Photograph of animal skulls and other bones
Part of the zooarchaeology reference collection at Fort Cumberland © Historic England
Part of the zooarchaeology reference collection at Fort Cumberland © Historic England

Building a National Zooarchaeological Reference Resource

A team from the University of York are leading a Historic England-funded project to create a central online database of zooarchaeology reference collections.

Why do we need a national database?

The study of animal remains in relation to human societies - zooarchaeology - is often key in the analysis of archaeological data, whether from a Mesolithic landscape or a post-Medieval stately home. Animal bones and teeth are often amongst the most common finds on archaeological sites, but their analysis depends on both specialist expertise and good-quality, accessible reference collections to achieve accurate and reliable identifications.

Reference collections of skeletons are held by many organisations and individuals, but most contain a restricted range of animals and there is currently no straightforward way to coordinate these resources or locate particular species of animals.

This project will create a central online database of British reference collections. Designed in consultation with zooarchaeologists from all sectors, this resource will allow users to find suitable specimens along with location, contact and access policy details.

First steps and an open workshop

A core team has been formed with representatives from the universities of York, Sheffield, Nottingham, Birmingham and Central Lancashire, and from Historic England, York Archaeological Trust, Oxford Archaeology South, the Grant Museum of Zoology (UCL), the Archaeology Data Service and Hull York Medical School, as well as freelance zooarchaeologists.

In order to ensure that this new resource is designed in consultation with zooarchaeologists from all sectors, an open, free workshop was held on 16 May 2016 at the University of York. A report summarising the workshop, and a list of the proposed data fields, are now available. 

If you are interested in having your collection included in this resource, please let David Orton ([email protected]) or Eva Fairnell ([email protected]) know by 12 August.

Next steps for the project

Building upon the national database, the project will consult on the needs and priorities for digital reference material, with a view to supporting and guiding future digitisation projects.

Further information

Contact David Orton ([email protected]) or Eva Fairnell ([email protected])

David Orton

Lecturer in Zooarchaeology

David Orton is a lecturer at the University of York, where he directs the MSc in Zooarchaeology and oversees the extensive zooarchaeological reference collections. His research interests range widely across the history and prehistory of human interactions with animals, from the earliest farming in the Balkans and Anatolia to fishing and trade in medieval Europe.

Contact David Orton

Eva Fairnell

Independent zooarchaeologist

Eva Fairnell is a self-employed zooarchaeologist and scientific, technical and medical (STM) copy-editor. She is currently a part-time collections technician for Historic England. As well as preparing and curating reference specimens, she has audited several reference collections, including those at the universities of Birmingham and York. She obtained her MSc and PhD in zooarchaeology from the University of York, and her research interests include the biogeography of fur-bearing species in Britain, the interpretation of cut marks as indicators of human utilization of fur-bearing species, and the meta-analysis of synthesised data.

Contact Eva Fairnell