Posted by Jennifer Wexler on

Wonders of the Deep: Bronze Age Finds from the River Thames in the Bronze Age Index

Lady of the Lake drawing by M. Bowley ( ©CC_BY

Our penultimate Bronze Age Index project focuses on Bronze Age swords from the River Thames. Finds from the Thames and other watery locations in Britain and Northern Europe have fascinated scholars for many years, and recent excavations at Must Farm and Flag Fen show the incredible importance of riverine environments to prehistoric peoples. In a sense, Thames finds have been central to the study of later prehistoric Europe over the last hundred years, and there have been a huge amount of studies (see references below) dedicated to the topic, in particular on the increasing deposition of weapons (spearheads, dirks, rapiers, swords) from the Middle Bronze Age onwards (Bradley 1990: 99, 108-109). The idea of depositing weapons in water very much resonates with our popular cultural history. Folk stories and myths of a legendary past often feature the act of throwing costly and beautiful items into the water as both a sacrifice and an offering, most famously depicted in the story of King Arthur’s magical sword Excalibur being returned to the Lady of the Lake (illustrated above), with these stories possibly reflecting echoes of ancient practices.

BMFinds_DirksThames ©Trustees of the British Museum.

The River Thames was famously described as ‘Liquid history’ by the 19th century MP John Burns, and its importance cannot be underestimated as both a natural boundary and, perhaps, the ‘longest archaeological site’ in the UK (York 2002, Cohen 2010). What can the Bronze Age Index (BAI) tells us about Bronze Age metalwork deposition in the River Thames and the collection history of this material? We have over 1,200 records of artefacts connected to the Thames recorded in the Index. Largely it is an antiquarian collection relating to the numerous artefacts recovered from the Thames during the 19th and early 20th century, which were often found by workmen in the course of dredging and the building of bridges and locks. Many of these objects were acquired by private collectors, who often paid handsomely for high quality display pieces but rarely recorded the exact find spots and circumstances of recovery (Cowie & Eastmond 1997: 88).

Examples of BAI cards recording River Thames finds ©Trustees of the British Museum.

We find four notable types of cards related to Thames finds in the Index:

  1. Collectors of Thames antiquities, most notably George Fabian Lawrence the Inspector of Excavations for the London Museum who was very active in the recovery & recording of river finds (he was commonly known as ‘Stony Jack’ to London’s workmen). He produced the first catalogue of archaeological material from the river in 1929. The collections of Layton, Greenwell, and Crooke also feature extensively in the records;
  2. Smaller and regional museum collections, but the majority seem to be objects either in the British Museum’s or London Museum’s (now Museum of London’s) collection;
  3. Private collections, which are especially important as these might not be recorded anywhere else.
  4. Pre-PAS metal-detecting finds, which also might not be recorded anywhere else. Metal-detecting is now closely controlled along Thames foreshore, so these older records might give offer us some key insights into the foreshore record.

Many of the cards contain unique and extensive data about the artefact’s record, which in some cases indicates that its provenance to be connected to another find spot based-on dredging activity. We are still digitising and going through the records, but I wanted to go through some of the preliminary patterns we see in the Index records.

BAI Thames Findspot Distribution


The pie chart above shows the regional distribution of Thames metalwork find spots recorded in the Index. As we can see, Greater London by far represents the largest number of records. Most of these records would be connected to the significant dredging works undertaken between 1895 and 1900 (Port of London Authority). A second capital dredging campaign concluded by 1928, during which some 37 million cubic yards were excavated. There are a number of unprovenanced sites recorded as simply coming from the ‘River Thames’ without exact find spots, though related information seems to indicate that most of the artefacts would have come from London in connection again to dredging and bridge building activities.

We have smaller but significant groups of records from Berkshire and Surrey as well, many of these coming from the Thames Water Collection collected by Thames Conservancy Board during dredging of the non-tidal part of the river up the Teddington Lock and donated to the Reading Museum in 1996.

©CC_BY/Google Earth

Looking at a smaller sub-set of data of 249 records of Thames Single Finds in the British Museum’s Collections, we can see in the map (above) that the general distribution of find spots with clusters in London (especially West London), London Docklands (representing the general ‘River Thames’ finds), and Maidenhead/Bray in Berkshire.

Looking closer at the London find spots represented in this data, after unprovenanced ‘River Thames’ finds, we have highest concentration of finds coming from Battersea and the Richmond and Wandsworth districts of West London. David Field (1989) famously commented that the “collections of prehistoric artefacts from the river in west London represents one of the most impressive concentrations of archaeological material in the British Isles”. Finds seem to cluster especially around Kingston Bridge, Wandsworth Reach, Hammersmith, Isleworth, Putney, Chiswick, Teddington, Twickenham, and Barnes, with many important sites represented in the records.

