prehistoric metal finds

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 micropasts.org and check it out? If you have any questions or feedback, we’re happy to help!

Yours,

The MicroPasts team:

Adi, Chiara, Andy and Dan