anonymous (2014) Bone Identification.

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).

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

Witmer, L. M. (2015) Witmerlab Projects.  Ohio University:

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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.

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?!


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

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.