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Posted by Adi on

Shabtis and the Ancient Egyptian Afterlife

If you’d lived in Ancient Egypt, you would probably have strongly believed that death was not the end, and that it was only a transition between this world and the next. Ancient Egyptians believed that after they die, or more precisely after their bodies die, some parts of their soul (termed ‘ka’ and ‘ba’) kept on living in a spiritual realm known as the underworld, or Duat – the realm of the dead.

It was not at all straightforward to get to this underworld. You first had to be mummified so that your body was well preserved and thus suited to move on to the next life. Secondly, you had to pass a crucial test on your judgment day, a procedure known as the ‘weighing of the heart’. If you were a good person and hadn’t sinned, then your heart would be lighter than the feather of truth and justice (Ma’at), and you’d be allowed to continue your journey into the afterlife. Finally, you’d have to know how to overcome all obstacles on your journey, so it was advised to have a copy of the Book of the Dead handy. This book contained magic spells devised to help you to complete your journey successfully.

Faience shabti from the tomb of Sety I, Valley of the Kings, Egypt. 19th Dynasty, around 1290 BC. Courtesy of the British Museum

However, making it to the underworld was not the end of the story. In order to ensure your immortality after death, your family, friends and/or subjects should have remembered to place some food and drinks in your tomb. In addition, even though dead, you were not exempt from work. You were expected to carry out tasks such as ploughing fields and harvesting crops. But if you were well prepared, you made sure that someone else could do the work for you. So while you could enjoy your days watching the sun god Ra on his daily boat ride through the sky, someone else was tasked do the tedious routine chores for you. Therefore, alongside your mummified body, some food, the Book of the Dead, everyday objects, and other paraphernalia needed to smooth your journey into the afterlife, your tomb would include a series of funerary figurines known as shabtis (or ushabtis). These shabtis were usually shaped like a mummy and may have had your name and title inscribed on them. Otherwise, they may have been inscribed with a text from the 6th chapter from the Book of the Dead, including a phrase sending them to action – “to plough the fields, or to fill the channels with water, or to carry sand from the East to the West”.

Tasked mainly for agricultural duties, the shabtis often carried a hoe in their hands, a basket on their backs, or some other tools (depending on their roles). They were usually small, between 10 and 30 cm in size, and would most commonly be made of faience, or otherwise from terracotta, wood, stone, metal or glass. While the practice of using shabtis emerged in the Old Kingdom, they became common starting from the Middle Kingdom onwards and were in use until the end of the Ptolemaic Period. Many of them were made in mass production, and from the 21st Dynasty on, tombs could be found filled with a great number of shabtis. Some tombs had hundreds of shabtis covering the tomb floors. Better be prepared for all that afterlife work!


Posted by Neil Wilkin on

Later Prehistoric Britain & the Development of Bronze Age Metal Objects

What we call the ‘later prehistory’ in Britain and Ireland traditionally spans the first use of metal artefacts and thereafter the replacement of bronze technologies with iron, an overall period of approximately two and a half millennia which starts around 2500 BC and, by academic convention, is said to end with the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43 (which brings in the a series of hitherto missing documentary sources for the historian and hence is deemed to be roughly the end of ‘prehistory’ where our evidence is largely archaeological), spanning the Bronze Age and Iron Age chronological periods.

Bronze Age Metal Objects: Background & Overview

Given that a major early component of the MicroPasts project involves looking at Bronze Age metal objects from Britain, the following section provides a little background information in order to understand how the subject developed and the basic outline of the period and topic.


Antiquarian depiction of Danish & British Bronze Age implements by J.J.A Worsaae (1843)

The term ‘Bronze Age’ was developed by the Danish archaeologist Christian Thomsen (b. 1788 – d. 1865), to sit between the Stone Age and the Iron Age in his ‘three-age system’. Although the simplicity of Thomsen’s scheme has been questioned in the intervening years, and other important divisions have been recognised, it remains relevant, and the Bronze Age has a distinct character of its own. The date and character of the Bronze Age do, however, differ across Europe, with communications and mobility between regions and countries also changing through time.

In Britain, the Bronze Age is a period used by archaeologist to refer to the centuries from 2500 to 800 BC. At the start of the period (from 2500 to 2200 BC) only gold and copper were being used, but from 2200 BC bronze was created by mixing (alloying) tin and copper. In the initial period (around 2200-2000 BC), Irish copper and Cornish tin were used in bronze production. The sources of copper then changed as new mines (especially in Wales) were exploited and Continental metal was brought into Britain. The first iron objects appear from around 1000 BC, and the Iron Age is said to begin around 800 BC (again, this is more a convenient academic label, rather than an abrupt historical  ). The Bronze Age chronologies are notoriously complex, but here is a table summarising the main developments by period:

BA Chronology Chart-1

Major chronological periods of the British Bronze Age (largely based on Needham 1996; see also Roberts 2008 & Roberts, Uckelmann, & Brandherm 2013).

