August 27, 2008
Dear Friend of Idaho State University:
When Idaho State University archaeologist Herbert Maschner, Ph.D., uncovers an ancient animal bone at a site occupied by native Arctic people for millennia, the moment can add one more page to the story of humankind.
Well-preserved animal bones from archaeological sites are important because they can provide a record of human behaviors, climatic conditions and ecological changes.
For the researcher, however, effectively analyzing a newly found bone by comparing it to a known specimen has long involved getting hold of a similar bone. But only a handful of museums in North America have adequate vertebrate collections to draw on. Or, the researcher could pay someone to do the comparison.
Either way it has been a cumbersome, time-consuming and potentially expensive process.
With support from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Maschner and his collaborators are developing a better way: using three 3-D digital scanners at Idaho State University to produce the world's first online, 3-D, interactive reference collection for comparing Arctic vertebrate bones.
The Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project—VZAP—will help make the results of Arctic vertebrate archaeology readily available to universities worldwide, to K-12 educators, to anyone with an Internet connection.
The team includes Corey Schou, Ph.D., director of the Informatics Research Institute at Idaho State University and associate dean of the College of Business; and Matthew Betts, Ph.D., curator of Atlantic provinces archaeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Dr. Betts is a former postdoctoral anthropology researcher at ISU.
Currently a pilot project, VZAP enables a user of the Web site to view high-resolution, 3-D digital images of a known bird, fish or mammal bone. The user can rotate an image, zoom in and compare it to others—24/7, and free of charge.
Dr. Maschner knows from experience the need for a more readily available means to compare ancient bones. His research in the Aleutian Islands focuses on the settlement patterns and activities of Aleut people over thousands of years.
Dr. Maschner's work was discussed in a particularly thought-provoking context in the August 12 New York Times column "Dot Earth," by reporter Andrew C. Revkin. The reporter wrote about how the lessons of disasters are remembered—or not—across generations.
There is no telling where research will take us. We cannot know in the short term what an ancient bone from the Aleutian Islands might indicate about long-term human responses.
And we can only imagine what a high-school biology student somewhere in the world might do one day with the knowledge he or she gains from a resource like VZAP.
Arthur C. Vailas, Ph.D.
President, Idaho State University