Index cards recording small finds from Ivor Noel Hume’s 1955 excavation at Syon Reach ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Many cards feature small finds and ornaments, as shown here, recording Ivor Noel Hume’s 1955 excavation of Late Bronze Age timber & wattle platform at Syon Reach near Isleworth, Richmond, which was unfortunately washed-away by a passing ‘pleasure boat’ while they were in the process of recording it! The Thames Discovery Programme have recorded ‘a significant concentration of Bronze Age material, (possibly representing a trading centre or deliberate votive deposition)’ at Isleworth, possibly in some resemblance to the Vauxhall ‘bridge’ structure dated to the Middle Bronze Age. Many records are also connected to the tributaries of the Thames, and particular concentration from the ‘mouth of the River Wandle’ just above Wandsworth Reach/Bridge.

Thames Artifact Types


Looking more closely at artefacts recorded in the Index, we have 26 categories of artefact types from the Thames that are so far represented in the Index, as shown here. At the moment we have many more spearheads than anything else, but dirks & rapiers, swords, socketed axes, palstaves, and knives all figure prominently. This pattern is repeated throughout studies of Thames material, with not only a massive record of weapons found in the Thames from the MBA onwards but the concentrations of sword deposition (pictured below) by the LBA clustering in the Thames Valley and Fenland of East Anglia, with relatively few deposited north of the Severn-Wash line.

Map ©N. Wilkin after Colquhoun & Burgess 1988.

How is this material being treated? York’s excellent 2002 study looked at both Index and published records in order to reassess the lifecycle and destruction of metalwork from the non-tidal Thames upstream of Teddington. She notes that in conjunction with the rise in weapon deposition there is also an increase in object destruction from the Penard (late MBA) to Wilburton phase (early LBA). Spearheads and swords were being treated differently than other objects deposited in the Thames, with destruction levels increasing over time, and it is clear that Bronze Age communities were perceiving these objects in a new and special light (York 2002: 88-89). Deposition may have been related to a display of wealth, social status, territory, celebratory after battle, or part of a burial or community ritual (for further discussion, see Bradley 1990).

Examples of Thames spearheads in the Index ©Trustees of the British Museum.

We do not know for certain, unfortunately, the complete significance that throwing these special objects into significant bodies of water may have held for prehistoric peoples, we can only see their impact on the archaeological record and our understanding of the past. Hopefully, further research on this major resource will bring to light more information about these wonders from the deep.

In particular it would be key to connect this data to other museum’s collections & archives, especially the Museum of London’s extensive London Archaeological Archive & Research Centre (LAARC) (which also has a complimentary antiquarian records related to Thames finds). Additionally a long-term goal would be to better integrate this data into the Greater London Sites and Monuments Record & other regional HERS, and look further at the connections between sites and objects recorded previously under the Thames Archaeological Survey, & currently by the Thames Discovery Programme.

This blog was based on a paper I presented on 20th April 2015 at the Tales the River Tells: Later Prehistoric Finds from In and Around the Thames Conference run by the Prehistoric Society and the Later Prehistoric Finds Group. Many thanks to Michael Marshall (Museum of London Archaeology) and Courtney Nimura (University of Oxford) for inviting me to speak at the conference.


  • BRADLEY, R. 1990: The Passage of Arms (Cambridge University Press).
  • BRADLEY, R. and GORDON, K. 1988: Human skulls from the River Thames, their dating and significance. Antiquity 62, 503–9.
  • COHEN, N. 2010: Liquid History: Excavating London’s great river, the Thames. Current Archaeology 244 (July 2010):
  • COLQUHOUN, I. and BURGESS, C. 1988: The swords of Britain. Prähistorische Bronzefunde IV.5. Munich: Beck.
  • COTTON, J. 1999: Ballast-Heavers and Battle-Axes: The ‘Golden Age’ of Thames Finds. In Coles, A. and Dion, M. (eds.), Mark Dion: Archaeology (Black Dog Publishing), 58–71.
  • COWIE, R. and EASTMOND, D. 1997: An archaeological survey of the foreshore in the Boroughof Richmond upon Thames. London Archaeologist 8 (4-5), 87-93, 115-121.
  • EHRENBERG, M.R. 1977: Bronze Age Spearheads from Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire (Oxford, BAR Brit. Ser. 34).
  • EHRENBERG, M. 1980: The Occurrence of Bronze Age Metalwork in the Thames: An Investigation. Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society 31, 1–15.
  • FIELD, D. 1989: Tranchet axes and Thames picks: Mesolithic core tools from the west London Thames. Trans London Middlesex Archaeol Soc 40, 18.
  • NEEDHAM, S. 1988: Selective deposition in the British Early Bronze Age. World Archaeology 20(2), 229–48.
  • NEEDHAM, S. and BURGESS, C. 1980: The later Bronze Age in the Lower Thames Valley: the Metalwork Evidence. In Barrett, J. and Bradley, R. (eds.), The British Later Bronze Age (Oxford, BAR Brit. Ser. 83 (i)), 437–70.
  • O’CONNOR, B. 1980: Cross-Channel Relations in the Later Bronze Age (Oxford, BAR Int. Ser. 91 (i) and (ii)).
  • PEARCE, S. 1984: Bronze Age Metalwork in Southern Britain (Princes Risborough).
  • ROWLANDS, M.J. 1976: The Production and Distribution of Metalwork in the Middle Bronze Age in Southern Britain (Oxford, BAR 31).
  • THOMAS, R. 1984: Bronze Age Metalwork from the Thames at Wallingford. Oxoniensia 49, 9–18.
  • YORK, J. 2002: The Life Cycle of Bronze Metalwork from the Thames. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 21(2), 77-92.
Posted by Jennifer Wexler on