From around 1500 BC, the evidence for the contexts in which we find metal objects changes from burials to ‘hoard’ deposits. Hoards, defined loosely as two or more objects deposited together, that are often treated in special and unusual ways prior to deposition (for instance swords may be intentionally bent and ornaments folded and broken up). This hoarding practice may sometimes have had a religious or ritual significance, a point also suggested by the location of the deposits in unusual and special places (e.g. rivers, bogs and natural features). Indeed, although opinions vary, current thinking tends to suggest that hoards were ‘gifts for the Gods’ (akin to pennies thrown into wells with the expectation of a granted wish), rather than purely ‘rubbish’ or items stored for safe keeping.

Communities also made use of ceramics throughout the period, expressing identities through particular styles. These were often deemed important enough to deposit with the dead, particularly during the period between 2500 to 1500 BC (e.g. Beakers, Food Vessels and Collared Urns). Although the survival of organics from this period is rare, there are sufficient examples to know that communities were highly skilled at working these materials as well.

Most of the archaeological evidence for the earlier part of the period (c.2500 to 1500 BC) comes from funerary evidence and monuments and there is little evidence for permanent settlements of any size or scale. This may suggest that communities and populations were still relatively small-scale by comparison with later periods. Towards the end of the Bronze Age (from 1500 to 800 BC) there is, however, greater evidence for roundhouses and field systems, particularly in Southern England.

The Arreton hoard from the Isle of Wight includes flanged axes and spearheads (socketed and tanged types).

The Arreton hoard from the Isle of Wight includes flanged axes and spearheads (socketed and tanged types).

If you are interested in reading more about later prehistoric Britain these resources might help to get you started:

Published resources:

Books & articles:

  • Cowie, T. 1988. Magic Metal. Early metalworkers in the North-East. Aberdeen: University of Aberdeen
  • Cunliffe, B. 2004. Iron Age Britain (Revised Edition). London: B.T. Batsford/English Heritage
  • Darvill, T. 2010. Prehistoric Britain (2nd edition). London: Routledge
  • Langmaid, N.G. 1976. Bronze Age Metalwork in England and Wales, Aylesbury: Shire Archaeology
  • Needham, S. 1996. “Chronology and Periodisation in the British Bronze Age”. Acta Archaeologica 67, 121–40.
  • Parker Pearson, M. 2005. Bronze Age Britain (Revised Edition). London: B.T. Batsford/English Heritage
  • Pearce, S.M.1984. Bronze Age Metalwork in Southern Britain, Aylesbury: Shire Archaeology
  • Piggott, S. 1938. “The Early Bronze Age in Wessex”. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 4, 52-106.
  • Pollard, J. (ed.) 2008. Prehistoric Britain, London: Blackwell
  • Pryor, F. 2004. Britain BC: life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans, London: Harper Perennial
  • Roberts, B.W. 2008. “The Bronze Age”. In L. Atkins, R. Atkins and V. Leitch (eds) The Handbook of British Archaeology, 63-93. London: Constable and Robinson
  • Roberts, B.W., Uckelmann, M., & Brandherm, D. 2013. “Old Father Time: The Bronze Age Chronology of Western Europe”. In H. Fokkens & A. Harding (eds) The Oxford Handbook of the European Bronze Age, 17-46. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Worsaae, J.A.A. 1843. The Primeval Antiquities of Denmark (Danmarks Oldtid oplyst ved Oldsager og Gravhøie). London: John Henry Parker.

 Web resources:

Posted by Andrew Bevan on

3D Modelling via SfM

What is it and how can it be used?

Archaeology was unusually quick to adopt 2D mapping (GIS) technologies at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, but now 3D approaches to recording everything from small artefacts to whole excavations and large landscapes are fast becoming popular. There are a variety of different methods involved, including both the use of laser scanners (sometimes known as LiDAR, especially when used at the landscape scale) and of photograph-based techniques that fall under the umbrella term ‘photogrammetry’.


A 3D model of a Bronze Age palstave, shown both with a photographic texture and with an ‘ambient occlusion’ surface (for an online version visible in most browsers on a desktop/laptop, see

MicroPasts is fostering a photogrammetric method known as Structure-from-Motion (SfM) which does away with most of the complicated camera and target set-ups used by more traditional methods. SfM can create 3D colour-realistic models from ordinary digital photographs, often taken in ordinary conditions with ordinary cameras. Most generally, SfM is also a form of ‘computer vision’, the science of allowing computers to ‘see’ the world around them whether through range-finding, still images, video, etc.

