Introducing Monument Monitor, a citizen heritage science project

Bringing our series of blogs for BSW2019 to a close, is Rosie Brigham who describes a new ‘citizen science’ research project taking place as a collaboration between Historic Environment Scotland and University College London.

Author: Rosie Brigham

Research partners: Institute of Sustainable Heritage (UCL), Historic Environment Scotland

This spring marks the start of a new collaborative research project between Historic Environment Scotland and University College London. Entitled “Monument Monitor”, the aim of the project is to assess how to what extent visitors’ photographs can be used for remote condition monitoring. Visitors to selected properties will find signs prompting them to take photographs of specific aspects of the site and then email/message/tweet or instagram their image with the hashtag #MonumentMonitor.

Trailed last year on Machrie Moor and Holyrood House Palace this crowdsourcing project has already brought in some interesting results. Images of the famous stone circles on Arran were submitted over the period of a year, which enabled conservators to better visualise groundwater levels of the site alert them to an incident of vandalism. Previous work has ascertained that, with enough submissions, photographs from modern camera phones can accurately measure colour. With this in mind, we hope to ascertain to what extent we can use this method to measure biofilm growth, erosion and soiling at other sites.

One of the signs placed at Achnabreck, a Neolithic Rock Art site in west Scotland

Over the next few months the project will be rolled out across a number of HES properties including, Kilmartin Glen, Lochranza Castle, Rothesay Castle, Drumtrodden and Ness of Burgi to name but a few. If you are in the area and fancy trying your hand at citizen science, grab your camera, take a snap and tag it with #monumentmonitor!

Anyone can be a scientist armed with a phone

Follow the progress of the experiment on instagram @monumentmonitor or through updates on the website,


UNESCO: Put a World of Pictures into Words

UNESCO have recently digitised 5000 images from their archives that document pivotal moments in the past 70 years of history and are asking the public to help them unlock the stories behind each photo. 

By adding data tags and transcribing information, it is hoped that the public will be able to enrich the information available to make the images more accessible to researchers. In particular, many photos have written notes on the back than need to be transcribed to improve the findability of each record.

This is another example of how instrumental crowdfunding can be to archival and research projects. Without the public’s help, the information contained in these images would continue to be unfound by those trying to answer specific historical questions.

Click here to find out more about the project and how to get involved.

Zoom In: A Closer Look at Science at the British Museum

On Saturday 16 March 2019, between 10 am and 4 pm, The British Museum will be offering their visitors the chance to explore how science is used to discover the stories of their collections.

There will be the chance to see the latest scientific technology in action and to handle raw materials. Visitors will also learn about the techniques used to monitor and preserve collections and the importance of this.

The event is free and will take place in the Great Court. Find out more about this event and other British Science Week events here.

British museum Zoom In
Previous Zoom In event at the British Museum

British Science Week at the Mary Rose

Between 14 and 17 March 2019, the Mary Rose Trust, in partnership with Zeiss Microscopy, will be offering visitors to the Mary Rose, the chance to learn about the science behind caring for their Tudor collection.

The collection lay at the bottom of the sea for 437 years, and this, of course, raises unique conservation challenges. Go along to the demonstration events throughout the weekend to learn about the scientific techniques used to keep artefacts safe for future generations, and also look at items from the Mary Rose collection through a Zeiss Smartzoom optical microscope to see the structural damage caused by their time spent undersea.

More about the events on offer across the four days can be found here.

Mary Rose Conservation
Conservation work being undertaken on the Mary Rose.

NHSF and UCM workshop- ‘What can heritage science do for you?’

As part of British Science Week 2019, and in collaboration with University of Cambridge Museums (UCM), we are running a workshop (now sold out) to explore what heritage science can do for you.

It will take place on Tuesday 12 March at the British Library and will explore the benefits of heritage science research in the context of collections-based research and outreach activities. Participants will learn about a range of analytical methods which can be used to learn more about the materials composition, history, original context and current conservation and storage needs of archaeological, archival and museum objects.

During the workshop, real case studies of heritage science research applied to a range of objects will be presented and discussed. Participants will be asked to contribute their experience of, or aspirations for, collaboration with heritage science researchers.

The workshop is part of our attempts to make the work of heritage scientists more widely understood and to showcase the benefits of heritage science.

More great examples of heritage science in practice can be found on the University of Cambridge Museums’ Conservation blog.

Additionally, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge are also hosting a free talk on 20 March by Research Scientist, Dr Paola Ricciardi, on ‘Small paintings, big discoveries: Recent research on Isaac Oliver’s miniatures’. More details about the event can be found here.

RH sensors
Relative Humidity Sensors. © Hilary Jarvis

Citizen Science Project- Operation Weather Rescue

The citizen science project for British Science Week 2019 is Operation Weather Rescue, led by researches from the University of Reading and funded by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) and the Natural Environment Research Council.

