Help catalog British Museum’s Bronze Age artifacts

Okay, I promise I’m not actively working to ensure that none of you ever leave your homes again. After all, there are always laptops, coffee shops with free wifi and libraries. It’s just that I can’t get enough of really fiddly detail work that helps bring hoary old museum collections into the Internet era.

In this case the collection is the British Museum’s hoards of Bronze Age metal objects and thousands of index cards documenting other pre-historic metal objects. In collaboration with University College London, the museum has created a crowdsourcing platform that gives history nerds with OCD and time on their hands the chance to digitize the objects and records.

This record contains over 30,000 Bronze Age tools and weapons that were discovered during the 19th and 20th centuries, and complements the current Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database of metal object finds.

The 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. The catalogue itself also has a long and special history. It 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 information has long been known to be an extremely important untapped resource,” says curator Wilkin, “Metal finds are not only crucial forms of evidence for dating Britain’s prehistoric past, but also tell us a great deal about prehistoric society and economy. Once we have digitised the thousands of objects in this catalogue, they can be incorporated into the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) website. The result will be the largest national database of prehistoric metal finds anywhere in the world and a near-comprehensive view of what we currently know about such finds in the UK. This will allow rethinking of almost everything we currently know about the use of metal in Bronze Age Britain, giving us a far more comprehensive view of our prehistoric past.”

Here’s the crowdsourcing website where the magic happens. They’ve already done the hard work of scanning all these records, but to make them searchable and categorizable in an online database, the handwritten information needs to be entered into standard fields. Character recognition is still fairly unreliable which is why our eyeballs and fingers are necessary to make this great project come together. I’ve done a handful of cards and found them eminently readable. There are no doctor’s scribbles or chickenscratch. The only part that can be a little challenging is when the fields on the index cards don’t match the database fields, and that’s a minority of the records.

If data entry sounds a little dry an occupation for your free time, the project has a another goal of creating 3D models of Bronze Age artifacts in the British Museum. All you have to do to contribute to this goal is draw an outline around an artifact in a scanned photograph. It’s like the lasso tool in Photoshop. You click around the edge of the object every time the angle changes creating a polygonal outline. If the shape is odd and you feel the need to make multiple overlapping polygons, that works too. They don’t want any background pixels surrounding the artifact — they have dozens of pictures of each object to create the 3D model, so any slender losses along one edge will be recovered from a different view — so be sure to click along the inside edge rather than the outside.

You can register on the website if you want your work credited to a single account and if you’d like to seek help/fellowship on the community forum, but you don’t have to register to help out. Just click on an application and dive right in. A window will pop up with instructions. Once you get into a record, there are further tips in the database fields and on the photographs to help you out as you go along.

I found it meditative and genuinely enjoyable. There are some beautiful drawings of the artifacts on the index cards, and it’s amazing to see the remote areas where these artifacts have been found. Out of the five I did, three of them were from outside of the UK (two from France, one from Hungary). Every card and picture is a micro-lesson in the Bronze Age archaeological record.

All of British Pathé’s film archive now on YouTube

If you thought the New York Public Library’s map release was a time sink, you’d best settle your affairs and fully stock your bomb shelter because British Pathé has released its entire archive of 85,000 newsreels, documentaries and raw footage on YouTube.

British Pathé was once a dominant feature of the British cinema experience, renowned for first-class reporting and an informative yet uniquely entertaining style. It is now considered to be the finest newsreel archive in existence. Spanning the years from 1896 to 1976, the collection includes footage – not only from Britain, but from around the globe – of major events, famous faces, fashion trends, travel, sport and culture. The archive is particularly strong in its coverage of the First and Second World Wars.

This is a great, great day. I have long harbored resentment that the vast panoply of film riches on Pathé’s website were so inaccessible. They could only be viewed in low resolution 400 x 320-pixel windows on the website itself. Many of the videos were watermarked and there was no way to embed them. If you wanted to get a decent look at one, you had to buy it for £30. Even stills from the film had to be purchased to the tune of £20 apiece.