A Hollow Human Head of Bronze

EthiopianHead copy

© Trustees of the British Museum

DSC_0840 ED

EES Egyptian scholars are (l to r) Yasser Abdel Razik Al Hammami, Ahmed Ali Nakshara, Hoda Kamal, Hesham Hussein, Fatma Keshk, and Mohamed Abuelyazid. (Photo courtesy of Hazel Gray/EES)

This September we were lucky enough to have a visit from a group of Egyptian scholars organised by the Egypt Exploration Society ( The Egypt Exploration Society (EES) has been one of main crowd-sourcing collaborators, asking MicroPasts’ contributors to transcribe early 20th century excavation records from Amarna West and Amara, and we have now done 18 crowd-sourcing projects together with over 20,000 tasks completed! The Egyptian scholars were based at the EES’s London office for six weeks conducting research and training relevant to their research projects and working roles in Egypt, and in conjunction we ran a series of training sessions with them on crowd-sourcing, GIS, and 3D photography at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL and the Department of Britain, Europe, & Prehistory (BEP), British Museum.

While preparing the 3D photography session (see for more information about our 3D photography technique) I asked Georgi Parpulov for ideas of some interesting Egyptian or related objects for possible photomasking. As the Project Curator for Empires of Faith Project, Georgi has been in the process of cataloguing all the Byzantine and Coptic objects in the British Museum’s collections from across the Byzantine world. Through his work Georgi has brought to light a mysterious relic head, which he describes to us here:

“In the course of museum work, one sometimes hits upon objects which, while clearly not being modern forgeries, cannot be easily assigned an accurate date and geographic origin. This head is certainly the most vexing objects of this kind that I have encountered since I began working at the British Museum just about a year ago. The only piece of information that accompanied it was a paper label stating it was “Abyssinian”. Abyssinia is, of course, an old name for Ethiopia, and the head does bear a general resemblance to works of Christian Ethiopian art that I have seen. But what about the precise time of its manufacture? What purpose did it originally serve? Who is the man portrayed, and why is he bearded and tonsured? These are all questions that elude me. I am not a specialist in Ethiopian art; I know a couple of scholars who are, but they are equally puzzled by our head. The only way to solve the mystery would be to make the objects accessible for study to a wider circle of interested people, not least in Ethiopia itself. Three-dimensional photography of the head would allow one to see it fully without travelling to London. It is pretty to look at and will, I hope, not only arouse curiosity, but also bring some visual delight.”

We thought we might be interesting to photograph this mysterious head with the Egyptian Scholars, in the hope to bring more attention to this fabulous object for further research. Help us make the 3D model here!



© Trustees of the British Museum

Jennifer from the MicroPasts Team in conversation with Georgi Parpulov, Project Curator: Empires of Faith, Middle East Department, British Museum. Many thanks to the EES and the Egyptian scholars for their help with the project!

Posted by Chiara Bonacchi on

‘I was made in the year 1510’

The Mary Rose Trust are very excited to be working with Micropasts again. This time, we will be working towards the production of a 3D model of the Mary Rose bell, one of the most iconic items to have been raised from the wreck site.

The bell recovered from the Mary Rose was one of the last items to be recovered from the wreck site (it was found under the ship below the starboard side). It was also the last item to be placed into the new Mary Rose Museum. At the Museum’s media launch in May 2013, the bell was processed into the museum by the ship’s company from the Navy’s latest Type 45 warship, HMS Duncan.

