'Zoomarchaeology': Teaching Animal Skeletal Anatomy in an Online Format

This article is an excerpt from the current issue of the International Council for Archaeozoology Newsletter 20(2):67-69. The author is Dr. Christyann M. Darwent, UC Davis Professor of Anthropology and a 2020 recipient of the Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award. Dr. Darwent will serve as one of three presenters at the first DOLCE of fall quarter on Friday, October 9th at 12 noon PST, which you can register for now to receive the Zoom information.

When we headed into pandemic lockdown in mid-March of this year, it was the end of Winter quarter instruction and the start of finals week, followed by a one-week Spring break and the start of Spring quarter instruction. For those not on the West Coast of North America, this format may be unfamiliar. Our academic year is broken down into three 10-week quarters instead of two semesters. Thus, while  other instructors had to modify their zooarchaeology courses mid-stream, which posed its own challenges, I was faced with creating an online laboratory course for zooarchaeology from start to finish in one week. After going through the stages of grief – denial, anger, fear and finally acceptance – I set to work creating what I think turned out to be a less than horrible experience for both my students and myself; or at least that’s what they conveyed in their teaching evaluations. 

As you are preparing for Fall instruction, keep in mind that you will most likely have students participating from outside your country or outside your time zone, and thus it may be difficult for them to attend synchronously. I personally need an audience, so I prefer to record my lectures at the same time I give them live, and then post them to a secure course website rather than create pre-recorded videos. For those who select to create recorded videos, it is better to create multiple short recordings of 5 to 10 minutes each on particular topics rather than one long lecture. Use your university’s course platform to post lecture recordings rather than YouTube, as you may run into copyright issues. 

Regardless of which format you choose, assume that your students will have internet or technology issues at some point during the quarter. My home internet was down one day and thus I had to create a hotspot with my phone to be able to share the slides on my laptop and give my lecture. For my teaching assistant (TA), her home internet was poor so she had to give her guest lecture on bone technology from her campus office. Also, assume that some students may only be able to listen to the lecture or may be viewing it on tiny phone screens, so make sure to provide your lecture materials beforehand. If you have TAs, make them the co-host for all course meetings. This provides an added backup for technological issues, and they can monitor the chat or ‘reaction’ buttons to field questions, as this is often difficult to do at the same time you are lecturing. 

One piece of advice I cannot emphasize enough is not to use your ‘regular’ PowerPoint lectures. You need to keep accessibility at the forefront with online instruction; it is not just about being cognizant of students who are red-green colorblind (thank you Lee Lyman and Don Grayson for making me keenly aware of this issue). Use the accessibility and subtitle functions in PowerPoint. Most importantly, include much more descriptive text on your slides than you would normally and provide a pdf of your slides to the course website before you give your lecture. It makes it much easier for students to follow along and to be able to return to the materials for studying and completing labs and assignments. 

I gave two lectures per week, with the first 40–45 minutes focused on theory and methods, and generally following topics outlined in Terry O’Connor’s The Archaeology of Animal Bones (2013, The History Press, Stroud, UK). A ‘virtual lab’ on animal skeletal anatomy followed the lecture. 

One advantage instructors teaching human osteology or human evolution have over those teaching zooarchaeology is the quantity of virtual resources available. Likewise, if you plan to focus only on domestic mammals, you will find excellent online materials through veterinary departments, such as:  However, the options for virtual instruction using non-domestic species is more limited, and often these online resources focus on particular classes of animals. For example:  Although I provided links to these and numerous references (thank you ZOOARCH@jiscmail.ac.uk for suggestions), I wanted a centralized location, or a one-stop shop, that could mimic the ‘hands on’ experience they would have in the laboratory with real comparative specimens. In addition, I wanted the students to be familiar with species they would likely encounter if they worked as field techs in western North America (typical employment for many of our graduates). Thus, I provided detailed instructions for ‘self-guided’ laboratories using the Idaho Museum of Natural History’s Virtual Museum https://virtual.imnh.iri.isu.edu/Osteo

