Zooarchaeology and Biotechnology: 3D Scanning Fish Remains

INTRODUCTION

Unfortunately, I had to miss class last week due to presenting with the Fowler Museum at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico! Despite not being able to participate in our in-class discussion, I have a lot to add to our virtual one.

While at the conference, I was determined to find a presentation topic that could be coupled with our Week 2 theme of “food staples” (and, naturally, biotechnology and art). During the symposium entitled “Zooarchaeology and Technology: Case Studies and Applications,” I had the pleasure of hearing Chong Yu from Sun Yat-Sen University in China who is currently revolutionizing the zooarchaeological field through the use of 3D scanning technology.

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Zooarchaeology focuses on faunal remains at archaeological sites. The work takes a high level of expertise and can be very difficult, especially when it comes to remains like that of fish (these remains are very small and quite tedious to identify/examine). Yu’s research region is in the Pearl River Delta in southern China. As the name suggests, this is an aquatic region, and, naturally, the majority of the faunal remains at the site are of aquatic species, namely fish. During her presentation, Yu explained that China zooarchaeology always skips fish remains because there are too many other remains to examine, and, furthermore, fish species identification is extremely difficult. However, 99% of the Pearl River Delta faunal remains are that of fish. This meant Yu had to find a way to incorporate these remains into her research or else she would have nothing to study. She had to create a reference collection that would allow excavated remains to be compared with already identified species.

Figure 1. Pearl River Delta Satellite Image from: “The Great Leap Upward: China’s Pearl River Delta, Then and Now.” The Guardian, 10 May 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/may/10/china-pearl-river-delta-then-and-now-photographs.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SHARING INFORMATION

It took Yu two years to create her collection, and she realized she had to find a way to make it accessible to other researchers. As we all know, food is an important part of our lives and cultures (the main themes of Nawar’s discussion of bread’s importance can easily be applied to other staple foods). Food is also an important part of the archaeological record and key to understanding the people who came before us. Those who inhabited the Pearl River Delta would have had fish as a diet staple. If Yu did not find a way to study these fish remains and further understand their interaction with the region’s other inhabitants, she would have only been looking at a small sliver of the past. By making her collections widely available, Yu will allow other researchers to look into the intricacies of fish skeletons and what they mean to a particular site (many other researchers do not have the time or resources necessary to create a reference collection, which limits research accuracy and scope).

REVOLUTIONIZING ZOOARCHAEOLOGY: YU’S USE OF 3D SCANNING

Yu turned to technology to make her collection accessible. The 3D scanning techniques used for mammal bones would not be effective in scanning fish bones due to their extremely small scale. In conjunction with the engineering department of her university, Yu began to utilize blue light scanning to create 3D zooarchaeological images. Yu and her students have scanned approximately seventy fish species with this small and easily used machine. Once all of her reference collection has been scanned, Yu intends for the images to be accessible to everyone through internet download. Though she did not demonstrate it in her presentation, Yu explained that the 3D images rendered by the scanner allow accurate digital measurements to be taken, cross-sections to be analyzed, and different density colors to be activated to improve research results.

Figure 2. Blue Light Scanner from: Variational, https://www.3dlasertracker.com/blue-light-scanner.html. Accessed 16 April 2019.

Figures 3 and 4. Presentation Photos from: Malott, Jillien. “Yu’s 3D Scan Examples.” 2019.

(NOTE: it was difficult to take photos during the presentation, so I apologize for the less than stellar photo quality.)

TECHNOLOGY’S RELATIONSHIP TO US

In my opinion, the above bone images are truly beautiful and like pieces of art (this is not just due to their unique appearances, but also because they represent a window into the past). Such images wouldn’t be possible without the blue light scanning technology. Nawar’s Collective Bread Diaries discusses the complex and ever-changing relationship between machinery and man, and I think Yu’s project is another example of this. Thousands of years ago (for Yu’s research), people inhabited the Pearl River Delta and had fish as their food staple (the human connection). Yet, present-day humans are unable to research the remains of this food relationship without the aid of 3D scanning technology (the machine connection). And, as a result of this technology, we (humans) are able to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the past (human connection).

