Join Dave Dyer, Natural History Curator, and Marie Swartz, Archaeology Curator, on a journey that intertwines ornithology, archaeology, and natural history, revealing the significance of collaborative research in unraveling the secrets of the past.
One of the basic tenets of a scientific collection is that the data associated with the specimens is as important as the specimens themselves. Without the “Who, What, Where, When” for a natural history object, it has little research value and becomes a mere curiosity. So we always try to preserve these basic cornerstones of data for each specimen: who collected the object, what is it, and where and when was it collected. These data are entered into our catalog and are recorded on the individual label with each specimen.
Tucked under the scientific name on our standard museum labels is the small heading: “ID by”. This is where we record who originally identified the object. It might not seem terribly important, but it tells us if the specimen was identified by a qualified researcher or not. In short, it informs us how confident we can be that the identification is correct.
When I spent time working in our bird skeletal collection, I started noticing small handwritten labels inserted in the boxes of bird bones. These labels seemed to be mostly in the older boxes of bird bones recovered from archaeological sites, and included the species identification and then the initials “A.W.” I wondered who A.W. was and how they seemed to know so much about bird bones. Not having time to pursue this, I kept the initials in the back of my mind and went about other projects.
Then later when accumulating some articles on bird skeletons I began to see the name Alexander Wetmore. I went back for a more thorough look at our collection, a few other labels had his name spelled out.
He obviously was a specialist in bird bones, but who was he?
When I heard about Dave’s research on Dr. Wetmore one name came to mind: Robert Goslin. Goslin was what archaeologists refer to today as a zooarchaeologist, a person with an interest in animal bones (also known as faunal remains) found at archaeological sites. Goslin authored multiple articles based upon his analysis of faunal remains present at archaeological sites including Evidence of the Occurence of the Rice Rat in Prehistoric Indian Village Sites in Ohio and Food of the Adena People.
Identifying and contextualizing faunal remains is very useful as it can reconstruct the climatic environments of the ancient past, determine if villages were occupied seasonally or year-round, and identify the diet of people inhabiting the site. Sometimes faunal remains were altered in order to create specialized tools like awls to punch leather, beamers to strip the flesh and fat from animal hide, or fish hooks to well… fish. These objects allow archaeologists to further reconstruct the past.
It wasn't just Goslin's specialization which made a light bulb go off in my head. Goslin had worked in the Archaeology and Natural History Departments at the Ohio History Connection from the late 1920s through the early 1960s so, naturally, he and Dr. Wetmore were academic peers. I dove into archival research to investigate and discovered numerous letters of correspondence addressed to Goslin from Dr. Wetmore dating between 1941 and 1959.
Letterhead from correspondence to Robert Goslin from Alexander Wetmore, 1948.
Based on Dr. Wetmore's responses, it is apparent that Goslin requested assistance in identifying bird remains from five archaeological sites located in Ohio:
It is unusual for complete animal skeletons to be discovered during archaeological excavation. At times only a single bone or very few bones from one species of animal is recovered. For example, only a pelvis and humerus from Canter's Cave was available to Dr. Wetmore to make his identification of the Lesser Sandhill Crane. So how can scientists and researchers in the fields of archaeology and natural history be so confident in their identifications?
Given experience in looking at bones, like Dr. Wetmore, Goslin, and Dave, a professional can make quick work of identifying animal bones!