The focus of the Idaho Virtual Museum (IVM) is North American fauna; however, you can find species from around the world in this extensive online collection. There are 106 different species of mammals, ranging from the agouti to the wolverine, some of which have multiple specimens and ages; 76 species of birds; 50 species of bony fish; and 6 species of reptile. The skeletons are from specimens housed at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, the Canadian Museum of History, the Idaho Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Victoria. Taken from six different orientations (i.e. anterior, posterior, proximal, distal, medial, lateral), photographs with a scale are provided for each available skeletal element. The Idaho Virtualization Laboratory on Sketchfab has also provided 3-dimensional (3D) crania images for most animals, and complete 3D skeletons are available for select species (i.e. Bison bison, Camelus bactrianus, Stigmochelys pardalis, Ovis canadensis, Pelecanus occidentalis and Tamandua tetradactyla). Filters allow the user to search for species by either common or Latin name. 

I covered five animal families during the quarter: Canidae, Cervidae, Phocidae, Anatidae and Salmonidae. After reviewing the online resources, I selected 8-10 complete or nearly complete specimens for each family, and provided this list to the students. For example, the arctic fox, or specimen number UWBM-31585, is an excellent reference to teach the general canid skeleton: https://virtual.imnh.iri.isu.edu/Osteo/View/Arctic_Fox/554.

For each family of animal, I broke the skeleton down into appendicular and axial sections. The students were required to sketch selected skeletal elements and provide different orientations geared toward learning features important for identifying and describing the elements. Once we had completed an animal family, students then took pictures of their notebooks with their phones, pasted the photos into a .doc or .pdf file, and uploaded the file to the course website. I did not evaluate the students on their artistic skills, but rather on their clear and correct labelling of the elements, features and orientations. I sketched and labelled the specimens in my own notebook to make sure the assignments were feasible (Figure 1). My notebook was also useful for checking their labelled sketches. To provide feedback, which was key to online instruction, I used Adobe tools to correct or comment on each of their sketches. Most students used these comments to improve on their next suite of sketches. By the end of the course, the students had created their own skeletal anatomy reference manuals for five ‘typical’ taxa. 

In addition to the sketchbooks, we released an online quiz on Thursday mornings, which they had to complete prior to midnight on Friday. These were not proctored quizzes, and thus they had access to their course materials. However, the quiz was timed and once started it had to be completed within the allotted period (25–30 min). These weekly quizzes were multiple choice, true/false and fill-in the blank, and included topics covered in both the lecture and ‘laboratory’ for that week. Photos of skeletal elements had arrows pointing to particular features or orientations (e.g. proximal or distal). I used the IVM skeletal images so the students were familiar with them beforehand; however, they may or may not have looked at the exact specimens I used. I dropped the two lowest quiz grades, which allowed for students who may have had technical issues, illnesses or other conflicts. Weekly, low-stake, quizzes enabled me to identify what concepts may have been unclear. I then returned to those topics at the start of the following week’s lecture. 

The goal of the laboratory portion was for students to understand basic animal skeletal anatomy so they could appreciate the kinds of questions zooarchaeologists might ask of faunal remains. Two assignments allowed them to apply their knowledge to ‘real’ zooarchaeological datasets. One focused on prey mortality using data provided by my colleague Teresa Steele, and the other focused on preparing a zooarchaeological report using a faunal dataset from one of my own Alaskan sites. Without these virtual laboratories, they would not have been able to calculate minimum number of elements (MNE) and minimum number of individuals (MNI) or understand taphonomic processes, as they needed to have a working knowledge of differences across taxa, elements and portions. 

After three months of lockdown, I recently allowed a masked intern back into the archaeology laboratory to assist with counting and weighing bones (following National Park Service curational protocols) from one of our Alaskan excavations. Having only taking online zooarchaeology, he was able to identify the archaeological faunal specimens! I asked him what was the most helpful part of the course for learning bone identification, and he said that having to draw and label them from the photographs was key to remembering them. 

My approach is by no means the only way to teach zooarchaeology using online resources, but I hope my experience can alleviate some of the trepidation and provide examples as you move forward with teaching your own ‘Zoomarchaeology’ class in the coming terms. 


Figure 1. Examples of labelled sketches prepared by the author using specimens from the Idaho Virtual Museum as reference

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