Thousands log on to transcribe handwritten catalogue dating back to 18th century and put 30,000 ancient objects online
A 3D plastic model of a 3,000-year-old bronze axe – stored in the British Museum since it was found more than 30 years ago at Jevington, East Sussex – has been printed out in a public library in Washington DC through a unique experiment in crowdsourcing archaeology.
Volunteers worldwide are logging on to help transcribe more than 30,000 handwritten catalogue cards dating back to the late 18th century, and making digital photographs of thousands of ancient bronze objects so they can be stitched together to form 3D images.
The catalogue records and the images – which are freely available in return for the volunteers’ help and are starting to appear on T-shirts and as miniature axe-head jewellery – will form one of the largest databases of prehistoric metalwork in the world.
There will be no copyright on the objects or the information, and the project is entirely built on open-source software, so could be copied anywhere. Producing the axe at an archaeology open day in Washington DC was the idea of volunteer Joseph Koivisto, a research assistant at the Catholic University of America.
Daniel Pett, of the British Museum, who jointly leads the MicroPast project with Andrew Bevan, of University College London, said: “There’s something quite magical about the idea of an object that is still safely in our stores being given to a child to hold and experience so far away.”
Neil Wilkin, curator of the bronze age collections at the British Museum, finds the enthusiasm of the volunteers, who include students, amateur archaeologists, office workers, doctors and teachers, heartwarming. “Opening the treasures of the bronze age to the widest public is why I get up,” he recently tweeted.
Some of the volunteers have completed only a few tasks while others are becoming hooked. The busiest is Joellen McGann – thought to be from the US – who joined on day one, and to date has completed 2,905 tasks.
The index cards, many with hand-drawn illustrations, make up a catalogue which was once state of the art and maintained by Wilkin’s predecessors.
It was founded in 1913 – but incorporated much older records – and moved to Bloomsbury in the 1920s. In the digital era it was increasingly falling out of use. The cards had been recorded as digital photographs, but could not be searched online until the wealth of information they held about the objects, including where and when they were found, was transcribed.
Wilkin said museum staff would have taken years to do the job, and the funding would probably never have been found. The crowdsourcing was launched in April, with a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and is on target to complete the project within a year.
The information will be added to the huge Portable Antiquities database – recording archaeological finds made by members of the public, mainly with metal detectors – which will soon record the millionth object since it was launched as a pilot scheme in 1997.