Crowd-sourcing Britain's Bronze Age
Develop new archaeological research projects together with British Museum curators and researchers from the UCL Institute of Archaeology
A new joint project by the British Museum and the UCL Institute of Archaeology is seeking online contributions from members of the public to enhance a major British Bronze Age archive and artefact collection.
The project team, co-led by Andrew Bevan (UCL) and Daniel Pett (BM), have photographed hoards of Bronze Age (ca. 2500 BC - 800 BC) metal objects and scanned thousands of paper records of further metal artefacts from British prehistory. They are now asking for public assistance in modelling, transcribing and locating these archaeological finds via a dedicated 'crowd-sourcing' website. The website is powered by an open source Pybossa citizen science framework. The MicroPasts initiative is a collaboration between University College London and the British Museum, and has been funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, under the Capital Funding Call for Digital Transformations in Community Research Co-Production in the Arts and Humanities.
Thousands of archaeological objects are discovered every year, many by members of the public, particularly by people while metal-detecting. If recorded, these finds have great potential to transform archaeological knowledge, helping us understand when, where and how people lived in the past. The Portable Antiquities Scheme offers the only proactive mechanism for systematically recording such finds, which are made publicly available on its online database. This data is an important educational and research resource that can be used by anyone interested in learning more.
Neil Wilkin, the curator of Bronze Age collections at the British Museum, is seeking online help from anyone interested in British prehistoric archaeology in researching and enriching our knowledge of the first national catalogue of Bronze Age objects in the UK. This record contains over 30,000 Bronze Age tools and weapons that were discovered during the 19th and 20th centuries, and complements the current Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database of metal object finds.
The catalogue contains index cards detailing object find spots and types, alongside detailed line drawings and a wide range of further information about the object's context of discovery. The catalogue itself also has a long and special history. It was a major archaeological initiative first founded in 1913 and then moved to the British Museum in the 1920s. For over 70 years, it represented the highest standards of Bronze Age artefact studies.
This information has long been known to be an extremely important untapped resource, says curator Wilkin,
Metal finds are not only crucial forms of evidence for dating Britain's prehistoric past, but also tell us a great deal about prehistoric society and economy. Once we have digitised the thousands of objects in this catalogue, they can be incorporated into the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) website. The result will be the largest national database of prehistoric metal finds anywhere in the world and a near-comprehensive view of what we currently know about such finds in the UK. This will allow rethinking of almost everything we currently know about the use of metal in Bronze Age Britain, giving us a far more comprehensive view of our prehistoric past.
A further goal is to create a large series of research-quality 3D models of some of the fantastic Bronze Age metal objects held in the British Museum's collections. Neil and the MicroPasts team will be developing high quality 3D models of a selection of bronze axes recorded in the card catalogue, via the same crowd-sourcing platform. Today, these models can easily be constructed from ordinary digital photographs, but an important step in creating a really good model is to identify the outline of the object in each photograph. The team are asking for anyone with an interest in these prehistoric artefacts or modern digital methods to help via the crowd-sourcing platform. The resulting 3D models will not only enable us to better visualise the artefacts, but will also encourage new forms of scholarship. By exposing, for example, tiny differences in object style, we will gain new insights into how, where, and when these objects were made.
All the project's data will be made publicly available under an open licence so that anyone can use it: whether to share, discuss and protect local finds via the enhanced catalogue, to conduct their own archaeological research, or to make use of 3D models in computer-based environments and games. UCL researchers, Chiara Bonacchi and Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, add that these two crowd-sourcing applications will be followed by further public collaborations both in the UK and elsewhere, and they hope that this project will start a different kind of discussion about how we research our collective past.
Notes to editors:
- The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. www.ahrc.ac.uk
- The current crowdsourcing project with Bronze Age metal finds is the first of several planned projects. These will be a valuable opportunity to study and understand the value of crowd-sourcing in bringing together traditional academics, organised volunteer societies and other members of the public to create high-quality research data in archaeology, history and heritage. The MicroPasts crowd-sourcing platform is built using an open source Pybossa infrastructure (http://pybossa.com/).
- The Portable Antiquities Scheme is managed by the British Museum, and funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport through a ring-fenced grant, the British Museum and local partners. Its work is guided by the Portable Antiquities Advisory Group, whose membership includes leading archaeological, landowner and metal-detecting organisations.
- The UCL Institute of Archaeology not only has interests in promoting Bronze Age British archaeology, but also in computer- and web-based methods in archaeology, history and heritage. This project fits well with computational approaches that are offered at Masters and PhD level at the Institute as well as complementing several other initiatives such as the UCL Centre for Audio-Visual Study and Practice in Archaeology (CASPAR).