Faunal Database Preservation and Accessibility

  • National Science Foundation-funded research to preserve and integrate existing data on the use of animals during the Archaic Period (ca. 10,000–3,000 BP) in tDAR (the Digital Archaeological Record).

    Sarah Neusius currently is co-leading zooarchaeologists in the Eastern Archaic Faunal Working Group to preserve significant faunal datasets and address questions about the Archaic period. The EAFWG includes zooarchaeologists from IUP, the Illinois State Museum, the University of Kentucky, Florida State University, the Illinois Archaeological Survey, State University of New York at Oneonta, and the University of Michigan at Flint.

    The Digital Archaeological Record, or tDAR, is a web-based, publicly-accessible cyber infrastructure. tDAR is maintained by Digital Antiquity, which is hosted by Arizona State University and is an international digital repository for digital data, images, and documents which is committed to preservation of all types of archaeological data as well as to open access to these data. It also provides tools for integrating data so that it can be explored at multiple scales.  

    Eastern Archaic Faunal Working Group

    Photo: The Eastern Archaic Faunal Working Group

    The EAFWG has uploaded over 50 important datasets that eventually will be publicly accessible through tDAR to other researchers interested in the Archaic. These datasets were generated over the last 60 or more years by archaeologists working on sites located in the interior parts of Eastern North America. In these areas the recovery and analysis of animal bones and other remains has long been a standard excavation procedure, and this tradition of emphasizing zooarchaeological analysis continues today. Good preservation has meant that large amounts of animal bone as well as mussel and snail shell often are recovered and significant faunal datasets have been generated for this region.

    Site level descriptions and interpretations have been published, but these data still hold great potential for providing better understanding of the Archaic at a regional level. However, these datasets remain dispersed across a wide variety of institutions and are inaccessible to the larger archaeological community because they were recorded in a variety of formats and curated by individual researchers, some of whom are now deceased or no longer actively involved in Archaic period scholarship.

    tDAR provides the means of preserving and integrating these datasets. Once uploaded, datasets are mapped to standard ontologies which can be used to combine disparately created and coded datasets. This allows faunal data to be explored at multiple scales by making comparative studies between and among datasets.

    Key issues which were an initial focus for this research involved determining how comparable EAFWG datasets actually are in terms of recovery, taphonomy, and archaeological context. Based on these findings, the EAFWG is now studying the variable use of aquatic animals, including freshwater mussels, fish, waterfowl, aquatic turtles, and aquatic mammals at different times and in different places during the Archaic. Traditional explanations for Archaic period variability and change have regarded environment and demography as the main causal variables. However, such explanations now are questioned by contemporary researchers, who argue that cultural identities, sociopolitical interactions, and ritual practices also explain some Archaic phenomena. The EAFWG believes that zooarchaeological data have much to contribute to these debates about the nature of the Archaic.

    Perhaps even more importantly, the many datasets that this project preserves in the Eastern Archaic Faunal Working Group collection in tDAR  can be useful to future researchers asking completely different questions generated from different theoretical perspectives.