Archaeology for everyone: The MicroPasts Project

I’m afraid I’ve been rather quiet on the blog front for quite some time, I’m blaming being busy and a serious case of writer’s block, which seems to be gradually subsiding (I’ve found myself lying awake plotting new blogs, HURRAH!)

This blog is about an exciting initiative that has been bubbling away for a while, which has been launched this month: the MicroPasts project. A revolutionary way to contribute to archaeological research from the comfort of your living room, no trowels required!

The project is a combined crowd-sourcing and funding platform, developed by University College London, the British Museum and the Arts and Heritage Research Council. I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of the people behind the project while volunteering with the British Museum and I’ve even had a rummage through the index, using it to research material first hand. The project is now in full swing, with a blossoming community beavering away transcribing index cards and photo masking palstaves.

The website is simple and easy to navigate, with clear and accessible information about the different applications, overall aims and potential of the platform. The project’s tagline wonderfully summarises what it is and what they want to achieve:

A community platform for conducting, designing and funding research into our human past.

One of the most striking aspects of the platform is that it’s for everyone. It’s not easy to tailor information for a wide audience (I imagine, at this early stage, also a mystery audience); catering for everyone from professionals to novices is a tricky balance, but they’ve managed it.  No prior knowledge is needed, the tutorials tell you everything you need to know and off you go, easy peasy!

Over the past few days, I’ve been getting to grips with the various applications, the current choices include transcribing the Bronze Age Implement Index drawers or Photo Masking Bronze Age objects and so far I’ve tried both. I must say, it’s brought out my competitive side, and I am currently (very proudly) ranked at No.4 on the leaderboard (undoubtedly, not for long).

It seems such a sensible way of creating information and resources; rather than a looming, monstrous mountain of work for one individual, it becomes a quick and painless way of creating a massive amount of information (kind of like reading Anna Karenina on a Kindle). 

Anyone can create an account (or not, entirely up to you) and chip away at the index, when they fancy it or trace around a lovely palstave if the mood strikes. It’s an easy way to become part of something with enormous potential and a different way to spend some free time. Go and check it out at micropasts.org.

 

 

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Would you like a cup of tea, Father?

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Tea has become a part of our national identity; an essential luxury of daily life. It wakes us up each morning, punctuates our working day and provides warming comfort in the cold winter months.

Ritualised cups of tea have become a part of my life, in times of celebration, sadness, stress or pretty much any occasion, I make tea (as no doubt, my British and Irish readers can relate to!). I admit that I find myself slightly alarmed when someone refuses a cup of tea.

Despite the simple pivotal pleasure of tea, I confess to know very little about the tea trade or it’s rise to popularity. So I took advantage of a rare Saturday off and headed out to visit the Cutty Sark in Greenwich.

The Cutty Sark has lead a long and tempestuous life. She was commissioned by John Willis also know has ‘White Hat Willis’ (because, you guessed it, he wore a white hat) to join the family’s shipping business. She was designed by the wonderfully named Hercules Linton for the tea trade; her shallow hold was capable of navigating sandy ports but wide enough to accommodate 10,000 tea chests.

Unfortunately few tea chests have survived due to their fragile paper decoration, but a replica has been recreated and is shown in the photo below.

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Imitation tea chests are stacked to create the walls and floor in the hold, cleverly displaying information, while creating nooks and crannies for children to explore. Tea quotations are stern along the floor, each one conveying our deep-seated love of tea.

Throughout the hold and below deck, child friendly videos and objects to touch, guess and even smell are scattered throughout the clipper, keeping both children and adults captivated and entertained. I love the innovative features like the sea-swaying benches.

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Stepping into the deck, faced with the bracing January breeze and the Thames before us, the effect was startlingly like being on board a moving boat. Recreated cabins, a kitchen and dining room cleverly depict the realities of life on board (complete with an oinking wooden pig).

I found myself feeling very grateful that this ship has been both restored (1954-1957) and conserved (2006-2012) for the next generation to appreciate and admire. The result of their hard labour is beautiful and I can’t recommend a visit highly enough. A perfect way to escape the city and discover more about London all at once.

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Obsession or fascination? Dreaming about artefacts

Sometimes, it is quite surprising the events that impact upon our lives.

Everyone, to some extent, is a product of their environment; we are raised with our parents ideals, we follow the trends of our peers. We are influenced by the wonderful teachers who inspire us to follow our dreams and by those we wish to prove wrong.

Everyday we make numerous tiny decisions, perhaps some of which could change our lives; a sudden urge to move to Australia on a cold and rainy day or maybe just what to have for lunch.

My (slightly laboured) point is that our decisions and life choices are the product of our experiences, relationships and interactions with the world around us. For me, many of my life and career choices I’ve made since I graduated from my undergraduate degree, can be traced back to an archaeology essay.