And so I was grudgingly forced to link to the films on the website instead of embedding the greatness of Cygan the robot, the 1941 bombing of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the interview with Titanic survivor Edith Rosenbaum of singing toy pig fame. Well goodbye sad links to budget videos. Hello high resolution embeds!

Cygan the Robot:


The bombing of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1941:


Titanic Disaster Documentary with Edith Rosenbaum:


The main British Pathé YouTube channel has just over 81,000 videos uploaded, and they’re helpfully arranging them in playlists and according to topics like Pre-1910 Footage, Weird Newsreels and A Day That Shook the World which features some of the most important events in the 20th century history. They also have specialized channels for War Archives, Vintage Fashions and Sporting History, although those channels haven’t been expanded in the recent spate of uploads.

You don’t have to settle for Pathé’s categories. Just search the channel for a subject of interest. Click the magnifying glass to the right of About on the top menu and type in a keyword. Searching for Titanic, for instance, returns ten Titanic newsreels and documentaries, and then derails very entertainingly into footage of a lion eating at an outdoor table with a proper English lady and her husband in 1959, Icelandic lava fields from 1930 and a helpful 1921 instructional on how to make a bra from two handkerchiefs (warning: not for the lady who requires any kind of actual support).

It’s a playground. A beautiful, disturbing, hilarious, compelling playground of history and society on film.

The sheep of the White House

After President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany in April of 1917, his own family undertook to set an example of home front contributions to the war effort. Following the programs of future president Herbert Hoover, then head of the Food Administration, Woodrow’s wife Edith instituted fuel and food conservation measures like gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays and wheatless Wednesdays. They suspended White House entertaining and worked assiduously to raise money for the troops by organizing liberty bond rallies hosted by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

In 1918, they took that commitment to a whole new level of cuteness. Wilson purchased a flock of 18 sheep led by an ornery ram named Old Ike who was famous for chewing tobacco. He gnoshed on any cigar butt he could find. He was no fan of humans — White House staff and police were favorite targets for his head-butting wrath — but he was a fine leader of ewes and produced a mighty fleece.

(Interestingly, he wasn’t the first vicious ram to roam the White House lawns. Thomas Jefferson brought a large flock with him from Monticello in 1807 to continue the breeding program he had long been obsessed with. The leader of the flock was a four-horned Shetland ram who took aim at anyone attempting to take a short cut through the property back when that sort of thing was possible. In 1808 he felled William Keough, a Revolutionary War veteran who had fallen on hard times and was in Washington, D.C. to petition the President for a pension. Others were not so lucky. The ram actually killed a child. When he returned to Monticello, he killed two other rams and one of his own offspring. Finally in 1811 Jefferson had him put down.)

Wilson’s White House sheep released groundskeeping personnel so they could enlist, saved money on maintenance and raised money through wool sales. Here’s some footage of the flock trundling around the Executive Mansion grounds while Woodrow Wilson looks out the window at them.


The White House lawns turned out to make outstanding pasture land. The sheep feasted mightily on the sweet grasses, growing thick woolen pelts and making lots of adorable lambs to increase their numbers. They kept the lawns manicured and fertilized, and much like White House pets today, were widely popular with the American public. The sheep were also fundraisers of unparalleled efficacy. The animals with the best quality fleece were sheered and their wool sold at auction. The states each received a few fleeces to be auctioned off with the imprimatur of White House Wool. The first sale in 1918 raised $30,000 for the Red Cross. The next year’s auction raised an extraordinary $52,823 for the Red Cross, an average of $1,000 a pound. To this day it remains the most expensive wool ever sold. Ike’s fleece, incidentally, sold for a mind-blowing $10,000 a pound.

