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 As such, it’s a bit out of date – however, I think some ideas from the paper are still worth considering, particularly as Open Access and digital engagement both become bigger topics in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. 

References

Abel, S. M. and Butler, E. B. (2016) BoneID. http://www.boneid.net/

Anonymous Archaeological Fish Resource. University of Nottingham. http://fishbone.nottingham.ac.uk/

Anonymous (2000) Zooarch Homepage.  JISCMail. https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A0=ZOOARCH

Anonymous (2014) Bone Identification.   http://boneidentification.tumblr.com

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/

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

http://vzap.iri.isu.edu

Witmer, L. M. (2015) Witmerlab Projects.  Ohio University:  https://people.ohio.edu/witmerl/projects.htm


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.

The WordPress Workshop: Blogging as a Method for Theory Development

The following text is an expanded version of a Twitter conference paper I presented in 2019 for the PressEd Twitter Conference on the importance of blogging for me as an early career researcher.

The case for using blogs as a workshopping space, based on accessibility and flexibility (from the original presentation)

The general perception of blogging has undergone drastic changes in the past two decades. What was once considered a niche hobby for those technically-savvy enough to be online in the early days of the World Wide Web has now become such an easily accessible platform that many are able to make their blog a full-time occupation. More recently, the blog format has also been adopted by academics as both a means of outreach to general public as well as an interactive and educational tool amongst their students. Much has been written about the “Academic Blog”, as a form of digital scholarship (Fox 2012; Maitzen 2012), as an extension of one’s academic identity (Kirkup 2010; Estes 2012), and its usefulness as a method of education (Chong 2010; Potter and Banaji 2012; Sun and Chang 2012).

For this paper, however, I would like to focus specifically on the blog as a space for theory development. I believe that blogs can provide the space necessary for academics, particularly those who may be early in their careers or similarly marginalised by the great academic body, to develop new and radical ideas through peer support and the freedom of expression that the blog as a platform can provide.

Early versions of the blog format have existed since the World Wide Web was opened to the public, although they mostly consisted of online diaries or lists of interesting links to other websites. By the early 2000’s, millions of blogs existed on the Internet in a variety of forms (Walker Retberg 2014: 6-13), including what I refer to as the “academic blog”. For the purposes of this paper, an “academic blog” is any educational blog written specifically by those in the academy, such as professors, lecturers, and students.

Early academic blogs were first categorised as a distinct variation of blogging by Saper (2006), who originally referred to these as “Blogademia”. This category was not limited to the more educationally-directed blogs, but also included those that were more personal and opinionated in tone, with posts on institutional gossip and complaints. However, for this discussion, I will not be focusing on these blogs, which I believe may be more classified as “blogs by academics” rather than “academic blogs”. 

Academic blogs can be divided into two major groups: blogs for outreach, where the author is writing about their field of research for a non-specialist audience, and blogs for education, where the author is usually a student who is utilising the blog as a means of demonstrating their knowledge of a particular subject.

With regards to outreach, blogs are a way for academics to discuss their work on more informal terms to a broader audience, without the gatekeeping boundaries such as journal access or conference attendance. Academic blogs also allow for interdisciplinary discussion amongst researchers across the world, allowing both specialist and non-specialist alike to provide their own perspective and exchange information (Mortensen and Walker 2002: 251).

Blogs have also found effectiveness in the education, where students are able to use the format to demonstrate knowledge and understanding. For example, some lecturers have found that the blog format is useful as a tool of supervision and evaluation due to the comment system (Chong 2010); others seen the blog as an informal space for students to practice their language skills (Sun and Chang 2012). In a similar vein, many academics have created blogs geared specifically towards students, providing lessons and advice for things such as doctoral writing (Guerin et al. 2015).

Despite their demonstrated usefulness and widespread adoption by many academics, blogs as a whole are not considered by the traditional academy as on par with publications such as journals or books  (Kirkup 2010: 76). This is a disappointment, as I think the blog, while wildly different in character and concept from more conventional methods of publication, has its place as a legitimate and vital component of academia in the Digital Age. With this in mind, I propose that perhaps the best way to view the blog with respect to academia is from the perspective of a workshop, of sorts.

Clearly, the blog format has shown promise as an educational tool, particularly for students at the secondary and higher education levels. It is also clear that there is a growing emphasis on the flexibility of the blog for self-expression. In proposing the blog as an ideal development space, I will draw from both of these statements: that it is the accessibility and the flexibility inherent within the blog format that makes it a valuable tool in theory development.

The accessibility of blogs has certainly improved over time; it is no longer a prerequisite for bloggers to be fluent in coding and other technical languages. Anyone can start a blog, regardless of technical expertise, and there are now many platforms available that can host your blog for free. Unlike the more traditional forms of academic publication, blogs allow academics to write in a jargon-free, informal way that can expand the sort of audience that your writing is accessible to. Finally, blogs are an equal ground for academics and non-academics alike; this can allow for a wider and more varied range of perspectives on your theories and ideas.

As for the flexibility of blogs, I have already mentioned that there is a freedom of expression inherent in the blog format; without the standardisation that is associated with conventional academic publishing, authors can express their thoughts and ideas in various ways. This is not limited to text, either – blogs can make use of both visual and auditory media as well. Developments in a blog, such as updates and new posts, are made at the discretion of the author. This allows for a less stressful development period without time restraints or deadlines. Most importantly, blogs can be as informal and personal as one would like, allowing the author to also be self-reflective at times and comment on their thought process throughout their theory development, which may be helpful to both the author and their readers.

