Digging Deeper into History by Crowdsourcing Britain’s Bronze Age Past

Published Mar-30-15

An experimental crowdsourced archaeological project is set to provide greater insights into ancient Britain and open up new fields of scholarship.

The British Museum, United Kingdom

The Story:

Digging Deeper into History by Crowdsourcing Britain’s Bronze Age Past The handwritten index cards were once state of the art when curators at the British Museum were cataloging their collections in the early 19th century. But in today’s globally connected digital world, not only does material need to be easier to search, but there is so much more that can be done with archival records.

Bringing the Bronze Age into the Modern World

So, in collaboration with University College London, the British Museum has opened its dusty old archives to the crowd. Academics, researchers and members of the public are involved in a huge project to transcribe more than 30,000 handwritten catalog cards and make digital photographs of Bronze Age (2500 BC – 800 BC) metal objects. These archaeological relics were all discovered during the 19th and 20th centuries.

To take part, volunteers log on to the specially created MicroPasts webpage where the current projects (called applications) that require help are listed. At the time of writing this article, they include photo masking a Bronze Age socketed axe head and transcribing Palaeolithic artifacts from the British Museum's Worthington George Smith manuscript collection.

To date, thousands of objects have already been digitized by participants from all over the world. Once the work has been completed, the catalog will be incorporated into the Portable Antiquities Scheme (a record of archaeological objects found by members of the public) to produce the world's largest national database of prehistoric metal finds.

Insights from 3D Plastic Models

An additional goal of the project is to create 3D models of some of the finds. For example, in late 2014, a 3D plastic model of a 3,000-year-old bronze axe was printed out in a library in Washington DC. The original is stored in the British Museum.

There are several reasons why the 3D printing project is going to be of great value. For starters, studying the objects will potentially open up new research fields. Scholars can look for tiny differences in their styles and production methods to glean more about when, where and how the originals were made.

"This information has long been known to be an extremely important untapped resource,” said Neil Wilkin, curator of Bronze Age collections at the British Museum. "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."

Greater Insights into Past

The team behind the project also expect that studying the collection will lead to some major rethinking about what is currently known about Britain during the Bronze Age.

There is no copyright on any of the objects or the information and the project is built on open-source software. Furthermore, all of the project data will be made publicly available so that anyone can use it for free.

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