The bell was cast in bronze and metallurgy results showed it was made from copper (82%), tin (15%) and lead (1.7%). The Flemish inscription at the top reads ‘Ic ben ghegoten int yaer MCCCCCX’ which translates as ‘I was made in the year 1510’, the year that the Mary Rose was commissioned.

On board ships, the bell was used to signal the time, to mark the change of the watch and as a warning, particularly to other ships in fog.

The Mary Rose team



Posted by jamesdoeser on

Initial reflections on the MicroPasts Knowledge Exchange Workshop

How do we use crowd-based methods? What benefits do they generate? Where do they fall short? How can we sustain them? And how do they support the work of organisations in a heritage ecology? These were the questions addressed at a knowledge exchange workshop hosted by the UCL Institute of Archaeology on 23 September. It builds upon the MicroPasts project, which has put nearly £400,000 of Arts and Humanities Research Council money to work in creating crowd-sourcing, crowd-funding and forum platforms to support the collaborative study of the human past. The workshop was an opportunity to share the learning from the MicroPasts project and reflect further upon how this insight can be deployed more widely across the heritage world. Those present were experts from across the fundraising, policy, evaluation and public engagement professions.

The workshop provoked a few thoughts about the nature of crowd-based methods and their use in research, fundraising and public engagement. My thoughts are partly informed by my ever-weakening relationship with the archaeology and heritage sector. My PhD looked at archaeology public policy, yet over the last ten years I have worked in a broader set of cultural disciplines and grown ever-more convinced that the archaeology world is too introspective for its own good. It was therefore refreshing at the workshop to get perspectives from a wide range of voices: from the Arts Council, Nesta, the Smithsonian Institute, and Zooniverse (the popular online citizen science platform).

What seemed clear from the day was that crowd-funding and crowd-sourcing are two distinct types of activity. Perhaps the only thing that unites them is the c-word. Crowd-funding is in many ways simply a form of fundraising that takes advantage of digital technology. There are a variety of interesting uses of crowd-funding in the broader culture sector (the publisher Unbound springs to mind) but overall it’s used in the heritage sector as a fairly straightforward development of classic fundraising methods. It therefore exhibits all the strengths and weaknesses of passing the donation plate. Crowd-sourcing is an entirely different beast, and demands a re-imagining of what constitutes public engagement, volunteering, labour, value and ethics.

MicroPasts and similar platforms are best thought of as Citizen Science, not crowd-sourcing. In Citizen Science the crowd is often contributing their labour, they are not donating materials. Quite frequently, those participating as Citizen Scientists far outnumber those who have been involved in the creation of a project. The tasks in MicroPasts are set by researchers and a few others drawn from a pool of interested “Citizens”, not the mass of people who constitute the “crowd”. The work of MicroPasts is complete once the researcher decides, not the crowd. This means that MicroPasts resembles a Zooniverse-style platform with an exclusively heritage flavour.

For archaeology and heritage to take full advantage of Citizen Science opportunities, I have the following simple suggestions inspired by conversations at the workshop: that similar projects combine resources to increase their visibility; and that all projects provide clear and compelling reasons for people to volunteer their time to help out.

We heard of a few examples of transcribing or annotating archive material. Four different examples were mentioned at the workshop. Each one had their own platform. There was Transcribe Bentham (bespoke UCL interface); AnnoTate (Zooniverse); Oxford HEIR project (bespoke Oxford interface); and Amarna Archive (MicroPasts). In the busy marketplace of distracting things to do online, it would make sense for there to be one global online shopfront for all projects that require the transcription, annotation and tagging skills of the general public. Anyone with an interest in history, archaeology and archives would know where to go. That way, these projects wouldn’t operate in isolation, like heritage needles in a lolcats haystack.

The other striking theme from the workshop was the various factors that drive people to participate in these online projects. To my mind, many of the projects resemble the tasks advertised through Amazon Mechanical Turk (a sort of online labour exchange run by the well-known online store). The motivation for Turkers (as the workforce on that platform are known) is superficially clear: piecemeal monetary return for tasks successfully completed. However, research into the experience of Turkers shows that they have a complex range of motivations, from the meditative state that the tasks can sometimes induce, to the simple pleasure of contributing to a job well done. For some people, monetary incentives are going to be key in helping Citizen Science projects to achieve their goals. At the workshop we heard a bit about the motivations of Zooniverse and MicroPasts participants. However, there is clearly a need for some modest segmentation of user motivations, in order to present them with a basket of incentives and rewards for participation. Without this, the heritage Citizen Science projects risk merely attracting the same enthusiasts that always engage in this activity, whether online or offline. That small and unrepresentative group could be greatly expanded to not only widen access to heritage but also get research projects completed more efficiently.

