Posted by Adi on

Shabtis and the Ancient Egyptian Afterlife

If you’d lived in Ancient Egypt, you would probably have strongly believed that death was not the end, and that it was only a transition between this world and the next. Ancient Egyptians believed that after they die, or more precisely after their bodies die, some parts of their soul (termed ‘ka’ and ‘ba’) kept on living in a spiritual realm known as the underworld, or Duat – the realm of the dead.

It was not at all straightforward to get to this underworld. You first had to be mummified so that your body was well preserved and thus suited to move on to the next life. Secondly, you had to pass a crucial test on your judgment day, a procedure known as the ‘weighing of the heart’. If you were a good person and hadn’t sinned, then your heart would be lighter than the feather of truth and justice (Ma’at), and you’d be allowed to continue your journey into the afterlife. Finally, you’d have to know how to overcome all obstacles on your journey, so it was advised to have a copy of the Book of the Dead handy. This book contained magic spells devised to help you to complete your journey successfully.

Faience shabti from the tomb of Sety I, Valley of the Kings, Egypt. 19th Dynasty, around 1290 BC. Courtesy of the British Museum

However, making it to the underworld was not the end of the story. In order to ensure your immortality after death, your family, friends and/or subjects should have remembered to place some food and drinks in your tomb. In addition, even though dead, you were not exempt from work. You were expected to carry out tasks such as ploughing fields and harvesting crops. But if you were well prepared, you made sure that someone else could do the work for you. So while you could enjoy your days watching the sun god Ra on his daily boat ride through the sky, someone else was tasked do the tedious routine chores for you. Therefore, alongside your mummified body, some food, the Book of the Dead, everyday objects, and other paraphernalia needed to smooth your journey into the afterlife, your tomb would include a series of funerary figurines known as shabtis (or ushabtis). These shabtis were usually shaped like a mummy and may have had your name and title inscribed on them. Otherwise, they may have been inscribed with a text from the 6th chapter from the Book of the Dead, including a phrase sending them to action – “to plough the fields, or to fill the channels with water, or to carry sand from the East to the West”.

Tasked mainly for agricultural duties, the shabtis often carried a hoe in their hands, a basket on their backs, or some other tools (depending on their roles). They were usually small, between 10 and 30 cm in size, and would most commonly be made of faience, or otherwise from terracotta, wood, stone, metal or glass. While the practice of using shabtis emerged in the Old Kingdom, they became common starting from the Middle Kingdom onwards and were in use until the end of the Ptolemaic Period. Many of them were made in mass production, and from the 21st Dynasty on, tombs could be found filled with a great number of shabtis. Some tombs had hundreds of shabtis covering the tomb floors. Better be prepared for all that afterlife work!


Posted by Adi on

The British Museum Index

The index of the British Museum was a major archaeological initiative first founded in 1913 and then moved to the British Museum in the 1920s. For over 70 years, it represented the highest standards of Bronze Age artefact studies. This catalogue contains index cards detailing object find spots and types, alongside detail line drawings and a wide range of further information about the object’s context of discovery.

BM Card Index

Drawers of index cards at the British Museum

Part of the reason to transcribe the index is so that its estimated 30,000 records can be incorporated rapidly into the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, which has also been created with the help of people across England and Wales. The PAS database includes nearly 930,000 objects, which have been collected by the public, usually by metal detectorists. Integrating the transcribed cards with the numerous records of archaeological objects discovered by the public will thereby create a near complete digital inventory of metal finds from Bronze Age Britain. There are also some records of finds from outside of Britain in the index and in some cases, these can be sent to other national databases in Europe as well.

Georeferencing the finds will support the kinds of large-scale spatial analysis discussed here. Knowing as much information as possible about the archaeological context of these finds (e.g. as recorded on the cards) is very useful for building up a clearer picture of how metal objects were produced, exchanged, used and discarded in the Bronze Age.


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MicroPasts Latest Tech Update

So what has been new with MicroPasts? Well, quite a lot. We have successfully launched our crowd-sourcing platform last week, and lots of people are now transcribing object cards and using the photo-masking application to delineate the outline of Bronze Age tools. From a technical perspective, we needed to take care of two main issues before launching: the first one was, naturally, to finalise the customisation of the crowd-sourcing platform; and second, to design a landing page at

To start with the latter, the platform on which we chose to host the main MicroPasts website is WordPress. WordPress is a free and open source content management system which has been around for over a decade and has millions of users. You don’t have to be web savvy to install and use this platform for your website – especially since it offers some very useful documentation. After installing its software on the hosting server, you can start modifying your site’s appearance and fill it up with content as you like. But before that, you need to choose a Theme – which is basically a bunch of templates that allow you to change the design and functionality of your site. You can customise your Theme of choice using CSS, PHP and HTML if you really want to.

We chose a responsive Bootstrap theme for But what does that mean? A responsive web design means that your website would be easily navigated (as well as look great) on a wide range of devices, i.e. desktop PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones. That is, in addition to your aiming for an optimal viewing in different resolutions and browsers. And what is a Bootstrap theme? Bootstrap is a package of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and HTML templates that can help you managed the look and feel of your website. One of the many advantages of Bootstrap is that it provides a layout grid system that you can use to manage the layout of your content. It also comes with a full set of Glyphicons – useful icons that you can incorporate into your code. You can go with these, or check out Font Awesome, which also provides a wide range of high quality, completely free icons, which are also fully compatible with Bootstrap. These icons are not graphic elements – as the name suggests, they are actually fonts, which can be manipulated using CSS.

In tandem with creating our main MicroPasts site, we had to finalise our crowdsourcing platform. The code for this platform was forked from a site called CrowdCrafting – a portal for crowdsourcing applications built using the PyBossa software. To ‘fork’ a project means to make a copy of all its files and code so you could customise it for your own needs (or contribute to the original project). This can be done freely only with open source projects, and a very convenient environment to do this is GitHub. GitHub is a platform that hosts software development projects, where a team of several people could work on the same project at the same time. GitHub is completely free and claims to include over 10 million project repositories! So, especially in the last few weeks, we’ve been raising issues (i.e. things that need to be taken care of), fixing bugs and doing lots of tweaking until we felt ready to open up the crowd-sourcing platform to the public.

This is proving to be a huge success for far – people are not only engaged with the different applications, but are also active on our community forum, asking questions and giving some very useful feedback. Next on our to-do list is to launch our Crowd-funding platform – so stay tuned for some more tech updates!


Posted by Adi on

Hello MicroPasts, thrilled to meet you!

My name is Adi, and I’m a research associate at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. Earlier this month I joined the MicroPasts team – and I’m especially excited about this project as it feeds into my background and interests in so many ways. Before coming to London I was an archaeologist and academic back home in Israel. A few years ago, I created the West Bank and East Jerusalem Archaeological Database (WBEJAD), an inventory of archaeological sites excavated or surveyed by Israeli archaeologists since the occupation of the West Bank in 1967. Archaeological databases in the Occupied Territories were also later on the subject of my PhD dissertation. So, I’m passionate about topics such as documentation, recording, and the management of archaeological and heritage data. Now, let me tell you why I’m so enthusiastic about MicroPasts.

To start with, MicroPasts can help transform physical archaeological archives into online datasets, as well as enhance exiting ones, using crowd-sourcing applications. Our crowd-sourcing platform is going to enable the transcription and tagging of fascinating archives such as UCL’s Institute of Archaeology’s historical photo collection of Near Eastern excavations, and the British Museum’s index cards of Bronze Age metal objects. The importance of these tasks is immense: undigitised archival data is hardly accessible – but making data freely available online opens up endless research opportunities and public use. Another crowd-sourcing application, which will allow producing and rectifying 3D models of the British Museum’s metal objects, will also greatly enhance existing data and increase its usability!

This leads me to another aspect of MicroPasts which I think is vital: making data free and accessible. I first realised the importance of open data when creating the WBEJAD, the significance of which was not only in its contents – but perhaps even more so in the fact that this information has been easily accessible for the first time. I find the debate over open access to data to be crucial, as it’s concerned with ideas of equality and democracy. Archaeological data in particular is considered to be universal knowledge, belonging to everyone, and not the private property of the researcher retrieving it. Allowing data to be freely available online encourages the general public to become more informed and more engaged with archaeological heritage. The advantages of fully accessible data are abundant also for academics: more researchers can discover and reuse data, a practice that improves the quality of research as scholars become better informed. Open data is more visible, more accountable and more transparent. In the case of the MicroPasts platforms, open data can also increase opportunities for collaboration between academics, professionals and the general public. The idea of co-designing research is innovative – and I’m very much looking forward to see how it develops!

This engagement of communities is another aspect which I really like about MicroPasts. Being an academic, I see public engagement as fundamental to the archaeological discipline. MicroPasts involves communities right from the start! Using our crowd-sourcing platform, people can directly engage in the production of research-quality information. Anyone can also contribute money to archaeological endeavours that they are interested in and consider important through the crowd-funding platform; and, as mentioned above, they will also be able to be directly involved in devising professional projects and pushing them forward. This is what’s called ‘citizen science’ – and that is the essence of the democratisation of science.

As you can probably see by now, we at MicroPasts use cutting edge technologies and software in order to engage communities with archaeological projects. We are creating and customising crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding web platforms, and using GitHub to customise, revise and share our open source code. We will also store and display large chunks of data in online repositories such as the Archaeological Data Service (ADS) for text records and 3D models or Flickr for images. And, we use cool software to create 3D models of metal objects using Structure from Motion (SfM).

This project really seems to tick all boxes for me. Lots of exciting things to look forward to then!