Fossil Finder – Zooniverse

As part of my  Digital Humanities course, I looked into a website called Zooniverse. What it does is allow people from all over the world to collaborate on projects from a wide variety of topics. I was immediately interested in the Archaeology projects since that is my “minor” subject I took with my course. After a bit of checking around I found one in particular to be intriguing.

It was named Fossil Finder and focused on Lake Turkana in Kenya. What they did here was take photographs  of sections of areas which they wished to excavate. They allowed members to interact with these photos in order to find points of interest to excavate in, I’ll explain this a little more in detail a little later.

Lake Turkana is a heritage site in Kenya and one of the world’s largest desert lakes, the idea that I had a chance to be part of such a large excavation while still in the warmth of my living room behind a screen instead of in the baking sun, sweating like a pig and looking like an Indiana Jones rip-off was an opportunity I jumped at. Each photo was taken by genuine archaeologists or remote drone working hard to find shards of bones which would help identify where they should start their excavation. Each Image was high resolution and represented a nominal on the ground of 34x23cms each. As you can imagine, an entire excavation with photos of this size lead to a lot of photos for one person to look through and by a lot I mean over 9,700. This would take weeks even for a large team to sort through so the group came to Zooniverse instead.

With Zooniverse, about 6,400 collaborators including myself were able to sort through this plethora of pictures for the archaeologists at Lake Turkana’s site. Using forums to communicated (which had about 5000 unique topics by the end of the endeavor) were able to find 109,000 potential artifacts for those at the site, many of these would likely have gone undiscovered if not for the collaboration of the group. The system was very simple, you would be presented a simple page with a picture in the center and had users drag over different “Bull’s Eye” Markers for different types of artifacts onto the pictures. Green for Stone Tools, Blue for Fish Bones, Yellow for Fossil Shells, White for Root-Cast / Rhizolith and Red for “Interesting” and “Rare” discoveries such as skulls / bone fragments. Below is an example of how it all works.


As previously mentioned a forum and chatroom were provided in case anyone was unable to understand the goal of the project or the interface or explain away any other problem that they may encounter. Their was also a small tutorial in the beginning when you first joined the project in order to get everyone with grips with the project. After someone completes a photo, adding what they believe to be appropriate markers it would be submitted to a large repository of images. The major goal of this project was of course to identify as many potential artifacts as possible – in particular they were interested in fossilized bone and stone tools. Each image would often have a few potential examples but they were rare and not always obvious. As well, there are all sorts of odd things in the images that are not significant such as animal dung. As you gained experience I felt my skills with identifying finds improved the longer I played around with this project.

Comparison & Cataloguing : Classification page a “Need more help” button will open a help file. As well, the Field Guide tab on the right will open pictorial catalogues of previously discovered items for comparison.Will an expert check my tags? Primarily the data will be used in mapping and statistically to identify hot spots for “boots on the ground” to check. Significant finds will be collected, though most images will NOT be revisited.

The classification page also had a “Need more help” button that would open a help field as well as a Field Guide tab on the right which would open pictorial catalogues of previously discovered items for comparison, it was super new use friendly to say the least. With that being said – with it being so open for use by newer members I had to ask myself two questions. They were: “Am I doing this right?” and “Will someone with more experience think my work is affecting the project negatively?”. Well, after a little digging I found others had asked similar questions to the developers and had already received these answers. “Don’t worry! Each image is seen by at least ten people – the wisdom of crowds saves the day.” So even if I was making mistakes their was other users there at my back in case I caused a disaster in miscataloguing a potential find. Also with so many other viewers, while there are no do-overs, you can bring missed items to the finds forum (The Finds Forum alone has over 5,000 posts in it as well!) so nothing important will be missed. So anything I missed but saw later I could tell someone else about and they would fill it in for me. Finally, more advanced users seemed more than willing to help others as long as they did not appear to be jeopardizing pre-existant work and were very appreciative to all work submitted by new users. This friendly atmosphere really drew me deeply into this project and I found myself adding bull’s eyes to picture after picture for several days even though I was slightly late to the party.

The project really encouraged learning from mistakes & working together in this project with many others from around the globe. If a problem was ever encountered there was always a user with an exact answer. A few questions I asked that were answered within a day were:

How Can I see better? (I had been having issues with one picture I was given of lower than average quality) – See the Help Index for suggestions how to zoom, colour shift or otherwise manipulate the images.

What If I see a skull or jaw? (I thought I had hit the motherlode! Turns out I was just over-excited but the team still put up with me) The chances are very low so you should first consider every other more mundane explanation of what you see, but like a lottery, someone may win so tag it!

I can compare this part of Zooniverse in a way to Open Street Maps which I worked with last year in that, a collaborative group creates something that others can benefit from. While OSM helps day to day users with a map of the world, Zooniverse is a little more specific but can also greatly help a team with a high level of work. “Many hands make light work” is a saying that rings in my mind here.

Getting down into the Nitty-Gritty of the project, it had a great user interface and left me with a great impression of the website. It made sure that I was ok with each image it presented to me before I began scanning them for artifacts hidden amongst them and just the general friendly user atmosphere was more than amiable.

Some of the more interesting finds got put into Collections such as this one
which is potentially an example of bone being found. This was a way to reward users who found rare objects and incentivizes other users to continue examining pictures for rare objects, it was inspirational and while I wasn’t able to add much to contribute to the Research forums, as I am not an osteologist, (a bone archaeologist specialist) it was fascinating to read about the potential implications of discovering different animal bones could mean for the surrounding area such as the dietary habits of the people who resided at Lake Turkana millennia ago.

This project also had an adjacent blog I stumbled on whilst working on the project that kept up to speed with the research and discoveries that the community found in real time can be found here. It in itself provides an interesting incite into the minds of those behind the project and makes for an interesting read.

There were a few shortcomings and drawbacks to the site. Mainly, it doesn’t give context for where the photo was taken. I know all the photos came from Lake Turkana but was this one I’m now examining in the Northern part of the lake? Southern? Is it close to that last one I just did? This might help me determine what I’m looking at and also give myself some context if I can link a couple of the pictures I’ve examined to one another. Also, it doesn’t give context to the time period of these fragments so while I can find a rock that looks shaped to be used like an axe, I can not distinctly say if it is a Mesolithic, Neolithic or any other variation of an axe. Furthermore, It makes it trickier to identify an object as a distinct artifact or just a coincidence like this.

Despite this, I had a very pleasant time using Zooniverse and exploring this project. I hope you enjoyed reading my article as much as I enjoyed playing around and examining the artifacts above! Until next time! Thanks for reading.

Fossil Finder – Zooniverse

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