Crowdsourcing Science

Today at the Virginia Museum of Natural History I am preparing materials for a project that I am calling “Crowdsourcing Science.” This all started last fall when I was fortunate to be offered the opportunity to excavate with archaeologists from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and volunteers from the Archeological Society of Virginia (ASV) at the Great Neck Site, located in Virginia Beach, Virginia.


One of the features encountered during excavation was a pit densely packed with with shell and bone.  We decided to bring all of the material from the feature back to the museum for flotation. The result was 19 gallon-sized bags of flotation heavy fraction containing lots of fauna, some plant remains, a small amount of pottery, and (so far) a few lithic flakes.


We have started sorting the flotation at the lab but quickly realized that the volume of material would take months, if not years to complete. Besides the large volume of shell, we have already sorted out crab, drum teeth, gar scales, limpets, ray tooth plates and vertebra, and thousands of fish vertebra.


The crowd sourcing idea came about as the result of discussions about an activity I was doing with a group of high school students. The students came to the museum for a day of activities. They learned about the site, they helped with the flotation of a sample, then they helped sort a dry sample we had previously floted. They got quite a bit of sorting done and I couldn’t help but wish that I could have more groups of people help sort the flotation samples.


Fortunately, I happen to know an organization that has groups of people who would be interested – the Archaeological Society of Virginia. The ASV has chapters all over Virginia. Some members helped excavate the site and many of the members who were not in the field are still interested in the project. They can’t all come to me – Virginia is a pretty big state – but perhaps I could come up with a way for the samples to go to them. The next challenge was that while I could give them a presentation and start the sorting process with them, I can’t meet with them all regularly to work on the identifications as they sort. That’s when I came up with the idea of the “Identification Kits.”

Below you can see one of the Identification Kits developed for assisting with flotation sorting. As we work on sorting flotation in the lab, I pull an example or two of each type of thing we are finding, label them, put them in plastic boxes, and create sets for groups to use.


The boxes in each kit can be laid out and available for viewing by anyone helping sort the flotation samples.


To date I have four groups signed up to assist with sorting flotation. After I have given them each a presentation, the group will receive a kit, a gallon bag of material to sort, and lots of plastic bags to store things in when they are done.  Of course, then I’ll have all of those bags of specimens to identify, but I’ll deal with that problem later.



Taking the Iron Age to the Romans: Researching Iron Age finds for an open day at Rockbourne Roman Villa

Today I’m working at Hampshire Cultural Trust with Dave Allen. I’m lucky because my visit times with the regular weekly volunteer day at the Archaeology Stores, managed by the Curator of Archaeology, David Allen.

To find out more about the work of David and the team, visit their excellent blog, which has a new post every Monday.

Hampshire Archaeology blog:

Nicole Beale

Two of the Trust’s volunteers, Peter and Jane, have spent the morning working through a collection of artefacts from a late Iron Age site near to Rockbourne.

Peter and Jane checking objects against the archive inventory

The site was excavated in the mid-1970s as part of a British Gas pipeline being installed, and our intrepid volunteers have been doing some detective work to try to make connections between the objects from the stores here at Chilcomb and the paper archive which was published some time ago.

Objects need to be located and then checked. This is also a great opportunity to re-pack some of the more fragile objects.

Rockbourne Roman Villa is run by the Trust and this weekend will be hosting a family fun day. The event organisers want to celebrate the area’s Iron Age connections, and so the team at Chilcomb have been set to task to find objects to showcase on the day.

In the first few boxes, they had already found some great objects to be taken up to Rockbourne for visitors to see.

Lots to work through!

In one of the boxes, Jane unpacks a huge tankard. It’s much larger than we had all expected and lots of jokes about the serious business of beer-drinking in the Iron Age ensue.

Jane finds an Iron Age tankard

The huge tankard

Unpacking the tankard

Next, they unpack fragments of a kiln lip. On the underside there are clear finger-marks, left from where the clay had been quickly shaped.

The kiln rim

The pair spend some time focussing on the profile of a Late Iron Age large pot that is in several parts, and manage to piece it back together. It will provide a great prop for showing younger visitors how archaeologists can infer pot shapes from diagnostic sherds.

Hang on a minute, I think there’s a good profile here…

Does this go here?

Now we’ve got it!

Tucked into one of the boxes is a nice example of a spindle whorl and also a small box which contains a bronze pin, probably from a brooch.

The brooch pin (you can just see the spindle whorl under Jane’s right hand)

A big pot!

Still plenty left to unpack and check

Peter and Jane

We’ll create labels for all of these objects and then transport them up to Rockbourne in time for the event on Sunday. Do come along if you’re in the area.

More about the event:

Nicole Beale