Adapting zooarchaeology to the pandemic online teaching

It’s summer! I often don’t have time during the school year to do much more than post a few tweets about what’s going, but I wanted to post a 4-post series in this summer about what’s been going on during this strange pandemic year. This is the first installment.

Shifting zooarchaeology methods online

Over the past year, my colleagues and I have worked hard to ensure that the pandemic did not prevent our archaeology students from getting methodological training and conducting their own research by creating a variety of at-home activities and digital analysis projects using real archaeological data sets. I taught two lab classes in Fall 2020, and had to adapt 12 labs in Anth 302 (Principles of Archaeology) and osteological anatomy to an online setting (Anth 583 Zooarchaeological Methods). One of the great things about Archaeology Twitter is seeing how we all have had to reinvent how to teach zooarchaeology (the study of animal remains from archaeological sites) in an online setting, and make sure students received the same training in anatomy, data analysis, and report writing. Additionally, with SDSU being online, there were limited experiences for undergraduate research, potentially leaving students at a huge disadvantage for archaeological jobs and graduate programs.

A few changes had to be made to adapt to the online format. First, I expanded students’ experiment and analysis options to include experimental archaeology in her students’ homes or in ventilated, outdoor spaces. These assignments encouraged students to use available materials in creative ways, analyze data according to disciplinary standards, and learn to how to write reports. I created at-home activities such as processing a rotisserie chicken as part of learning animal anatomy, and also developed an experimental archaeology project where students had to make a historical tool or item and test it out. Students created a variety of projects in their dorms and in their homes, from making their own slingshots to cooking over campfires to making historical desserts from the 1700s.

Second, I used high-resolution 3D-modeled scans of bones (shout out to Morphosource and SketchFab!) to teach my class about zooarchaeology and created digital research projects as well as digital research assistantships. I also held online open labs to provide additional anatomy practice for students and supported research activity by recording video tutorials for students to guide them through every step of the analysis and report write-up.

Students would normally get the research experience in person working in archaeology labs, but without access to labs, an alternative had to be found. To solve this issue, she created two digital research positions and is currently working with those students on a bilingual report and publication on the zooarchaeological data from Mission Dolores de Cosari, Sonora, Mexico.

What was the response?

Student reception of and engagement with the at-home activities was generally positive. The chicken processing was even featured in the CAL Newsletter (https://newscenter.sdsu.edu/sdsu_newscenter/news_story.aspx?sid=78210). Students in Zooarchaeological Methods class successfully analyzed their own data and wrote up the results in a formal archaeological report. The three research assistants and I presented in the CSU Council of Archaeologists Symposium. My students did everything from the start to finish online using my data, and based on my conversations with other zooarchaeologists over the pandemic, this was a common adaptation we made to keep our students moving forward.

What lessons did I learn?

Although students faced a few logistical challenges with the at-home assignments, many of these obstacles were resolvable by simplifying the project and flexibly working with what the student had available to them. The value of the hands-on activity outweighed the obstacles, and students gained a better understanding of the lives and skill of people in the past.

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