3D models are fun to play around with and can be re-used in museum displays, immersive virtual environments or computer games. This is one of the reasons we are making them available under licenses that encourage rather than restrict such unanticipated uses (we would be really interested to hear on the forum of any applications that you can think of). They are also useful for school and university teaching, especially in situations where it is impossible to access the physical objects or archaeological landscapes themselves.

For research purposes, 3D landscape models allow us to place archaeological finds in an accurate topographic setting, and we can also then modify these virtual landscapes better to reflect the way they looked in particular periods of the past. This then allows us to explore more rigorously what factors might, for example, have affected where people from a particular period chose to locate their settlements, or to consider what parts of the archaeological landscape have suffered from erosion or have been covered up by river silts. 3D models of standing buildings (e.g. prehistoric megalithic monuments or Medieval churches, see Susie Green’s blog) not only preserve a 3D snapshot of archaeological structures that unfortunately get damaged and decay through time, but  also allow better studies of masonry styles and construction techniques.

3D models of artefacts allow specialists to compare finds in the same virtual space in ways they could never do so physically: for example, you can interact with and compare the details of several different bronze axes via 3D models in ways you could never do physically because those artefacts might each live in a different museum. One key further implication of SfM for artefact-based research is the fact that we can now collect not just one or two models, but hundreds or thousands. This means we can compare the sizes and shapes statistically (e.g. of similar Bronze Age axe types), because the sample of modelled objects is big enough. Although it is early days for such research, the expectation is that computer-based 3D shape analysis will lead to much finer, more informative typologies/taxonomies of objects, a better sense of how these change through time, and in some cases finer dating. You can even apply such statistical comparisons to irregular shapes such as the body-parts of statues (for an example looking at the ears of the Chinese Terracotta Warriors, see here and a related blog post).

Photo-capture of a Bronze Age axe on a white background using a turntable (but otherwise with poor indoor lighting and photographic conditions).

Photo-capture of a Bronze Age axe on a white background using a turntable (but otherwise with poor indoor lighting and photographic conditions).

How can I create a 3D model?

SfM models are constructed in several distinct steps, involving photo-capture, image-masking, camera alignment, point-cloud construction, meshing and texturing (some of these being obligatory, others optional). There are also ways to use online tools with which anyone can build 3D models via SfM by uploading raw photos they have captured (e.g. photosynth or 123dcatch). However, better results can usually still be achieved offline, and for objects, ‘masking’ out the background of the photo achieves a much better result than simply asking a computer to distinguish crisply between object and background on its own, especially when the object has had to be flipped over at several stages to capture all sides (hence the background has been altered in ways that deceive the computer).

Currently, we have focused on enabling photo-masking tasks on the MicroPasts platform but are currently developing a project where we ask contributors to visit certain kinds of archaeological sites themselves, capture their own photographs and upload them to the site. If you are interested in contributing in this way, you can also have a look at two very good ongoing projects of this kind in Scotland and Wales (heritagetogether or accordproject).

We have written a set of working notes about good practice in creating SfM models (comments and improvements welcome) that will give you a clearer sense of how these methods work (SfM Photographic Strategy, SfM Offline Photo Masking, SfM Model Construction). These working notes provide examples using both commercially-licensed software and open source alternatives wherever possible.


Posted by Chiara Bonacchi on


What do we mean by crowd-sourcing?

Crowd-sourcing is a relatively new digital method for collecting information, services or funds from a large group of people, in small chunks, over the internet. This practice emerged less than a decade ago in the commercial sector, where companies had been exploring ways of out-sourcing labour to potentially interested people around the world. It is sometimes also called ‘micro-tasking’ and, as many novelties in the world of technology,  it featured in the well-known magazine Wired, where, in 2006, Jeff Howe wrote an article entitled ‘The Rise of Crowd-sourcing’.

In recent years, crowd-sourcing has been increasingly used also by professionals and institutions in the science and cultural heritage sectors as a way of conducting research, curating museum collections and managing heritage resources in collaboration with the public.

The landing page of the Zooniverse website featuring Citizen Science projects on ‘Space’.

In some cases, people are invited to contribute their time and skills to help with projects that have been designed entirely by these institutions. In other cases, members of the public can instead propose ideas for projects they would like to undertake and institutions provide platforms and resources to make them happen.

Some crowd-sourcing platforms, like Zooniverse, host a number of differently themed Citizen Science projects focussing on astronomy, climate issues, nature, biology and the humanities. In other cases, museums, libraries or universities set up individual crowd-sourcing pages linked to their websites, as is the case with the Australian Newspaper Digitisation Programme.

