Bytes meet bones in virtual zooarchaeology project

January 6, 2014

In 2006, Matthew Betts returned from an archaeological dig in the Aleutian Islands with six pallets of bones — and no sure way of identifying them. The zooarchaelogist knew the bones held clues to the lifestyles of the hunter-gatherers who had inhabited those Arctic islands as long as 7,000 years ago. The bones could reveal the type of fish they caught, which animals they hunted, how they shaped — and were shaped by — their environment. But the only way he could identify the bones was by comparing them to known specimens. And Idaho State University, where Betts worked at the time, had no adequate reference collection.

“We sent researchers to museums that had reference collections. We posted pictures on specialist message boards, asking for help with identification. And we borrowed collections, which is quite risky, because these things are irreplaceable. Not only was it an enormous expense, it led to a less accurate analysis,” says Betts.

Betts, along with his collaborators at Idaho State University, Dr. Herbert Maschner and Dr. Corey Schou, came up with the idea of creating 3-D images of the bones of Arctic vertebrates, and making them available to researchers on a public website. The Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project (VZAP) was born.

“It’s a tool for zooarchaeologists and other archaeologists to use to refine their analyses, to make them more accurate, to make them more efficient,” explains Betts, now Curator of Atlantic Provinces Archaeology at the Canadian Museum of History. “Hundreds of people are accessing this website. It’s being used all over the world.”

Recently completed, VZAP includes 2-D and 3-D images of the bones of approximately 200 animals. The images are created by the Idaho Virtualization Laboratory at Idaho State University, using a combination of laser scanning and high-definition photography. Real bones from existing collections are scanned to produce 3-D shapes, then the photographic images are ”wrapped” around the shapes to create a lifelike representation of the bone surface.

While VZAP is the first project of its kind in the field of archaeology, its technology could easily be used in other collections of artifacts, plants or animal specimens.

“Really, what we’re doing is providing virtual access to museum collections,” says Betts. “This is a test of what a virtual collection can be.”

Featured image: Muskox skull (Ovibos moschatus) from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture (Seattle).

3D image of a great auk skull

The skull of a Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) from the collections of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington).