Crowdsourcing Archaeology: An Interview with MicroPasts


If like us you’re interested (or even obsessed!) with all things innovative and archaeological, you’ll probably have noticed the new MicroPasts project making a huge impact over the past few months.

DV have been huge supporters of this effort since the beginning, and in fact we sit on the MicroPasts Advisory Board – another great way to stay in touch with colleagues, be close to exciting projects, and of course have plenty of tea and biccies!

Like DV, MicroPasts provides a crowdsourcing and crowdfunding platform, so we thought it was a good time to check in with the team to hear more about what’s going on now that they’ve been accepting projects for awhile. To find out, we asked Chiara Bonacchi, the AHRC research Associate on the project (based at UCL) a few quick questions. Take it away, Chiara…

Tell us about MicroPasts – what is it, why did you decide to do it, who is involved, and what is your ultimate goal?

MicroPasts is a collaboration between a team of researchers from the UCL Institute of Archaeology and the British Museum, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.  We’re keen to encourage and support collaborative research in subjects such as archaeology, history and heritage. In particular, we have been developing an online space where traditional academics (for example, from universities and museums), volunteer groups such as archaeological societies, and as yet unknown ‘crowds’ of people can work together to: create open research data via crowdsourcing; discuss how this data can be used to foster new research in archaeology on the MicroPasts forum; and crowd-fund some of these new collaborations and other community archaeology projects via the MicroPasts crowdfunding platform. Maybe some of these aspects of the project will fare better than others, but we are excited to try bringing them together!

Why did you decide to offer crowdfunding in addition to crowdsourcing for projects?

Our idea with MicroPasts was that there might be some advantages of a three-way implementation of crowd-sourcing, a discussion forum and crowd-funding. We are thereby hoping not only to invite people to participate in archaeological projects, but also to encourage them to help traditional academics decide what kinds of research should be taking place.

What are your requirements for listing on the platform, and what kind of assistance do you give projects in preparing their campaigns?

We invite crowdfunding proposals from any team around the world who can demonstrate in good faith that they combine institutional archaeologists (e.g. working museums and universities) and other members of the public (who may already be an organised volunteer society or might just have met on our forum).

The idea is that these two kinds of partner co-design a project about archaeology or history that that they want to crowd-fund and then conduct collaboratively. On, it is currently possible to raise up to £5,000 (or the equivalent in other currencies) for any kind of archaeological research venture with the only exceptions being that we don’t fund projects where excavation is the main goal. DigVentures is a well-established venue for those who want to do the latter, so why re-invent the wheel?

Setting up a new crowdfunding bid on MicroPasts is simple. We ask the community and academic partners in each possible project to provide a short summary of what they want to do and a requested budget. We then discuss with them whether what they propose will fit the bill as a community-based collaboration. If it does, then additionally, we only need a catchy short video and we will set up the campaign online so that anyone can donate to it via PayPal. We also try to help teams design their campaigns via MicroPasts’ social media channels. A ‘Mercifully Brief Guide’ on how it all works is available on the site.

How is your approach to crowdfunding different to DigVentures?

Rather than funding new digs, which DigVentures already does successfully, the MicroPasts crowd-funding site is meant to support a ‘silent majority’ of archaeological and historical research. Important tasks such as artefact study, digitisation of documents or old fieldwork records, scientific sampling, library-based searches and laboratory work are often insufficiently funded but obviously really important for ensuring high quality publication of the primary evidence about our human past. Volunteer historical and archaeological societies have a very big part to play in such research, and are especially effective when they team up with similarly interested universities or museums.

What will happen with MicroPasts once the initial AHRC funding finishes?

Seed funding exists until April 2015 to develop and launch the core components of MicroPasts.  After a lot of software development and background work, the crowd-sourcing website opened to the public on 16 April 2014 and it has already got help from about 750 registered contributors and hundreds of further anonymous ones. In just over five months, they have transcribed 20% of the British Museum’s national card catalogue of some 30,000 Bronze Age metal finds and produced loads of 3D models of artefacts. We are also asking contributors to let us know what they find interesting and useful so we can improve what we have done so far. We hope that the crowdfunding site will be just as successful.

Given these encouraging results, we are putting in for new funding to expand the project and sustain it over the next few years. If this does not work out, however, the core elements of MicroPasts will still be maintained by permanent staff at UCL and the British Museum. In the end, we hope that handing over a lot of the aspects of running the site to regular contributors will also help to make it sustainable long-term. We’re obviously keen for it to keep going!

As an aside, we are also evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the MicroPasts project as we go along. The aim is to develop a detailed understanding of what motivates people to help out and what proves over the longer-term to be the value of crowdsourced and crowdfunded community projects in archaeology and history, for both the volunteers and institutions involved. We want to feed back these insights via both traditional academic publications and by communicating with national policy-makers and funding bodies, as we hope it will inform future heritage policy and practice.

Thanks Chiara, Dan, Adi, Neil, Jennifer and Andy for putting together such an interesting project and for sharing the details with our DV community. I’m sure there will be a lot of crossover between our ‘crowds’, and we’re looking forward to an exciting and engaged future with lots, lots and LOTS of archaeology for everyone!

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Lisa Westcott Wilkins

Written by Lisa Westcott Wilkins

Co-founder and Managing Director of DigVentures, Lisa makes sure the boxes are ticked, the diggers run on time, and that everyone has a *really* good time along the way. She is responsible for the Americanisms, ridiculously strong site coffee and early morning DV dance parties.

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