To end this paper, I wanted to include some personal reflections from my own experience as an academic and blogger. In 2017, I took some time off from my PhD studies after a nervous breakdown. It was necessary, but I also found myself needing to have some kind of connection to the outside academic world. As an informal way to continue writing about my research – as well as archaeology in general – I began a blog using the WordPress platform (www.animalarchaeology.com). I wrote very basic posts on zooarchaeology (the study of animal remains in the archaeological record), with photos to help others learn how to easily identify bones.

Over the next year, however, I found my blogging evolve from these standard “Introduction to Zooarchaeology” posts. As a way of better organising my work (as well as providing more inspiration for myself), I experimented with “writing series” – collections of posts based on a specific premise or topic. However, I made a point to make each series rather unique by attempting to make connections between archaeology and popular culture (recent video games, big name franchises, theme parks etc.). Not only have these proven to be my most popular posts on the blog, but they have also challenged me to really think out-of-the-box in order to connect it to my field of research; for example, writing about the archaeology of theme parks has forced me to question my preconceptions about archaeological landscapes and how we interact with archaeology beyond what we consider “ancient artefacts”.

Today, I have fully embraced my blog as a sort of workshop for radically different perspectives on archaeology as a discipline. Many of my latest posts are part of the development process for creating new and different frameworks to consider archaeology. For example, I’ve recently been working on developing anarchist approaches to archaeology (Fitzpatrick 2018a) and exploring various facets of this praxis through a combination of blog posts and conference papers for feedback from anarchists and archaeologists alike. Another example is my current work on exploring the concept of ethics and emotion with regards to animal remains (Fitzpatrick 2018b), which I’ve played with on my blog and hope to eventually develop a fully-fledged paper based on these posts.

I wholeheartedly believe that blogging has changed my process as an academic for the better; my blog gives me the space to tackle difficult concepts, with a dedicated readership that has often provided useful comments and suggestions that have inevitably evolved my original concepts into something even better. I do not think I would be as engaged with research and academia as I am today without this space available to me in the first place.

As we rapidly progress through the Digital Age, it often feels incredibly easy to miss opportunities to adapt to new methodologies within the digital space; after all, you can argue that even academic blogging is now passé and has been made obsolete by more popular platforms for digital engagement such as Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

And while I would, of course, encourage fellow academics to utilise these platforms, I still maintain that the simple blog still holds advantages for those who are interested in developing their theoretical and methodological frameworks, particularly for early career academics. Putting oneself “out there” has its disadvantages, but from personal experience, I have truly valued the support network that has become established across fellow academic bloggers who engage with my work (and I with theirs, of course) and have helped me develop the perspective from which I now utilise in more “formal” outlets, such as conferences and journals. Other academics have echoed this sentiment, particularly within collaborative blog projects that utilise forums as a method of research communication and networking (Maitzen 2012: 350).

Having this informal space to workshop my more unconventional and radical ideas has led to further collaborations with similarly unconventional and radical academics without the need for engaging with a more traditional and conservative academic sector, which gives me hope that perhaps one day we can organise into an unconventional and radical new form of academy.

References

Chong, E. K. M. (2010) Using Blogging to Enhance the Initiation of Students into Academic Research. Computers and Education 55, 798-807.

Estes, H. (2012) Blogging and Academic Identity. Literature Compass, 1-9.

Fitzpatrick, A. (2018a) Black Flags and Black Trowels: Embracing Anarchy in Interpretation and Practice. In Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference. 

Fitzpatrick, A. (2018b) The Sadness of Skin: Emotional Reactions to Remains. Retrieved from https://animalarchaeology.com/2018/09/24/the-sadness-of-skin-emotional-reactions-to-remains.

Fox, J. W. (2012) Can Blogging Change How Ecologists Share Ideas? In Economics, It Already Has. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 5, 74-77.

Guerin, C., Carter, S. and Aitchison, C. (2015) Blogging as Community of Practice: Lessons for Academic Development? International Journal for Academic Development 20 (3), 212-223.

Kirkup, G. (2010) Academic Blogging: Academic Practice and Academic Identity. London Review of Education 8 (1), 75-84.

Maitzen, R. (2012) Scholarship 2.0: Blogging and/as Academic Practice. Journal of Victorian Culture 17 (3), 348-354.

Mortensen, T. and Walker, J. (2002) Blogging Thoughts: Personal Publication as an Online Research Tool. In Morrison, A. (editor) Researching ICTs in Context.   Oslo: University of Oslo. 249-279.

Potter, J. and Banaji, S. (2012) Social Media and Self-Curatorship: Reflections on Identity and Pedagogy through Blogging on a Masters Module. Comunicar 38, 83-91.

Saper, C. (2006) Blogademia. Reconstruction 6 (4), 1-15.

Sun, Y. and Chang, Y. (2012) Blogging to Learn” Becoming EFL Academic Writers Through Collaborative Dialogues. Language Learning and Technology 16 (1), 43-61.

Walker Retberg, J. (2014) Blogging. 2nd Edition edition. Digital Media and Society Series.Cambridge: Polity 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.