IsoMemo: A Big Isotopic Data Initiative

Isotopic tracers are an invaluable source of historical information. These can contribute greatly to the study of past human lifeways (e.g. diet, nutrition, and mobility), trade, anthropogenic impacts (e.g. farming, pollution), climates and environments, and chronology. However, lack of centralized storage limits efficient data use. To tackle this issue, the IsoMemo initiative brings together multiple repositories of isotopic data within the fields of archaeology, ecology, and environmental & life sciences. 

IsoMemo is a partnership-based initiative for openly accessing and sharing isotopic data.  Rather than a hierarchical model, IsoMemo adopts a distributive model among equal partners from different research fields. This model provides flexibility because different scientific fields have specific needs (e.g. metadata requirements) that cannot be accommodated within a one size-fit-all approach of a single central repository of data. In this respect, IsoMemo functions as a distribution hub for data repositories directing users and producers of isotopic data to appropriate partners. Nonetheless, IsoMemo also promotes the definition of common data standards and data sharing among partners. The initiative paves the way for carrying out interdisciplinary Big Data research projects. To aid with data sharing, IsoMemo is also developing an online database and user friendly graphical interfaces that are freely available to IsoMemo partners.

Isotopic data, together with associated chronological and other supporting information, collected at IsoMemo partners allows for numerous research applications. These may include large scale comparative studies of human diet or mobility following multiple selection criteria (e.g. chronology, region, social variables). Whereas stored animal isotopic data can contribute to the reconstruction of local environmental and human impact histories. For instance, herbivore collagen carbon or nitrogen stable isotope values can be used as proxies to establish past vegetation types (C3 or C4), levels of aridity, and forest density. IsoMemo can also be used to identify data gaps for certain regions, time periods, or sample types. Concerning the latter, there is presently a clear insufficiency of published plant isotopic data although this has a great research potential. Carbon and nitrogen stable isotope data for cultivated plants can be used to assess water availability and soil fertility which are also determined by human farming practices such as irrigation and manuring. In addition, both plant and animal isotopic data are required to define temporal and regional baselines for the accurate quantification of human diets in isotope-based studies.

Among the IsoMemo partners is IsoArcH, a new web-based database of isotopic data for bioarchaeological samples from the Graeco-Roman world and its margins. IsoArcH was designed as a cooperative platform for the dissemination of isotopic data and associated archaeological information. IsoArcH follows the open access model and is freely accessible online ( IsoArcH compiled to this day published isotopic data for human, animal, and plant remains, as well as organic residues, from nearly 300 sites. All data have been georeferenced allowing for their display on ancient world maps and placement into their contemporaneous geopolitical background. In this paper, several data-driven examples are shown to illustrate the research potential offered by IsoArcH.

Related Publications
Salesse, K., Fernandes, R., de Rochefort, X., Brůžek, J., Castex, D. and Dufour, É., 2017. IsoArcH. eu: An open-access and collaborative isotope database for bioarchaeological samples from the Graeco-Roman world and its margins. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.  

More Information
IsoMemo website 

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