James Doeser is a freelance consultant and researcher. He tweets at @jamesdoeser

Posted by Chiara Bonacchi on

MicroPasts Knowledge Exchanges Workshops

Two back-to-back workshops were held on 23 September at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. The aim of the MicroPasts Knowledge Exchanges workshops was to share the practices, shortcomings and achievements experienced by the MicroPasts project and use these as fodder for wider discussion about the use and evaluation of both crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding within a broader heritage ‘ecology’.

Below is the programme, with links to videos of the presentations
Twitter discussion via #micropasts


Workshop 1 (morning)

Using crowd-based methods in a heritage ‘ecology’

08.45-09.10: Registration and coffee

09.10-09.20: Welcome

09.20-09.55: Presentation about the MicroPasts case study Chiara Bonacchi, UCL Institute of Archaeology

09.55-10.30: Discussion over Theme 1 – Crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding for Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums

Discussant 1: Adrian Babbidge, Egeria
Discussant 2: Dominic Tweddle, National Museum of the Royal Navy
Discussant 3: Luiza Sauma, Art Fund
Response from the floor

10.30-11.05: Discussion over Theme 2 – Crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding for heritage buildings and sites

Discussant 1: Ben Cowell, National trust and The Heritage Alliance
Discussant 2: Mark Webb, The Heritage Alliance, Giving to Heritage project
Discussant 3: Sally Crawford, University of Oxford, HEIR project
Response from the floor

11.05-11.20: Coffee Break

11.20-11.55: Discussion over Theme 3 – Crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding for universities and academic research in the humanities and social sciences

Discussant 1: Tim Causer, UCL Laws
Discussant 2: Jim O’Donnell, University of Oxford, Zooniverse project
Response from the floor

11.55-12.30: Discussion over Theme 4 – Funding policies for heritage crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding

Discussant 1: Hedley Swain, Arts Council England
Discussant 2: Mark Webb, The Heritage Alliance, Giving to Heritage project
Discussant 3: John Davies, Nesta
Response from the floor

12.30-13.00: Summary, final discussion and conclusion  

13.00-14.00: Lunch (provided)


 Workshop 2 (afternoon)

Evaluating heritage crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding

 14.00-14.50: Project-based presentations focussing on evaluation aims and methodologies

14.00-14.10: MicroPasts, Chiara Bonacchi, UCL Institute of Archaeology
14.10-14.20: Transcribe Bentham, Tim Causer, UCL Law
14.20-14.30: Smithsonian Transcription Centre, Meghan Ferriter, Smithsonian Institution
14.30-14.40: Zooniverse, Jim O’Donnell, University of Oxford
14.40-14.50: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, Daniel Pett, British Museum

14.50-15.30: Discussion over Theme 5 – Insights, measures, methods and ethical challenges in evaluative practices

Discussant 1: Stuart Dunn, King’s College London
Discussant 2: Mia Ridge, Open University
Discussant 3: James Doeser, Independent Consultant
Response from the floor

15.30-15.45: Coffee break

15.45-16.30: Summary, final discussion and conclusion


Posted by Chiara Bonacchi on

The Mary Rose – MicroPasts Collaboration, Week 1

On Friday 22nd May, the Mary Rose Trust and MicroPasts teams launched a collaborative 3D photo-masking pilot project on the MicroPasts crowdsourcing platform. The aim is to create 3D models for three of the museum’s artefacts. We are really grateful to MicroPasts collaborators for helping complete 37% of the application already (as of 29th May)! It is exciting to see people engaging with the collection online, and it will be interesting to discover how the 3D models are viewed, downloaded and used, once developed.

With the project now underway, we would like to take the opportunity to provide some background information on the Mary Rose, the Museum and the artefacts included as part of this first pilot project with MicroPasts.

The Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard © Hufton+Crow

The Mary Rose was a Tudor warship that sank during a battle with an invading French fleet near Portsmouth, on the South coast of England, in 1545. The hull and her contents were covered (and preserved) by the silts of the Solent. They remained there until they were rediscovered in 1971. Following one of the largest maritime excavations ever undertaken, the hull was eventually raised on 11th October 1982.

Lower Deck walkway of the Context Gallery © Hufton+Crow

In May 2013 a new purpose built museum, that reunited the hull and thousands of her artefacts, was opened to the public. The hull, at the centre of this museum, is undergoing an air drying treatment. This is the final stage of her conservation, a process that has lasted over 30 years. In 2016, the air drying will be completed, the museum will be closed while the walls surrounding the hull are taken down and the museum will then be re-opened with amazing new views of the hull throughout the building.