The essay in question was titled; Chalcolithic and Bronze Age copper mining in Ireland: How did it develop? What was its economic importance? Was metallurgy invented independently in Ireland or where did influences come from?

The lecturer who set the essay, probably doesn’t remember who I am, or have any recollection of the essay I wrote (in all honesty, it probably wasn’t very memorable). However, it sparked my interest and I researched and read with the panic that only a third year student can empathise with.

Something must’ve worked, because I happily received a first in the module, firmly establishing my interest in metallurgy, but more importantly I stumbled upon the artefact that was going to form the basis of my MA dissertation (which would eventually consume my every waking hour and even haunt my dreams for several months).

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Images adapted from Harbison’s 1969 ‘The axes of  the early Bronze Age in Ireland’. 

This artefact was the bronze flat axes of the early Bronze Age, particularly those with decoration. Undoubtedly, my enjoyment of researching this area encouraged me to pursue further study at UCL and since then, the desire to research and understand these lovely axes has been the starting point for two volunteering projects, both at the Pitt Rivers Museum and the British Museum.

I’m still as interested as ever, who knows where my fascination with these artefacts will lead me next!

Goodbyes

Perhaps you may not have noticed the shameful neglect of my blog recently; despite my best intentions, I’ve been rather busy.

My last post was about starting my collections job and as the ‘Excavating Pitt-Rivers’ Project ended last week, so did my job.

I’ve spent the past six weeks working exclusively on the Irish material from the founding collection. Due to the short time I was able to dedicate to the collection full time, unfortunately I wasn’t able to catalogue and update everything. I decided to focus on stone artefacts, where my work would have the most impact.

Cataloguing is a necessary task in any museum; with database experience frequently appearing on essential criteria for collections positions. It may not always be glamourous or wildly exciting on a daily basis, but it amazing what you see when you really look at something.

How often in life, do we stop and study the everyday objects that contribute to our lives? I’m the first to admit that I don’t.

The same applies to archaeologists, curators and others in heritage roles; do we really understand and appreciate the artefacts that pass through our hands? In a world of tight deadlines and research pressures, the big picture is often the focus; the small individual items (unless exceptional) vanish into the collection they make up.

This has made it such a privilege to work on such an interesting project, with wonderful individuals, taking time to examine everything from tiny arrowheads to quern stones. I’ve loved my time at the Pitt Rivers Museum and would like to take the opportunity to thank everyone there for their support (and the mountains of cake). I’m looking forward to new possibilities and challenges in the new year.

I hope you have had a lovely Christmas and I wish you health and happiness for the year ahead.

The golden ticket

Although my internship at the Pitt Rivers Museum finished at the end of September, I have been travelling to Oxford one day a week to catalogue the Irish material of the founding collection. I volunteered to work with the material because I love working at the museum but also to pursue my own research interests.

However, last week, I confess, I was disheartened about my work at the museum. I could handle the expense and the four hour round commute (barely!) but what annoyed me most: working only one day a week was barely scratching the surface of the project I’d undertaken. I’d started something I wasn’t going to be able to finish; my cataloging would vanish into the abyss of the database, useless to anyone.

Needless to say, I wasn’t the cheeriest person in Oxford last Tuesday! Regardless, I was absorbed in catalouging some rather lovely polished stone axes, when my boss came and asked me to follow him for a talk.

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Do you remember the sudden rush of panic when a teacher asks to speak to you alone? Well that’s exactly what was rushing through my head as I followed him to the administrator’s office. By this point the fear that I’d made some sort of catastrophic error on the database was decreasing, so panic swiftly evaporating, I listened.

Occasionally, you hear these seemingly miraculous stories of volunteering somewhere and they employ you. Well, I won the golden ticket and today I sat at my desk as happy as Charlie Bucket, on my first day as a paid employee.

Unfortunately it’s not forever and my role will expire when the ‘Excavating Pitt-Rivers’ project ends at the end of December. However, it is a wonderful feeling to know that the work I’ve done has been noticed and appreciated.

All you volunteers out there, there’s hope for us all!

(Speaking of volunteering, I managed to cram some in with the British Museum into my schedule, so stay tuned for a new blog soon!)

Flints, forgeries and dodgy dealings

Flints are a somewhat acquired taste.

They are by comparison, common and often seemingly unremarkable, even to archaeologists. I confess, in the past, I’ve never really found them massively interesting.

My prevailing memories of flints involve a freezing field trip to Madman’s Window on the breezy north coast of Ireland, trying (and failing miserably) to knap flint. Closely followed by attempting to produce archaeologically correct drawings of flint tools, which always seemed a little wonky.