The project is calling upon members of the public to enter historical weather information into an online database so that meteorologists and climate scientists will be able to make predictions about future climates.

It is hoped that the help of the public in digitising these records will go someway towards addressing the challenges faced by researchers when analysing historical weather patterns. Currently millions of pages of historical weather data are held in archives across the world that are not easily accessible to researchers. Digitising them, with the public’s help, will allow researchers to interpret more historical weather data than ever before, and in turn, lead to better understandings of past climates.

The project is a brilliant example of how the contributions of the public to science projects can make a very positive impact on scientific research. Without the public’s help it would take the team at Reading University many more years to digitise all the data needed. Thanks to volunteers, however, researchers will be able to drawn conclusions on changing weather patterns a lot sooner, which will inevitably benefit us all.

You can find out more about the project and how to get involved here.


Conservation science and the community

To celebrate British Science Week (8-17 March 2019), we will be posting a series of blogs over the next 10 days to showcase the excellent work of heritage scientists in using science and technology to understand, manage and engage with heritage. 

First up is a piece by Angela Middleton (HE), with contributions from Kim Roche (MSDS), Alison James (MSDS), Ruth Pelling (HE) and Peta Knott (NAS). 

Citizen science can take many shapes and forms; such as taking part in the Big Butterfly Count, searching your archives and collections for images of actual leather hats or getting hands on and learning something about the science behind the conservation and analysis of maritime artefacts from the Rooswijk.

Together with the Nautical Archaeology Society, conservators, archaeobotanists and material scientists from Historic England have devised a programme of workshops to bring the science that underpins many archaeological post-excavation projects to a wide range of participants. The artefacts and samples used in these workshops originate from the @Rooswijk1740 project: a collaboration between RCE (Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed; Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency) and Historic England, and managed by MSDS Marine Ltd. Starting with a geophysical survey in 2016, the project recovered over 2000 artefacts during two underwater excavations in 2017-18. The artefacts have since been transported to Historic England’s research and conservation facilities at Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth.

The material from the Rooswijk project not only presents researchers with interesting and unique material to study, but is also well suited to help satisfy a growing appetite to engage with archaeology in a very interactive way. Participants to the courses come from all walks of life with varying levels of archaeological experience: retired marketing executives, recreational divers, social workers, archaeologists, etc., all united by an interest in archaeology.

The courses are a well-balanced mixture of theory and practice. The morning is dedicated to learning about decay processes of archaeological materials commonly encountered in the marine environment, the theory of X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF), or the significance of environmental archaeological samples on shipwrecks. The afternoon allows participants to use the same tools and techniques that archaeological scientists use every day. In small groups of no more than four, various practical activities are being undertaken. The small groups allow for a more intimate learning environment and give every participant the chance to carry out each task, whilst the tutors can fine tune the activity according to different levels of confidence and experience or interest. Practical sessions include changing of storage solutions, mechanical cleaning and material identification of artefacts as well as identifying environmental samples collected from the Rooswijk site and within artefacts.

Participants monitor the desalination process using a conductivity meter, which measures the amount of dissolved salts. Maritime artefacts have to go through a lengthy process of washing out salts, as these can be harmful to a wide range of materials. This is achieved by regularly changing distilled water solutions in artefact storage containers.  This process of water changes facilitates desalination and also gives participants the opportunity to handle a lot of different materials from the site.

During cleaning activities, we allow participants to use a variety of tools, such as an air-scribe (a small-scale pneumatic chisel), air-abrasive or air-brush to remove concretions or corrosion deposits. This is almost always guaranteed to be the favourite activity of the day! Another group works carefully under a microscope cleaning coins or packages them for storage after conservation.

The material composition of metal artefacts is analysed in a live demonstration of the XRF. After a spectrum is produced by the software, participants attempt to match different elements to the peaks to identify the composition of the material.

The archaeobotanist demonstrates various sampling techniques, and participants can sort the flot under the microscope by testing their recognition skills and working through the identification process. On first glance it may just look like soil or mud, but with a bit of practice, they are able to pick out seeds and even identify some distinct examples.

During these workshops, participants’ efforts contribute to the often lengthy and repetitive tasks during the scientific investigation after an excavation. What is more important to us, is that we provide hands-on access to heritage, a look behind the scenes and develop an understanding and appreciation of archaeological science processes.

Rooswijk Image 1
The use of the air-scribe on one of the many Rooswijk concretions.
Rooswijk Image 2
Ruth Pelling (archaeobotanist) demonstrates sample sorting.
Rooswijk Image 3
Course participants assisting with desalination and water changes.
Rooswijk Image 4
Course participants are measuring the conductivity of the wash water and recording the reading.
Rooswijk Image 5
Collecting and interpreting XRF-spectra with material scientist Florian Stroebele.
Rooswijk Image 6
Careful cleaning of coins under the microscope.