The current MicroPasts 3D photo-masking pilot project is based around three of the artefacts that can be seen on display in the museum. These are:

Bone angels 

The bone plaque of two angels was identified as being similar to those made in the Northern Italian workshops of the Embriachi family who produced a variety of luxury objects such as mirrors, caskets and triptychs that incorporated a series of bone or ivory plaques with stained wood and horn.

Bone angel (81A2851) – © Mary Rose Trust

Wooden tankard with lid

The staved wooden tankard was one of the most complete tankards recovered during the excavations on the Mary Rose. It is interesting to note that oak, poplar, pine, beech and willow were all used in its construction. 

Wooden tankard (81A3915.1-11) - © Mary Rose Trust

Wooden tankard (2) (81A3915.1-11) – © Mary Rose Trust


Beech wooden bowl 

The beech wooden bowl is one of 30 recovered during the excavations and it has one of the more intricate set of markings on both the inside and outside. These are thought to denote its ownership.

Wooden bowl Beech with personal markings (82A1712) - © Mary Rose Trust

Wooden bowl Beech with personal markings (82A1712) – © Mary Rose Trust

The Mary Rose team

Posted by Andrew Bevan on

Answers in the Amphoras…

Carefully-made drawings have been a fundamental way that archaeologists have recorded their finds since the dawn of archaeology as a formal academic subject at the end of the 19th century. As time has gone on, these drawings have become ever more technical in their style and standardised in their components. Sadly, this means there are fewer opportunities these days for archaeological illustrators to show off their personal artistry in making such drawings (here’s a great example). However, in contrast, this attention to standardisation means the archaeological drawings are now more easily compared to one another. A typical feature of archaeological artefact drawings today is the depiction of what an object looks like ‘in section’ or ‘in profile’. For something like a cup, bowl or storage jar, the drawing would show the thickness of the vessel body and the shape of its interior, (see below, figure 2a).

People have long used such drawings as a basis for characterising the shape of containers and other vessels found in the archaeological record, not least because such metrics can useful for dating particular vessels to particular time periods (and placing them in a ‘typology’ of vessel shapes). Furthermore, for certain vessel types, volumetric capacity is of particular interest (how much they can hold), both as a guide to how much people were cooking, storing or transporting in one go and as a way of perhaps understanding weight and capacity systems in the human past (e.g. discovering the prehistoric and historic equivalents for standard liquid measures such as our modern ‘pint’ or ‘litre’)


Figure 1. Mediterranean amphoras: (left) one of the famous early typologies of amphoras by Heinrich Dressel and (right) some examples of amphoras from Pompeii.


All of the above obsessions in archaeology come to a head for those who specialise in studying vessels such as ‘amphoras’ (figure 1).  Virginia Grace was one of the early amphora researchers who best described the surprisingly wide range of advantages that this specialised pottery form offered for shipping liquid commodities such as olive oil and wine (amongst others) around the Mediterranean. To paraphrase and extend her comments, an amphora is a clay two-handled jar whose design is specialised for maritime transport. Its elongated, symmetrical shape could be fashioned on a potter’s wheel which facilitated the production of large numbers of regular shapes. The common choice of a pointed-base made many amphoras less vulnerable to breakage and allowed them to be stacked in multiple layers in the holds of Mediterranean ships (e.g. with the bases of one layer sitting in the space between the vessels below). They could also be placed individually in stands, arrayed in groups on racks, leant against one another on wharves and in warehouses, or half-buried on the beach whenever boats stopped in more isolated coastal locations.  The design could also be carried in panniers, slung from ropes or hoisted onto the shoulder of a human porter, while an amphora’s narrow neck was perfect for sealing with a stopper and being rendered air-tight with a covering of clay or lime. The term amphora itself implies ‘two-handles’, and the combination of these two sturdy points of purchase, plus the pointed-base as a third, meant that these vessels could be easily carried by porters or controlled for pouring. It is no surprise therefore that amphoras have a really deep Mediterranean history stretching right back to at least the Middle Bronze Age (if not before) and continuing right into the Medieval period and despite rising competition from alternative transport forms such as the wooden barrel (more information on Mediterranean container history here).