However, during my internship, I began to see the beauty of flints.

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Sometimes I caught myself thinking (when cataloguing the 50th flint of the day), “Not more stones!!” But I was quick to remind myself that it wasn’t just a stone, It was a carefully constructed tool, made by someone thousands of years ago, which predates every other type of artefact. It was this thought and a quiet respect for anyone who could produce a delicate and deadly arrowhead, from flint-knapping (I don’t know if you’ve tried it, but it is EXTREMELY difficult), which made me change my mind about flints.

Pitt-Rivers and his contemporaries collected numerous flints, so many that they would likely appear on one of those hoarding TV programmes today; I can only imagine how cross their wives were as they arrived home with another box of dirty stones!

More relevant than their relationships, is the interest these collectors had in the artefacts they were amassing. This was more than a passing hobby, but instead a fascination; they were interested in how they were made.

This resulted in the first wave of experimental archaeologists, individuals began to make their own replica tools, calling them forgeries (however without the intent of deception). Naturally, they copied various flint tools, with varying degrees of success, but more significant than what they were making, was their increased understanding of how these tools were crafted.

This leaves the dodgy dealings, which were conducted by an equally dodgy character, who has a number of names, including ‘Fossil Willy’ and ‘Shirtless’, amongst many others, but he is now most famous for being Flint Jack.

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Born Edward Simpson in 1815, to an average and unexceptional family in the Yorkshire village of Sleights, he became the most infamous counterfeiter of the Victorian era. His forgeries deceived even the brightest archaeological minds of the day; making their way into the collections of numerous private collectors, such as Pitt-Rivers but also many museum curators, with his forgeries even ending up at the British Museum (how embarrassing!).

He was not always a scoundrel, his knowledge was acquired innocently enough, through his service to Dr Young, a historian and geologist, with whom he collected fossils. Like so many before him, he fell in with the wrong crowd, when someone showed him his first arrowhead, asking if he could recreate it.

So began a life of deceit; wandering the country, selling his flint tools and various other artefacts. Eventually, he was discovered and even ended up presenting his manufacturing techniques to the collectors and curators he had previously duped!

There is much more information on this loveable rogue than I have summarised here. You can read more about him here  http://www.scarboroughsmaritimeheritage.org.uk/ajackflint.php

DO NOT TOUCH!

You know you’re working in a pretty cool place, when you’re told the procedure for stabbing yourself with an arrow.

Naturally, the most sensible situation is not to cut yourself in the first place but in case you were wondering, if the worst does happen and you break the skin with a potentially poisonous arrow, take yourself AND the arrow to the hospital.

This is just one of the risks (albeit a slightly bizarre one) of working with such a varied collection. Arrows are just one of the potentially harmful objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum, danger awaits around every corner! Lead objects quietly producing poisonous lead oxide, mercury treated metal lingering in particular drawers and noxious pesticides in cabinets alongside the items they were used to protect from artefact munching nasties.

Who knew museum work was such a dangerous minefield!

Although some objects are potentially dangerous to us, we present numerous risks to them. One of my greatest fears is to drop something priceless and have it shatter into smithereens.

Therefore to prevent any disasters, everyone who is regularly handling museum objects is trained to do so. During the internship, I was trained by two lovely conservators about the specific risks and handling procedures of the Pitt Rivers collection.

Handling objects is often common sense, for instance, don’t eat or drink near objects or chuck them around, support the object with both hands and generally don’t grab it by any potentially wobbly bits, to name a few.

An essential part of handling is to create a suitable handling environment, so to protect artefacts from any potential butter-fingers moments, all surfaces are padded with foam. I mean everything; the trays to transport things, the trolley to transport the trays and my desk. Gloves are also worn at all times when handling objects, (not those white cotton gloves you see on TV), strong nitrile gloves are worn to stop me leaving greasy fingerprints on everything but also to protect me from any potential object nasties.

This delightfully exciting photo depicts the fetching purple nitrile gloves and a foam padded trolley. 

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It was during my handling lesson that I learned of a particular nasty that can cause devastation to a collection, the humble moth.

You may have been unfortunate enough to have had your favourite festive jumper nibbled on by moths, but imagine that on a bigger scale, rare and wonderful items collected from around the globe, destroyed by moth larvae. It’s both sad and (on a slightly more immature note) gross.

Preventative measures are taken to combat potential moth problems, regular monitoring searching for fras (or moth poo) and pheromone traps are spaced around the museum. Thankfully conservators are winning the war.

On a slightly sad note, my internship at the museum has now come to an end. However, I’m staying on at the museum on a more casual basis to catalogue the Irish material of the founding collection (wayhey!) which no doubt I’ll blog about soon.