The crowd-sourcing web project bringing amateur and professional archaeologists together

By Sarah Jackson | 29 December 2014

A web platform developed by the British Museum and University College London enables professional and amateur archaeologists to collaborate on new projects

Image showing a line drawing of a Bronze Age artefact.
Bronze Age index drawing, Shoebury© MicroPasts (CC BY 2.0)
With only limited funds and time, professional archaeologists consistently struggle to protect and interpret the UK's vast array of archaeological finds and resources. Yet there are huge pools of amateur groups and volunteers who are not only passionate but also skilled and knowledgeable about archaeology in the UK.

Now a new web platform called MicroPasts has been produced in a collaboration between University College London (UCL) and the British Museum to connect institutions and volunteers so that they can create, fund and work on archaeological projects together.

Work by UCL postdoctoral researchers Chiara Bonacchi and Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert and British Museum post doc researcher Jennifer Wexler established much of the ground work including the design, implementation and the public engagement aspects of the of the new site. 

According to one of the project leaders, Professor Andrew Bevan at UCL, MicroPasts emerged from a desire to harness the expertise (and manpower) of volunteers and to "pull together crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding in a way that hadn’t been tried before".

Although there are many crowd-sourcing portals online, they are either specific to one project (DigVentures, for example, which conducted the world’s first crowd-funded dig in 2012) or can be used to create almost anything you can imagine (such as Kickstarter).

MicroPasts was also inspired by Crowdcrafting, which encourages citizen science projects and, like MicroPasts, offers a platform for volunteers and researchers with an interest in a particular subject to come together to create and contribute to projects.

“And the great thing about [MicroPasts] is that it’s all open source,” adds Bevan. “Every single application is available on [software and code hosting portal] Github.”

Currently, Micropast's crowd-sourcing applications all relate to the British Bronze Age. They include the transcription of a paper catalogue of more than 30,000 British Bronze Age finds discovered throughout the 19th and 20th centuries; the geo-referencing of those objects when the archaeological find spot is known and the construction of 3D models of the objects using digital photographs by marking the outline of the object.

Despite its importance, this kind of work can be repetitive and time-consuming, so the support of enthusiastic and committed volunteers is vital. Once completed, it can lead to a number of exciting possibilities.

For instance, once the Bronze Age catalogue has been transcribed, it will be incorporated into the Portable Antiquities Scheme database to create an unparalleled index of Bronze Age artefacts found in Britain from the 18th century until today.

Image showing a green card with a description of a Bronze Age palstave at the top and a line drawing of the palstave at the bottom.
An example of one of the Bronze Age index cards volunteers are asked to transcribe© MicroPasts (CC BY 2.0)
There is, says Bevan, "a huge amount that can be done with such data".

“You can look at different patterns of different metalwork use across the UK in terms of regional patterning of different industries. You can compare what happens when you record things in the old style prior to the use of metal detectors, when it was all about a chance find on people's farms.

“The old database is great for showing you where archaeologists or members of the public found stuff, but you can compare it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme database which is mainly to do with where metal detectorists have been looking.

"It's a really nice research agenda, comparing the recovery of archaeology under those two different ways of doing it.”

On a more tangible level, 3D models also open up a number of research possibilities, like the examination of hoarding practices, or the comparison of large numbers of axe samples to build typologies.

As well as eventually appearing on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, models and raw data are also available on the MicroPasts website, as well as SketchFab (an online 3D model platform) under an open licence. This allows the data to be used for research the MicroPasts team may not have planned for, as well as other applications.

Screenshot of a 3D model of a gold bracelet plugged with mud
Annotated 3D model of Bronze Age gold bracelet on SketchFab© MicroPasts (CC BY 2.0)
“Museums can print models for children to play around with and produce miniature jewellery for the gift shop,” says Bevan. “They can do pretty much what they like with it.

“We’re also talking to somebody who’s a bronze forger about using the negatives to produce a mould to be used on one of the axes, for example.”

The crowdfunding aspect of the site was launched in October and while there are only a few projects listed now, Andrew hopes that it will soon enable further collaborations between institutes and amateur enthusiasts.

Eventually, ideas generated in the site's forums will become crowd-funded campaigns. The results of this research will then be released under a Creative Commons licence, so that it can be used freely by others.

The MicroPasts project may well be an excellent example of the benefits of heritage institutions making their digital assets open source, but what about the many museums that are still reluctant to release data or images of their objects in this way, preferring to monetise them, be it through merchandise or image use?

“There’s still quite a reasonable resistance to it,” admits Bevan. “I think there’s basically two camps; one that thinks that these are our digital assets and we need to monetise them...the other group says we’ll actually do better off financially and socially if we just got them open.

“We’re hoping that our project will push it slightly in the latter direction because we think that’s a better model for everyone.”

Image showing a screenshot of a web page with a photo of a Bronze Age palstave outlined in yellow.
Photo-masking activity from MicroPasts© MicroPasts (CC BY 2.0)
As well as hosting projects developed in the forums, it is hoped that other heritage institutions will use MicroPasts as a platform – or even use the Pybossa software to create their own platform.

“There are lots and lots of legacy archives with very large amounts of useful data in them,” says Bevan. “Transcription is one way to make those far more powerful for research.

"But twinning those with the objects that are mentioned in the archives is quite fun, and for researchers, a very useful thing to do.”

MicroPasts have now applied for further funding to expand the range of projects available. These include various map-based crowd-sourcing activities and wider varieties of transcriptions, including diaries.

However, in the event of further funding not being granted, Bevan isn’t worried. Both he and Daniel Pett (ICT Advisor) at the British Museum are keen are keen to support the project as part of their work. They are also supported by Neil Wilkin, Curator of British and European Prehistory at the British Museum, and a group of post-doctoral researchers from both institutions.

“Probably the most important thing is that we've started to get a group of other contributors online who like it and have skills,” says Bevan. “If we don't get any further funding it's still, we think, sustainable in its current form.“

The UK is in the enviable position of having a relatively large and active public who are fascinated by, and knowledgeable about, archaeology. And although many professional archaeologists and institutions work with such volunteers, there is still a relatively large network waiting to be utilised.

“I think we can go a lot further,” says Bevan. “There’s plenty more there in terms of people with skills wanting to contribute one way or another.”

If MicroPasts proves to be successful and sustainable, it may well pave the way for a future where heritage organisations, museums and universities not only collaborate more extensively with each other, but also with members of the public.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Fantastic to see an article about the wonderful Micropasts. I'm a Micropasts contributor and really value what it has to offer: a wide variety of engaging and interesting crowd sourced and crowd funded archaeology projects that's got something for everyone, and it's available 24/7.
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