The sheep outlasted the war. Newspapers reported that more than half the flock of 46 was sheered on May 24th, 1920, both to raise money for charity and to keep the sheep looking sharp so they didn’t mar the handsome prospect of the Pennsylvania Avenue-fronting North Lawn. That year 185 pounds of wool were sheered from the White House flock and donated to the Salvation Army. There were two more head in the flock by August when the White House sheep were decommissioned because the Shepherd in Chief had failed to secure the nomination of his party at the 1920 Democratic National Convention the month before.

The flock retired to the Maryland farm of Lionel C. “Dick” Probert, chief of the Washington bureau of the Associated Press, who had himself played a pivotal but virtually unknown role in the United States’ entry into World War I. It was Probert who broke the story of the Zimmermann Telegram, the coded message sent by German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the German Ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, instructing him to offer Mexico funding and territories in the US if it joined the war on the German side. The AP story, written without byline by Probert, went to press on March 1, 1917. It was a sensation, inciting widespread anti-German feeling all over the country. A month later, the US was at war with Germany.

The White House sheep continued to thrive at Probert’s farm. By 1927, the year Old Ike shuffled off this mortal coil, the flock had increased to 75 head.

Gold mourning ring of famed 17th c. lawyer, sheriff, usurer found

A unique gold mourning ring commemorating Hugh Audley, 17th century lawyer, sheriff, property magnate and rapacious moneylender, has been found in Carleton Rode, Norfolk, eastern England. Metal detectorist John Reed discovered the ring last December and, after expert examination, it was just declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest in Norwich.

The ring is made out of 24-carat gold and is engraved on the outside with an elongated skull and crosshatching with a dash at each intersecting point. Black enamel fills in the engraving, emphasizing the skull’s features and the crosshatch pattern. It’s in excellent condition, with almost all the enamel still in place. There is no enamel in the inscription engraved on the inside of the ring, but it’s very readable nonetheless. The inscription is what identifies who the ring is mourning. It reads: “H. Awdeley. ob. 15. nou. 1662.” Next to the inscription is a maker’s mark, a barely identifiable W inside a shield, which may be the mark of Plymouth jeweler Richard Willcockes.

Because the inscription is so clear, John Reed was able to research it as soon as he found the ring. He found a Hugh Audley who died on November 15th, 1662, at the venerable age of 86. Before his death, he had 11 mourning rings made for his heirs to remember him by. Ten of them were sized for women’s fingers, one for a man. If any of the other 10 have survived, we don’t know about it.

This was a common practice in the 17th century, not only wearing mourning rings in memory of a dead loved one, but for people to make provisions in their wills to have rings made for specific recipients. The Audley ring design is a classic of the genre, engraved with the deceased name and dates on the inside, a decorative death-themed pattern with black enamel details on the outside. A few years after this ring was made, the mourning ring industry would see an unfortunate boom as a consequence of the Great Plague of London of 1665-6.

Hugh Audley was very rich and famous in his day. He was known as The Great Audley because of his wealth. His death even merited a note in Samuel Pepys’ diary:

I hear to-day how old rich Audley is lately dead, and left a very great estate, and made a great many poor familys rich, not all to one. Among others, one Davis, my old schoolfellow at Paul’s, and since a bookseller in Paul’s Church Yard: and it seems do forgive one man 60,000l. which he had wronged him of, but names not his name; but it is well known to be the scrivener in Fleet Street, at whose house he lodged.

Pepys is referring to the terms of Audley’s will, which spread around the wealth (not all to one). One of his primary beneficiaries was Pepys’ friend Thomas Davies, Audley’s grand-nephew, a bookseller who would become Sheriff of London in 1667, Master of the Stationers’ Company (the publishers’ guild of London) in 1668, Master of the Drapers’ Company (the cloth merchants’ guild) in 1677, and Lord Mayor of London in 1676. I’m sure his inheritance helped make that marked increase in fortune possible. The very large debt of £60,000, worth millions in today’s money, which Audley forgave in his will was owed by Fleet Street writer John Rae. Audley lodged at Rae’s house starting in 1654 and wound up taking him to court in 1661.