3D SCANNING: CHANGING THE WORLDS OF MUSEUM AND SCIENCE

It is most certainly clear that technology has negative effects (as seen in the technology workshop in Week 1, as well as the SBS Dateline “E-Waste Hell”), but it also allows us to do what would be otherwise impossible. Museums and scientists alike are using the same technology as Yu to help make art and history more accessible and more readily researched. It was reported that the National Science Foundation awarded $2.5 million to Cornell to create a 3D scan inventory of 20,000 specimens housed within the university’s Museum of Vertebrates (Ramanujan). (NOTE: these scans were of specimens that included tissue, while Yu’s collection is comprised solely of skeletal remains.) Furthermore, museums like the Smithsonian and the Getty are using 3D scanning to allow patrons to readily access art/artifacts (Waldorf; Lee). Instead of being held hostage by fragile artifacts and fossils that threaten to break under the softest touch, researchers are freed by 3D scan replicas that still allow complex research to be done (Lee).

Figure 5. Getty Staff Using the Blue Light Scanner from: “5 Ways Smithsonian Uses 3-D Scanning to Open Up History.” National Geographic, 5 Sep. 2013, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/09/130904-3d-printing-smithsonian-whale-skeleton-technology-science/. Accessed 15 April 2019.

Figure 6. Digital 3D Rendering of Figure 5 Artifact from:  “5 Ways Smithsonian Uses 3-D Scanning to Open Up History.” National Geographic, 5 Sep. 2013, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/09/130904-3d-printing-smithsonian-whale-skeleton-technology-science/. Accessed 15 April 2019.

This rendered image of the Getty artifact can be seen on a similar interface to that shown in the pictures of Yu’s presentation.

CONCLUSION

Although missing class was not ideal, I do believe it helped me understand just how intertwined art, science, and technology are. I thought it would be extremely difficult to find a portion of my conference to relate to this class’s core objectives. Yet, it was actually more difficult to pick which part of the conference to write about; there were so many options that could have easily been used in place of Yu’s presentation! When first introduced to this course, I thought I would have to go actively looking for examples of the art-science-technology relationship (AST), but I was mistaken. Whether it is a few pieces of hair on a scrap of paper, the intricacies of bread, or the remains of fish in Late Neolithic-Early Bronze Age southern China sites, the AST relationship is everywhere just waiting for us to see it.


Works Cited

“3D Blue Light Scanner.” Variational, https://www.3dlasertracker.com/blue-light-scanner.html. Accessed 16 April 2019.

“E-Waste Hell.” YouTube, uploaded by SBS Dateline, 25 Sep. 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dd_ZttK3PuM.

Hilaire, Eric and Nick Van Mead. “The Great Leap Upward: China’s Pearl River Delta, Then and Now.” The Guardian, 10 May 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/may/10/china-pearl-river-delta-then-and-now-photographs. Accessed 15 April 2019.

Lee, Jane J. “5 Ways Smithsonian Uses 3-D Scanning to Open Up History.” National Geographic, 5 Sep. 2013, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/09/130904-3d-printing-smithsonian-whale-skeleton-technology-science/. Accessed 15 April 2019.

Nawar, Haytham. “Collective Bread Diaries: Cultural Identities in an Artificial Intelligence Framework.” http://biotechart.artscinow.com/sites/default/files/Bread_Diaries_paper_Haytham_Nawar_sm.pdf. Accessed 14 April 2019.

SAA 84th Annual Meeting, Society for American Archaeology, 2019. Vers. 12_fb71490 (5.4.E.A), Apple App Store, https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/saa-84th-annual-meeting/id1454842939.

Ramanujan, Krishna. “3-D Scanning Project of 20,000 Animals Makes Details Available Worldwide.” Cornell University: Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, 10 Oct. 2017, https://ecologyandevolution.cornell.edu/news/3-d-scanning-project-20000-animals-makes-details-available-worldwide. Accessed 15 April 2019.

Waldorf, Sarah. “3D Scanning Meets Ancient Art.” The Iris, 31 July 2014, http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/3d-scanning-meets-ancient-art/. Accessed 15 April 2019.

Yu, Chong. “The Establishment of the First 3D Fish Bone Reference Collection in China.” 84th Annual Society for American Archaeology Conference, 11 April 2019, Albuquerque Convention Center, Albuquerque, NM. Conference Presentation.