Ancient Egypt

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

Analysing and Digging Amarna

A day late – but I was under particular time consraint both today and yesterday. My university requires every current PhD student to submit a “substantial piece of written work” by the end of today, and I can now say – it’s done! I submitted a chapter on the spatial analysis of artefacts relating to high-status industries found within the Main City North, a suburb of the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna. Using the awesome open source GIS package Quantum GIS have been able to establish where in this suburb industrial activity took place, where new, unknown working areas may be located, and, to a certain extent, how raw materials as well as finished goods have been distributed. My research aims and objectives can be found on my website.

The distribution of metal artefacts in the Main City North

The site, which is located in Middle Egypt, is currently being excavated by Barry Kemp and the Amarna Trust, this has been the case since the 1970s, but it has been subject to excavations since the 1890s, when Petrie undertook work at Amarna.   I was extremely lucky to participate in the Spring 2012 excavation season at Amarna. A preliminary report, written by Barry Kemp can be found here, and I have also published my own photos on Picasa.

The house of Pawah at Amarna

The famous bust of Nefertiti was discovered on December 6th 1911 by Ludwig Borchardt and his team within the house of the sculptor Thutmose (within the Main City North) and was subsequently brought to Berlin, which is why the 100th anniversary of its discovery will be marked with an exhibition on Amarna, which I am looking forward to visit.

Databases and Materials

Back from library, 9 journals in hand. Spent far too much time trying to figure out how to link my Mac to the photocopier so that I can send scans from it back to myself. More and more I find that I do not like paper copies of articles. I much prefer digital versions that I can then edit using PDFExpert on my iPad. This allows me to export all my notes and highlights separately (with page numbers attached), and paste it them into Endnote.

More tedious emails to deal with, and must photocopy and submit those PhD forms!

Computers now all updated, so that this weekend and next week I can really get cracking finalising the data in my database. Then I can start playing with the numbers, looking for patterns and correlations. If I were better with spreadsheets, this would be more fun—as it stands I need to find someone who IS good at it to help. The goal is data-driven research, rather than strictly being hypothesis-driven. I don’t want to miss any possibly important patterns by focussing on pre-conceptions… more can be found on my usual blog The next few weeks will be really hectic—I have an apprentice to help map the findspots (there over 700 fragments to deal with) and input the data on the replicas we made.

grins, here is some artwork I made for a ‘research as art’ competition held here at Swansea University. It didn’t win, but I think it encapsulates what I am working on …

Demon Blasters and Fiery Goddesses: Ancient Egytian Clay Cobra figurines 

Demon Blasters and Fiery Goddesses: Ancient EgypPan Clay Cobra figurines

“Who am I? Broken now in pieces, a fragment of ancient Egyptian religion, ritual and magic.
Who shaped my serpent form from soft clay found at the banks of the Nile, so long ago? I was passed through and transformed by the element of fire…
I spit fire and flame, illuminating the darkness, a conflagration invoked against demons that trouble the night. Imbued with the power of the fiery goddess, the Egyptians worshipped me, in the Delta, across the Mediterranean Coast from Libya to Lebanon, they chose me to take on their travels. Today you wonder: Who made me? Who prayed to me? Whose fears did I soothe? How many demons did I destroy? How many lives did I touch? Who broke me? And why …”
These figurines provide clues to how the Ancient Egyptians coped with the vicissitudes of daily life, in many ways not so very different from ours.


Now, off to another university meeting—this one on e-learning.

Archaeology Summer Schools

Spent the day running annual summer schools on Ancient Egypt and the Near East for Bloomsbury Summer School at University College London. My passion is public engagement and lifelong learning. We run six different 5-day summer courses every year, open to anyone with an interest in Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Near East, of all ages (16 up) and backgrounds. Friday was the last day of this year’s summer schools – the final day of ‘Lofty Places and Sacred Space: archaeology in the Ancient Near East’ and a course on Ancient Egyptian literature. At UCL we are privileged to house the extraordinary collection of archaeological material in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Our summer courses often include object-based learning in this very special museum, and gallery talks in the grander galleries of the British Museum. Now it’s time to start thinking about which archaeologists/curators/academics to invite to teach next year’s summer schools. We also have our winter course taught in Egypt to look forward to – a week in Aswan with visits to archaeological sites in the mornings and lectures in the afternoons – can’t wait!


Well worth a visit ...