For over a hundred years, archaeologists have classified different amphoras into different types based on their overall shape, surface designs (if any) and type-of-clay and these typologies have been both useful both as a dating device and as a way of understanding possible changing transport priorities through time. In the past, both producers (of amphoras and/or their liquid contents), merchants and consumers were obviously interested in knowing the volumetric capacity of an amphora (and standardising this where possible) so they were keen to standardise the shape and be able to calculate its capacity wherever possible. It was also tempting to produce eye-catching shapes and decoration that might signal the contents came from an exotic part of the Mediterranean and/or a particularly reputable source (just as there are efforts to brand olive oils and wines today via their containers and labelling). Or producers and distributors might wish to foster designs that were well-adapted for handling by dockside workers and for surviving the misfortunes of long-distance sea travel in a shiphold full of other cargo.  Regardless, amphoras show some really interesting changes in design over their 3,000+ year-old history and these changes also match in interesting ways wider changes in the nature of the Mediterranean economy, big geo-political shifts such as the rise and fall of the Roman empire and so on.


Figure 2. Four steps for building a crowd-sourced amphora model (left to right): the original line drawing, the crowd-sourced polygons with deliberate overlaps, the cleaned-up 2d polygons, and the final 3d model.


In terms of measuring amphoras, people have tried a host of different methods. They have taken simple measures such as the amphora height or width, but also complex ones such as the amphora’s centre of gravity when full, or its overall capacity (how much it could hold). The latter measure of volume can be derived directly by filling an intact example of an amphora with seeds, water, sealed bags of liquid, beans or polystyrene beads (amongst others!) or it can be estimated mathematically. In fact, mathematical estimation of volumes (and other properties) for curves, conoids, spheroids etc. has been a domain of science and engineering actively researched since at least Hellenistic and Roman times, with major figures such as Archimedes, Apollonius of Perga and Hero of Alexandria working on the problem (with the suspicion that symmetrical real-world objects such as amphoras or jars were sometimes on their minds: for example, see here).

Computer-based methods for creating such a 3D ‘solid of revolution’ from a standard 2D archaeological line drawing have been around for at least couple of decades, but it is surprising that they have not been used more systematically. Through the help of many contributors on MicroPasts, we are therefore hoping to collect 2d and 3d models of much large numbers of container types so we can compare their shapes statistically, but also so we can explore other changing properties such as their volumetric capacity (how much they could hold and how consistent these measures are through time), centre of gravity when full or empty (important for how a human porter or a draft animal might handle them) or behaviour when stacked (e.g. where, and how frequently, they might break when bumping around in a ship’s hold).

One of our current MicroPasts applications re-uses line drawings of amphoras made by Penny Copeland as part of a wonderful web resource about Roman amphoras developed by the University of Southampton and now maintained by the UK Archaeology Data Service. The goal is to enlist public help in digitising lines and polygons on top of the existing scanned drawings and thereby enabling both very good quality 2D and 3d models of these.  Figure 2 shows an example of one of Penny’s original line drawings, as well as a crowd-sourced version, a clean 2d model derived from it, and finally 3d model (all using open source software and with some great help on the automated Blender part from Tom Haines: post-processing scripts here). Once the crowd-sourced version is created the rest of the process is automatic and allows us to potentially compare a large number of amphora types. Hence, there are still plenty of important archaeological answers to be found in the amphoras and good reasons to enlist public help. If you have a spare moment, want to get some experience of GIS-style ‘vector digitising’ or just find these objects fascinating, then please lend a hand!

Posted by Daniel Pett on

Crowd-sourcing and Crowd-funding our Human Past

The MicroPasts end of first phase funding conference will be held at the Royal Geographical Society on the 31st March 2015. We look forward to welcoming you and tickets can be purchased online or via contacting us directly. The conference programme has now been finalised and features some very interesting speakers as shown below. Lunch is provided in the ticket price and there will be some free things to take away (apart from the knowledge shared) and we hope to film the speakers. Many of the speakers are on Twitter (linked to their names below) and there maybe a lively back channel to accompany the event, which will be archived.

09.30-09.45 Welcome (Andrew Bevan, UCL)

09.45-10.30 Crowd-fuelled archaeology and history online: an introduction to MicroPasts (Chiara Bonacchi and Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, UCL)

10.30-10.55 Curatorial practice and the crowd-sourcing of museum archives and objects (Daniel Pett, Jennifer Wexler and Neil Wilkin, British Museum)

10.55-11.20 PyBossa: Helping citizens and scientists to collaborate (Daniel Lombraña González, PyBossa)

11.20-11.35 Coffee break (provided)

11.35-12.00 Crowdsourcing archaeological data through the Heritage Together project (Helen Miles, Aberystwyth University; Katharina Moeller and Andrew Wilson (Bangor University)

12.00-12.25 From curated space to personal space: crowdsourcing and the museum experience (Stuart Dunn, KCL)

12.25-12.50 Experiences from the Smithsonian Institution Transcription Center (Meghan Ferriter, Smithsonian Institution Transcription Center)