Audley was something of a Horatio Alger character. A pamphlet published shortly after his death says it all in the title: The way to be rich according to the practice of the Great Audley, who began life with £200 in the year 1605, and dyed worth £400,000, this instant November, 1662. That final sum is the equivalent of $50 million in today’s money. He made this fortune by hustling constantly, basically. Audley began his legal training in 1603 when he was admitted to the Inner Temple, one of London’s four professional associations for lawyers. While he learned the law during the day, at night in the early hours of the morning he taught the same law he had just learned. He published a few tracts while he was at it, and used the profits to build the personal law library he couldn’t afford to buy outright.

In 1604, he was appointed a clerk of the Court of Wards and Liveries, the court that oversaw all the wards in what would later become Chancery Court (see Dickens’ Bleak House for more on that) where the disposition of wills was settled. There was a lot of money in this job, because fees would be paid from the wards’ fortunes and unscrupulous clerks could nickel and dime them at every turn. Audley was reported to have paid £3000 for this plum position. According to a biography of Hugh Audley written by Isaac D’Israeli, father of future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, when someone asked Audley what the value was of his clerkship, he replied “it might be worth some thousands of pounds to him who after his death would instantly go to heaven twice as much to him who would go to purgatory and nobody knows what to him who would adventure to go to hell.”

At least a few hundred thousand, as it happened. Audley parlayed his Court of Wards windfall into a financial empire. He bailed out the wastrel sons of nobility, bought their debts, extended loans with the estates of their fathers as backing. Charging compound interest (hence the title of usurer which he bore unconcernedly) he quickly wound up the owner of a great deal of prime real estate. His first major real estate acquisition was the Ebury Estate in Westminster, then on the outskirts of London, now covering much of London’s most expensive neighborhoods: Mayfair, Belgravia and Pimlico. He bought it from Lionel Cranfield, Earl of Middlesex, who was deeply in debt and had to sell the property for far less than it was worth. The land where Buckingham Palace would eventually be built belonged to Audley and there’s a tony Mayfair street named after him.

The Audley estate would become the core of yet another great landowning family, the Grosvenors, now Dukes of Westminster. Audley’s grand-nephew Alexander Davies, Thomas’ brother, bought out his brother’s share of the inheritance. Alexander bequeathed the former Ebury property to his daughter Mary, and she sadly inherited it when she was just six months old. In 1677, she married Sir Thomas Grosvenor, Baronet, when he was 21 and she was 12. That transactional marriage proved to be a wise one from the Grosvenors’ perspective. To this day the family remains one of the biggest landowners in London.

As for the mourning ring, it is currently at the British Museum where it will be valued by experts. A local Norfolk museum will then be given the opportunity to pay the assessed value to the finder and landowner to secure the ring. If they don’t want it, other museums will be given a bite at the apple.

Contract to fix 3rd c. wrestling match found

The vast collection of papyrus fragments unearthed at the ancient site of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, the late 19th, early 20th century continues to bear sweet fruit. King’s College London Classics professor Dominic Rathbone has translated one of the Oxyrhynchus texts and found it’s the only ancient match-fixing contract ever discovered. Written in 267 A.D. in the ancient city of Antinopolis, about 55 miles south of Oxyrhynchus following the west bank of the Nile, the contract stipulates the outcome of the final match of the boys’ wrestling division of the 138th Great Antinoeia games.

The boys’ division was for teenagers, so the contract is between the father of finalist Nicantinous and the trainers of the other finalist, Demetrius.

The contract stipulates that Demetrius “when competing in the competition for the boy [wrestlers], to fall three times and yield,” and in return would receive “three thousand eight hundred drachmas of silver of old coinage” [….]

