The University of Arizona

Stanley J. Olsen Laboratory of Zooarchaeology
Comparative Vertebrate Collections

Items from collection on display: alligator, shark and others

What is Zooarchaeology?

Zooarchaeology, a subfield of archaeology, is the study of animal remains from archaeological sites. Zooarchaeologists are interested in the relationships between humans and animals in the past including such topics as human diet, food procurement strategies, domestication of animals, economics and trade, use of animals in ritual contexts, reconstruction of past environments, and site formation processes. In order to identify the remains of animals (primarily bones and teeth) from archaeological sites, zooarchaeologists use comparative skeletal reference collections, such as are curated in the Olsen Laboratory.

The Comparative Vertebrate Collections

The Stanley J. Olsen Laboratory of Zooarchaeology at the Arizona State Museum houses two modern comparative vertebrate collections with a total of more than 4,000 fish, bird, reptile, amphibian, and mammal specimens. These are reference collections of skeletons of modern, recently deceased “known” animals that we use to identify the archaeological “unknown” fragments.

The Western Archeological and Conservation Center collection is on long-term loan from the National Park Service. This extensive collection specializes in species native to the southwestern United States. Also housed in the Laboratory is the Stanley J. Olsen Zooarchaeological Collection. Most of these specimens are from the southwestern or southeastern United States, but this collection also includes specimens from other regions of the world. The lab’s collections have recently grown with the addition of donated specimens from the University of Arizona’s Department of Geosciences, and from zooarchaeologist, Ms. Charmion McKusick.

A majority of the skeletons in the collections are complete. You can use the links below to browse the comparative vertebrate skeletal collections.

Common Names | Scientific Names | Taxonomic Hierarchy


Who Uses the Laboratory?

The Stanley J. Olsen Laboratory of Zooarchaeology is used by students, visiting scholars, and volunteers, as well as for public outreach activities. The collections have been used in countless numbers of University of Arizona courses, as well as undergraduate and graduate student theses, dissertations, and research projects. The laboratory is also a significant source of employment and research opportunities for current graduate and undergraduate students. Visiting researchers include professional zooarchaeologists employed at local cultural resource management companies, as well as faculty and graduate students from other academic institutions.

Use of the collection is not limited to archaeologists; the curator and staff field numerous inquiries from biologists and wildlife managers each year regarding vertebrate species diversity, geographical range, and individual variation in the southwestern region.

Physical Access Information for Researchers

Who is Stanley J. Olsen?

Professor Stanley J. Olsen (1919-2003) was Curator of Zooarchaeology at the Arizona State Museum, and Professor of Anthropology (later Emeritus) at the University of Arizona from 1973–1997. Professor Olsen is internationally recognized as one of the founding figures of the field of zooarchaeology. Olsen was a prolific author, publishing over 200 articles, books, and monographs during his career. His zooarchaeological manuals, still in publication by the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, are among his most widely known contributions. These works, the first of their kind, continue to be the primary manuals used by practicing zooarchaeologists, over forty years after their first publication. Professor Olsen built a collection of modern comparative skeletal material that is one of the largest of its kind in the United States. Upon his retirement in 1997, Olsen donated this collection to the Arizona State Museum. The zooarchaeology laboratory was named in honor of Professor Olsen in 2004.

The Stanley J. Olsen Zooarchaeology Endowment Fund

The Stanley J. Olsen Zooarchaeology Endowment Fund was recently started in honor of Stan Olsen’s contribution to the field of zooarchaeology. The fund provides scholarship support for zooarchaeology students, as well as support for the curation of, and access to, the Stanley J. Olsen Laboratory of Zooarchaeology.

You are invited to help support this endowment by sending a fully tax deductible gift payable to “The University of Arizona Foundation” with “S.J. Olsen Zooarchaeology Endowment Fund” indicated on the memo line to the address below.

For more information about the Zooarchaeology Laboratory, contact:

John McClelland
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Lab Manager, Osteology and NAGPRA Coordinator,
Arizona State Museum
P.O. Box 210026
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721-0026

Contact John McClelland by email
Phone: 520-626-2950

Photo by John McClelland

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