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'VZAP' project making Arctic vertebrate information accessible to researchers anytime, anywhere

An online, three-dimensional archaeological collection of Arctic animal bones being created at Idaho State University will help "democratize" Arctic research by making knowledge readily accessible, a professor says.

ISU researchers working on the "Virtual Zooarcheology of the Arctic Project" (VZAP) are developing the world's first online, interactive, 3-D virtual vertebrate reference collection. It is expected to have applications far outside the realm of Arctic research.

"It is a great tool for scientists," said Herbert Maschner, Ph.D., ISU anthropology research professor, one of the grant's project investigators. "Instead of having to send a bone to a laboratory at some distant university for identification, researchers will be able to sit at their desk or anywhere they have access to a computer and analyze between 3,000 and 4,000 different bones from about 50 different mammals and a variety of birds from the Arctic."

Well-preserved animal bones from archaeological sites are important because they can provide a record of human behaviors, climatic conditions and ecological changes. The primary objective of this project is to develop an online resource for the identification of vertebrate material found in polar archaeological sites.

And it showcases an unusual, perhaps even unique, interdisciplinary research collaboration between the ISU Department of Anthropology and the College of Business.

Maschner and Corey Schou, Ph.D., professor and director of the ISU Informatics Research Institute and associate dean of the ISU College of Business, are teaming up with Matthew Betts, Ph.D., curator of Atlantic Provinces Archaeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Betts is a former postdoctoral researcher at Idaho State University.

The National Science Foundation awarded a $310,605 grant for the VZAP to the anthropology department and the ISU Center for Archaeology, Materials and Applied Spectroscopy (CAMAS).

Demonstrating a partially completed portion of the project, Maschner displayed how an image of a bone could be called up from the online database and examined. Users can measure a bone's actual size on the computer screen, and can rotate the image and view it from as many angles as they like.

"Anybody who has done excavation in an Arctic archeological site who digs up a bone and needs to identify it will be able to use this program and get a positive ID on what they're looking at," Maschner said. "This, in effect, helps democratize science, taking the identification of these specimens out of the hands of a few specialists."

These sites often produce large amounts of diverse remains from fish, terrestrial mammals, marine mammals, and resident and migratory birds. These remains provide a crucial record of the past—of ancient human behaviors, earlier climates and former ecosystems, Maschner said.

For the Arctic virtual collection project, the ISU Informatics Research Institute is building the software infrastructure, including a database for image storage and is creating a secure database meeting federal requirements.

Andy Taylor
ISU Magazine