The contract includes a clause that Demetrius is still to be paid if the judges realize the match is fixed and refuse to reward Nicantinous the win. If “the crown is reserved as sacred, (we) are not to institute proceedings against him about these things,” the contract reads. It also says that if Demetrius reneges on the deal, and wins the match anyway, then “you are of necessity to pay as penalty to my [same] son on account of wrongdoing three talents of silver of old coinage without any delay or inventive argument.”

It’s not clear what proceedings they could actually initiate given that match-fixing wasn’t exactly legal, so if they were busted and Nicantinous’ father refused to pay Demetrius’ people the agreed-upon sum, they would hardly be in a position to challenge the reneging through any kind of official channels. Nor does the penalty against Demetrius have much in the way of teeth. Even if Demetrius didn’t take the dive he had agreed to take, it’s not like Nicantinous’ father could take him to court to enforce the three-talent penalty. In fact, given that it’s in an extra-legal penumbra, why bother to have a written contract to fix a fight at all?

It’s no mystery why fixing the match was advantageous to both sides. Only the winners of ancient game events would win a purse. There was no prize for second place. If the parties are evenly matched and neither of them confident of a positive outcome, why not ensure you at least get something out of being thrown to the ground three times? In this case, unless Demetrius came from a wealthy family, he was likely in debt to his trainers who had housed, fed and coached him in the lead-up to the games. By taking a bribe from Nicantinous’ father, they ensured they wouldn’t be out of pocket no matter what the outcome.

Dad struck a hard bargain, though. The 3,800 drachma Demetrius would receive for throwing the match was small potatoes, just about enough to purchase a donkey. On the other hand, the three talents of silver he would owe Nicantinous if he broke the contract and won was a huge sum. It may have been the amount of an expected bonus, or the amount of a bonus plus an additional penalty.

Although this is the only known contract recording a bribe between ancient athletes, there are references in ancient sources indicating that bribery in athletic competitions was not unusual. By the time of the Roman Empire, bribery in athletic competitions was getting more prevalent as the events became more lucrative, Rathbone said.

“There are sources [indicating] that things had got a bit worse in the Roman Empire when there were more games and when there were more financial rewards, particularly these municipal pensions,” Rathbone said. These pensions consisted of payments that an athlete’s hometown awarded to winners and could continue for the rest of their life.

The Great Antinoeia games were part of a religious festival held yearly in Antinopolis dedicated to the deified Antinous. Antinous was the favorite (read: lover) of the Roman emperor Hadrian. He accompanied Hadrian on his many travels all over the empire and they were in Egypt in October of 130 A.D. when Antinous drowned in the Nile. It may have been an accident, but several ancient sources believe it was deliberate, that Antinous was sacrificed or sacrificed himself to gain the favor of the gods for Hadrian.

Hadrian was grief-stricken at the loss. He had his favorite deified, something that had been the exclusive privilege of imperial family members, had medals and coins struck bearing his face (another privilege previously reserved for the imperial family), built temples to the deified Antinous and founded cities named after him. Antinopolis was built on the banks of the Nile at the place where Antinous had drowned. The cult was still going strong nearly 140 years after Antinous death and the games were part of that.

There is no record of who won what events at which games, so there’s no telling what the outcome of this backroom deal was. At some point, the contract was thrown in the garbage where it would be recovered by pioneering papyrologists Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt who first started looking through Oxyrhynchus’ trash heaps in 1896. The light covering of sand and complete lack of rainfall created a perfect storm of papyrus preservation. Over the years of excavations at Oxyrhynchus, more than 500,000 papyrus fragments were unearthed, most of which are now at the Sackler Library at Oxford.

Only a small percentage of the fragments have been translated in all this time, simply because there is such a wealth of material to go through. Discoveries range from the most rarified sole surviving copies of ancient literature to the most fascinatingly mundane sales receipts, personal letters, shopping lists and tax returns. And now, a match-fixing contract.