Anthropologist Puts an Idaho Museum’s Many Bones Within Virtual Reach

The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 10, 2011
By Peter Monaghan

Animal-bone specimens are in high demand. But researchers eager for access to them far outnumber the supply of such repositories.

One anthropologists’s solution: Share his animal bones. Herbert D.G. Maschner, a research professor of anthropology at Idaho State University, set about providing access to his, online.

That is among the accomplishments that have won him an appointment this spring as the director of the Idaho Museum of Natural History, in Pocatello. Jointly run by the university, where it is located, and the State of Idaho, the museum is Idaho’s official institution for life sciences, earth sciences, anthropology, and natural-history education.

One of the things Mr. Maschner, who is 52, wanted to be sure of is that the museum’s treasures were accessible not just to those who found their way to Pocatello. As interim director since June 2010, he has been developing the ambitious Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project. That online, interactive, virtual museum of animal bones provides anyone who is interested with thousands of two- and three-dimensional images, from micro to macro level, of skeletal anatomies from all over the North American Arctic and Greenland: fish, birds, and mammals.

Mr. Maschner set up the database with Matthew Betts, a colleague at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. They reasoned that few institutions can afford to set up an extensive reference collection of such material, so they determined “to put entire collections online,” Mr. Maschner says, “so that a scientist in the Ukraine, for example, who wants to study our mammoth bones can get online and do comparative anatomy with his own materials from the ice age of the Central Russian plains.”

With funds from the National Science Foundation, they scanned and provided access to the Idaho museum’s own materials, along with many items from the Arctic collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Washington, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and other institutions, using Idaho State’s state-of-the-art scanning facility.

The virtual-research approach is one that Mr. Maschner will bring to the Idaho museum in any way he can, he says. For example, he is overseeing the creation of another virtual collection, this one of 70,000 pressed plants in Idaho State’s herbarium.

Mr. Maschner says providing access to scientific data to as many interested people as possible—a sort of “democratization of science”—stems from his own broad interests. After earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of New Mexico and a master’s at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, he entered a doctoral program at the University of California at Santa Barbara. At the time, he says, he was most interested in the global archaeology of warfare among hunter-gatherers.

These days his work encompasses geosciences, life sciences, and social sciences as he analyzes archaeological data from village sites on the Bering Sea and reconstructs the 5,000-year ecosystem history of the North Pacific. From the data he gathers, including half a million bones of fish, birds, and mammals, he gauges past climates, patterns of human harvesting, and other phenomena to determine how the region’s history could affect the future of fisheries and endangered species in northern waters.

“Knowing that my research is not just about prehistory, or museums, or creating cool Web sites, but is actually solving problems for modern peoples in modern contexts, even though I’m using sometimes unorthodox data sources,” he says, “that’s really the highlight for me.”

Developing research programs to solve technological problems—and multitasking—underpin much of what he does. To determine what his specimens reveal about climate, marine health, and feeding levels of fish and mammals of the North Pacific, he set up Idaho State’s Center for Archaeology, Materials, and Applied Spectroscopy, which he also directs. He is a senior scientist at the university’s Idaho Accelerator Center. There he developed a technique for making artifacts and bones briefly radioactive so he can analyze their makeup while preserving the bones’ integrity, a crucial consideration for many indigenous corporations and tribes.

He is also an associate editor of the Journal of World Prehistory, and a board member and science adviser of a foundation that seeks to preserve the Mirador Basin, in Guatemala, the cradle of Mayan civilization. His honors include being named the Idaho Academy of Science’s Distinguished Scientist of 2011. As he runs the museum and works on his university research, he will continue to teach (but just one course a year) at Idaho State, and to supervise graduate students.

How will he find the time to continue these projects and be full-time director of the Idaho Museum of Natural History? Excellent staff, for starters, he says. And “I get up at about 4 o’clock every morning.” He speaks a mile a minute. Has to. Stuff to do. ”

If I have only one thing going, and it starts to go smooth, things get terrible,” Mr. Maschner says. “So I like to have three or four things going simultaneously, which keeps me enthused about all of them.”