12.50-13.15 If you build it, will they come? (Maiya Pina-Dacier, DigVentures)

13.15-14.15 Lunch (provided)

14.15-14.30 The Ur Project. Reunification and integration (Birger Helgestad, British Museum)

14.30-14.45 Worthington G. Smith: his haunts and relics (Claire Harris, British Museum)

14.45-15.00 Reviewing MicroPasts (Lisa Cardy, MicroPasts)

15.00-15.15 Reviewing MicroPasts (Hugh Fiske, MicroPasts)

15.15-15.30 Break

15.30-15.45 3D Scans in the Wild (Thomas Flynn, multimedia designer)

15.45-16.00 Process and experimentation in making 3D prints of museum objects (Stefano Pratesi, ThinkSee3D)

16.00-16.15 Do Touch! Archaeology and 3D printing in the Classroom (Jordan Hassell and Oliver Hutchinson, UCL)

16.15-16.30 3D models and digital futures at the British Museum (Suzy Hogg, British Museum)

16.30-17.00 Discussion

17:00 Adjourn to a pub for further conversation







Posted by lisacardy on


I’ve been a MicroPasts contributor for around two months now, a good time to write this post about why I wanted to be one of the ‘sourced’ crowd and what I’ve got out of it so far. To begin with, here’s my brief summary of MicroPasts: it’s a web-based collection of archaeological projects that anyone can get involved with. The MicroPasts site hosts lots of content, some of which I’ll return to later, but let me start with ‘crowdsourcing’.

The MicroPasts team have produced a number of applications that can be worked on through a web browser. All I needed to do to get started was register some basic details and follow a tutorial about what I needed to do with some handy hints and tips. Typical volunteer activities or ‘applications’ include transcribing digitised hand written British Museum index cards and editing photographs of Bronze Age objects to create outlines (or ‘masks) that can then be processed to create 3D models of the original objects. You can see the latest set of applications here. Whichever MicroPasts application you decide (I particularly enjoyed drawing lines around Bronze Age objects….) the overall outcome is the same: your manual input feeds into a growing body of openly available digitised data that anyone can access via their computer. If the warm feeling inside that ‘doing your bit’ gives you isn’t enough, you also get a name check in the Community area. If you want to read more on why open data is so important, even more so for archaeology, have a look at this post.

One of a set of photographs of the palstave I worked with when creating a 3D model

One of a set of photographs of the palstave I worked with when creating a 3D model

After graduating in Archaeological Science (a long time ago) and a few unsuccessful attempts at an archaeology-based career, I did an MSc in Information Science. This was with the intention of working in the heritage sector, but I have been working as a librarian ever since. I want to shift my career back towards archaeology, but without losing the skills I’ve gained in the library profession, especially those around digital archiving. Archaeology has a long history of openness and sharing (the first OA ejournal was ‘Internet Archaeology’, way back in 1996) and I knew there’d be lots of opportunities to volunteer on digs. However I wanted to focus on what was possible digitally, even during my degree I’d always preferred the post excavation side of archaeology. I’d been considering this for a while, having been very inspired by the 2012 conference ‘Digital Engagement in Archaeology’ and following some key contributors on Twitter ever since I’d been aware of MicroPasts when it launched at the end of 2013.

Having completed some MicroPasts applications I decided to get in touch with Chiara about doing something beyond working on the web-based applications, something substantial to put on my CV. After some emailing and meeting up with Chiara and Adi, I joined a team of other contributors creating 3D models of Bronze Age artefacts from the outputs of the photomasking application. With lots of help and advice from the MicroPasts forum, so far I’ve produced two 3D models of palstaves (a type of a Bronze Age axe). At the time of writing, I am just about to start working on my 3rd model.

A tweet announcing the finished 3D model

A tweet announcing the finished 3D model

I’ve recently completed two application forms, one for a job and one for a research post, in archaeological areas, both benefitting from enhanced archaeological credentials on my CV from my involvement with MicroPasts. So now there’s more open research data out there for anyone who’s interested in Bronze Age artefacts (Robert Kaleta is planning on using the models as part of his PhD research) and for me, some more skills and experience to boost my career moves.

There’s been a huge rise in community and public archaeology and I think MicroPasts is perfect for people like me who aren’t employed in the archaeology sector and want to get involved in something other than excavating. Presumably this is also true of the 800 registered users in the MicroPasts community ‘crowd’ working on the applications. But how does archaeology benefit? You can see the latest outputs in the data centre : there are now more than fifty openly available 3D models of Bronze Age objects that didn’t exist before the MicroPasts platform launched and any researcher can view digitised versions of index cards without having to travel to the British Museum.