Crowdsourcing Science

Today at the Virginia Museum of Natural History I am preparing materials for a project that I am calling “Crowdsourcing Science.” This all started last fall when I was fortunate to be offered the opportunity to excavate with archaeologists from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and volunteers from the Archeological Society of Virginia (ASV) at the Great Neck Site, located in Virginia Beach, Virginia.


One of the features encountered during excavation was a pit densely packed with with shell and bone.  We decided to bring all of the material from the feature back to the museum for flotation. The result was 19 gallon-sized bags of flotation heavy fraction containing lots of fauna, some plant remains, a small amount of pottery, and (so far) a few lithic flakes.


We have started sorting the flotation at the lab but quickly realized that the volume of material would take months, if not years to complete. Besides the large volume of shell, we have already sorted out crab, drum teeth, gar scales, limpets, ray tooth plates and vertebra, and thousands of fish vertebra.


The crowd sourcing idea came about as the result of discussions about an activity I was doing with a group of high school students. The students came to the museum for a day of activities. They learned about the site, they helped with the flotation of a sample, then they helped sort a dry sample we had previously floted. They got quite a bit of sorting done and I couldn’t help but wish that I could have more groups of people help sort the flotation samples.


Fortunately, I happen to know an organization that has groups of people who would be interested – the Archaeological Society of Virginia. The ASV has chapters all over Virginia. Some members helped excavate the site and many of the members who were not in the field are still interested in the project. They can’t all come to me – Virginia is a pretty big state – but perhaps I could come up with a way for the samples to go to them. The next challenge was that while I could give them a presentation and start the sorting process with them, I can’t meet with them all regularly to work on the identifications as they sort. That’s when I came up with the idea of the “Identification Kits.”

Below you can see one of the Identification Kits developed for assisting with flotation sorting. As we work on sorting flotation in the lab, I pull an example or two of each type of thing we are finding, label them, put them in plastic boxes, and create sets for groups to use.


The boxes in each kit can be laid out and available for viewing by anyone helping sort the flotation samples.


To date I have four groups signed up to assist with sorting flotation. After I have given them each a presentation, the group will receive a kit, a gallon bag of material to sort, and lots of plastic bags to store things in when they are done.  Of course, then I’ll have all of those bags of specimens to identify, but I’ll deal with that problem later.