metal objects

A day in the life of the MicroPasts project

Writing to you from the UCL Institute of Archaeology on a rather grim London day, the MicroPasts team does not rest for a moment! Our project has been engaging the public with real academic and museum-related tasks, by creating a fun and dynamic crowd-sourcing platform with several applications. Teaming up with the British Museum, our first tasks were related to a magnificent collection of British Bronze Age metal finds (covering ca. 2500-800BC). We started off with two major types of tasks: the first one is document transcription, and the second is the careful masking of object photos, as a step in the process of 3D modelling.

But what can contributors actually do on our platform?

If you like the challenge of deciphering old handwriting and the digitisation of beautifully handcrafted index cards, one of the several transcription application could be just for you. Each application actually represents a real physical drawer located at the British Museum. These drawers form the National Bronze Implements Index – a catalogue of about 30,000 index cards of metal objects discovered mainly in Britain during the 19th and 20th centuries. These have never been digitised, so you can help British Museum curators to get this really important job done! The transcription application enables you to type the text you see on these cards (such as object type, measurements, collection, date of discovery, condition, etc.), as well as marking its findspot on a dynamic map (if exact location of discovery is known). A digital database of all these finds will complement the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, which includes a large part of metalwork discovered in England and Wales since 2003. This will result in a mega-database of prehistoric metal finds – probably the most comprehensive in the world!

An index card of one of the Arreton Down Hoard objects

An index card of one of the Arreton Down Hoard objects

There’s another type of application for you, if you fancy 3D modelling. We have three photo-masking applications – two are of Bronze Age metal objects such as axes or spears, and one of an Egyptian funerary figurine – a shabti. But what is photo-masking anyway? It is an important step in the creation of 3D models using Structure-from-Motion technique. With SfM, you don’t need to be a 3D expert to create high-quality 3D models. You need to take photos (using a regular camera!) of an object of your liking, or even a landscape feature, following simple guidelines. The object should be photographed from about 40-50 angles (or more if you really want to), with sufficient overlap. And this is where photo-masking comes in. Before processing your photos via 3D-modelling software (e.g. PhotoScan or VisualSfM), it is much better (especially for artefact-scale work) to tell the software where the object ends and where the background begins. Separating the object from the background can be done by drawing an outline polygon of the object. This can be done on the MicroPasts platform! Then the raw images and their ‘masks’ can be uploaded to the software, and you can go on and create your 3D model by building a dense cloud, mesh and texture. While the MicroPasts team are still doing most of these things – you can help us by creating really good quality photo masks. We will then create the models and make them available to you!

A screenshot of our photo-masking application - this spear is from the Arreton Down Hoard

A screenshot of our photo-masking application – this spear is from the Arreton Down Hoard

But MicroPasts is not only about helping out with tasks – it’s also about learning and skill building. If you’re interested in the themes covered by our project, you can learn more about them on our Learning Resources page. We regularly write blog posts and tutorials on topics such as 3D modelling or British prehistory. In addition, we have a community forum where you could ask us anything you like, and if you have ideas for research using the data created on MicroPasts – we are really keen to hear. We are keen to develop and take forward MicroPasts with our community! Obviously, all data created on our platform is freely accessible for anyone – just have a look at our Data Centre page. We’re also working on another component – a crowd-funding platform, where joint academic-community projects could raise funds from interested members of the public. You will be able to contribute to something that you are passionate about, or start a crowd-funding appeal of your own.

So if you’re also rained in, why not go to and check it out? If you have any questions or feedback, we’re happy to help!


The MicroPasts team:

Adi, Chiara, Andy and Dan

Day of Archaeology – LAARC Lottery Part 4 (Metal Finds)

Now onto our Metal store – this entire store holds a host of treasures, and more coffin nails than you’d care to imagine!

Our first lucky object from shelf 496 comes from site ABO92 – Abbott’s Lane, excavated in 1992 by the then Museum of London Archaeology Service (MOLAS). Being a waterfront site this excavation produced a wealth of metal objects – all surviving due to the aerobic conditions of burial.

Our object is a medieval pilgrim badge that depicts the mitred head of Thomas Becket dating to c.1530 – 1570. An additional badge of better condition was also excavated from the site. The cult of Thomas Becket was one of the most popular in London during the medieval period – not surprising as he was also considered the city’s unofficial patron saint. These badges would have been collected at the site of pilgrimage – this one may have therefore travelled all the way from Canterbury in Kent, before being lost or perhaps purposefully discarded. The badge is a miniature imitation of the reliquary of a life-sized mitred bust of Becket that was held in Canterbury Cathedral.


Lead pilgrim badge

Lead pilgrim badge, depicting the mitred head of Thomas Becket dating to c.1530 – 1570, and from shelf 496 of our metal store


Publication photograph of a similar pilgrim badge to the one found on our shelf

Publication photograph of a similar pilgrim badge to the one found on our shelf (MOLAS Monograph 19)

Our second object, stored on shelf 593, is from the more recent excavation SAT00. Found in the upper stratigraphy this is a beautifully preserved pocket sundial.

Copper sundial

Copper pocket sundial, from shelf 593


A great source for comparison with these metal artefacts is the Portable Antiquities Scheme which holds the records of thousands of objects discovered, mainly through metal detecting, from across the country. Our sundial, excavated from the site of St. Paul’s Cathedral Crypt (SAT00), has a direct parallel with one found in Surrey.

Quoting from PAS object entry SUR-7790B4:

“These sundials are known as simple ring dials or poke dials (‘poke’ being an archaic word for pocket). The sliding collar would be set into position for the month of the year and, when the dial was suspended vertically, the sun would shine through the hole in the lozenge-shaped piece, through the slot, and onto the interior of the ring. The hour could then be read by looking at the closest gradation mark to the spot of light on the interior of the ring.”

Next it’s our Textile artefacts. Again, segregated and stored in a controlled environment, this store is humidified to preserve these important materials. Tweet using #dayofarch or #LAARC, or message us below, a number between 784 and 910 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds…

Archaeometallurgy in the university – a PhD student’s day


My name is Ruth Fillery-Travis, and I am an archaeometallurgist. That is, I use scientific analytical techniques to examine metal objects and the evidence of their production. I’m in a sub-discipline of a sub-discipline, as archaeometallurgy is a part of archaeometry/archaeological science, which is often considered a sub-discipline of archaeology. Luckily enough all the sub-sub-sub stops there, because I’m in the UK – if I were in the US archaeology itself might be considered a sub discipline of anthropology!

It might seem strange to be in such a niche subject area, but it fits my interests perfectly – I wanted to be a physicist right until I started studying it at university! After that I switched to Classical Archaeology, which had zero science and a lot of critical analysis of art, architecture and archaeological objects. Archaeometallurgy allows me to combine those two areas – I get to look at sometimes quite stunningly beautiful classical objects and not just analyse their physical appearance but use scientific techniques to analyse what they were made of and how they were made – like the snake ring adjacent.

Snake head of gold Roman finger ring

I’m currently reading for a PhD at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. I started in 2009 – before that I worked in local council archaeology as a records assistant on the ‘Sites and Monuments’ or (in more modern terms) ‘Heritage Environment Records’ of Norfolk and then Greater London. Nothing to do with archaeometallurgy – but then that’s a common problem with studying archaeology. If you can get a job in the discipline at all – which is tough – then it often isn’t in the area you originally trained in. But the advantage of that is that you can gain some fantastic experience – certainly my time working on the Greater London records was fascinating.

Between those jobs (more…)