Developing crowd-sourcing platforms where tens or hundreds of thousands of people can work, potentially simultaneously, is a very challenging endeavour. For example, it is important to ensure that data are produced in formats and at levels of quality that allow for meaningful analysis to be undertaken. In this way contributors’ efforts are not wasted and can really bring new knowledge. For this reason, in the MicroPasts transcription applications only information that is entered by at least two contributors in the same way is saved, and, similarly, we have developed a method for maximising the quality of the images masked via photomasking. Another key element is that of communication both within the group of contributors and between contributors and institutions in order to share ideas, confront any problems and propose new initiatives. To this end, MicroPasts uses Facebook, Twitter and a community forum, where we invite comments, suggestions and questions, while providing updates and news about the project.

The technical side…

If you are a developer or just interested in what is ‘behind the scenes’ of the MicroPasts crowd-sourcing website, please do have a look at the code that makes it function.

Some of the online repositories where we store the code that makes MicroPasts platforms work.

We have stored it in repositories that are available online on GitHub. Feel free to use and improve the work we have done so far. You might also like to read a step-by-step guide on how to create your own crowd-sourcing applications using the Pybossa framework. We will be happy to answer any questions and hear any observations you might have on MicroPasts software and infrastructure via the forum.


Posted by Chiara Bonacchi on

Online Transcription

How can it be useful?

Letters, documents and literary works are useful for several different kinds of research into the human past. For example, transcribing old excavation records can make them more amenable to spatial and quantitative analysis, whilst transcribing historical documents from past literate societies can be compared and contrasted with the evidence from contemporary objects. Other kinds of transcriptions can also be important for exploring family histories, broader historical movements and phenomena, and personal biographies of archaeologists, historians, philosophers etc. To be used for research purposes, however, this (often hand-written) material needs to be carefully transferred from paper form to digital (typed) formats. In this way, it is possible to preserve the records, while making them widely available beyond the walls of archives and study rooms and enabling computer-aided analysis.

A letter from Hilda Petrie to Veronica Seton-Willliams (1936), archived at UCL; courtesy of UCL Institute of Archaeology Collections

Transcribing large quantities of text is not an easy or quick task and requires interpretation skills that computers do not yet have at adequate levels. For this reason, crowd-sourcing the transcription of letters or documents via interested volunteers can produce high quality results, as in the case of the Transcribe Bentham project. In this project, contributors are transcribing the unpublished works of the philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), thereby helping to prepare a new edition of the Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham. As Bentham himself wrote: ‘Many hands make light work. Many hands together make merry work’. Another interesting project where transcription is successfully used to research the history of archaeology is UR Crowdsource. Here, people are helping document the famous excavations that took place from 1922 to 1934 at the site of Ur, in present-day Iraq, by reading and transcribing letters, field notes and reports from the dig.

On the MicroPasts crowd-sourcing platform, we have developed an application to transcribe the object cards that were written to record a vast number of Bronze Age metal artefacts found in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries up until the 1970s. These cards allow us to know more about objects’ features, places of discovery, and any published information relevant to them. The information is hand-written in often neat and aesthetically pleasing styles, but can at times be difficult to decipher. Thus, volunteers’ help is crucial for digitising these resources and enabling the exploration of the Bronze Age Index and the history of this catalogue (e.g. the geographic and chronological scope of its records), but also, for example, the examination of the recurrence of certain features within a same class of artefacts.

Currently, we are working on the development of a second type of application for transcribing cards which are also part of the Bronze Age index, but describe the context of discovery of specific finds rather than the objects themselves. This transcription work will be slightly different, requiring fewer text boxes and more ‘free text’. We also hope that, in future, the MicroPasts crowd-sourcing platform will foster further transcription work. One way to achieve this is for both volunteer communities and academic institutions to identify archaeological and historical transcription projects of joint research interest and fund them via the MicroPasts crowd-funding site.


Posted by Adi on

The British Museum Index

The index of the British Museum 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 catalogue contains index cards detailing object find spots and types, alongside detail line drawings and a wide range of further information about the object’s context of discovery.

BM Card Index

Drawers of index cards at the British Museum

Part of the reason to transcribe the index is so that its estimated 30,000 records can be incorporated rapidly into the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, which has also been created with the help of people across England and Wales. The PAS database includes nearly 930,000 objects, which have been collected by the public, usually by metal detectorists. Integrating the transcribed cards with the numerous records of archaeological objects discovered by the public will thereby create a near complete digital inventory of metal finds from Bronze Age Britain. There are also some records of finds from outside of Britain in the index and in some cases, these can be sent to other national databases in Europe as well.

Georeferencing the finds will support the kinds of large-scale spatial analysis discussed here. Knowing as much information as possible about the archaeological context of these finds (e.g. as recorded on the cards) is very useful for building up a clearer picture of how metal objects were produced, exchanged, used and discarded in the Bronze Age.