What Is VZAP?

Comparative reference collections are a fundamental tool in the natural and social sciences. In zooarchaeology, comprehensive and well organized comparative collections are especially critical for efficient and high-resolution faunal analysis. No less important is access to accurate, detailed, and comprehensive reference media, such as osteological photographs, measurements, drawings, and up to date taxonomic information.

Unfortunately, no osteological reference collection is complete; all collections lack crucial taxa and most do not contain multiple individuals per taxon. To overcome these deficits, every zooarchaeologist has painstakingly compiled a voluminous archive of photographs and line-drawn illustrations to aid in their analyses. Yet these reference archives, composed of printed photographs, hand-drawings, and photocopies from anatomical texts, are often inadequate because they cannot convey the fine detail or three-dimensional morphology necessary for accurate identifications.

These difficulties are especially amplified in arctic-focused reference collections, whose taxa are often difficult to obtain (many species are protected), transport (due to national and international laws), and prepare (due to size and field-lab limitations). The result of these problems is an ironic analytical bottleneck; while most archaeological excavations in the north result in very large and extremely well-preserved faunal samples, few adequate collections exist where they can be analyzed, therefore impeding, or halting northern zooarchaeological research altogether.

 VZAP is intended to provide a unique solution to these problems, and in so doing enhance the ability of arctic-focused zooarchaeologists to conduct research on arctic-derived faunal materials.

VZAP can be used to enhance an existing collection by: 1) filling taxonomic deficiencies, and 2) providing additional comparative specimens for species already in existing collections. It also provides a comprehensive resource to be used in the field or other locations where no comparative collection exists. VZAP is not designed as a replacement for a real comparative collection, but as another piece of the zooarchaeologist’s toolkit – an instrument to aid more accurate, efficient, and detailed analyses of faunal collections.

In many respects, VZAP is an experiment in informatics. VZAP implements groundā€breaking protocols for documenting, virtualizing, and providing dynamic access to museum and university reference collections which are not easily accessed by the general researcher. We hope that VZAP will vividly demonstrate the utility of digital interactive collections to the academic, museum, and educational communities.

In summary, VZAP has four main goals:

  • to provide a comprehensive resource to aid the analysis of osseous materials derived from northern contexts
  • to develop new techniques for documenting and cataloguing natural history collections
  • to develop a dynamic and immersive web-based interface for exploring and interacting with museum collections
  • to democratize science, by providing free access to reference materials for researchers, educators, and students interested in the osteology of northern vertebrates


**We seek collaborators who wish to post photographs and 3D scans of their reference specimens on VZAP. We are especially interested in partnering with educators to develop course modules and exercises that teach vertebrate anatomy and anatomical orientation (through the process of photographic and/or 3D documentation). Please contact the project team to discuss opportunities.

Idaho State University Canadian Museum of Civilization Informatic Research Institute Idaho Virtualization Laboratory Idaho Museum of Natural History National Science Foundation HITZ Foundation Port Townsend Marine Science Center Sitka Sound Science Center Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Numbers ARC-0808933 and ARC-1023321. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.