Oct 11

Crowdsourcing – the ‘Ancient Lives’ Project


The term ‘crowdsourcing’ was first used by Jeff Howe in a Wired Magazine article, the word itself a portmanteau of outsourcing and crowd. Initially, the term focused on the business world and had connotations of profit, outsourcing jobs and cheap labour.


The term has been increasingly repurposed by cultural heritage and citizen science, as Ridge explains, the type of involvement is very different from the business model. Her definition describes:


One thing I’ve never understood about humanities disciplines is our insistence on staging methodology as ethical struggle.Mia Ridge

The key words in this definition are (for me): ’emerging’, ‘shared’, and ‘inherent rewards’. Crowdsourcing in the humanities is an area which is still developing, identifying what works and what motivates the participants. The crowd need to buy into the goals of the project in order for it to be successful.

Ancient Lives Project

The Ancient Lives Project is one of the earliest examples of a crowdsourced humanities project. It is part of the Zooniverse group which began with a series of science based projects. As such, it combines experts from Classics, Astrophysics and Computer Science.


One of the reasons that I was interested in this particular crowdsourcing project was because I had studied the Zenon papyri from this period (the Greco-Roman period in Egypt) as part of my undergraduate degree. We never saw the original texts, or even images of them, our only contact with the papyri was through a series of typewritten transcripts. The Ancient Lives project allows interested members of the public to be more hands on – measuring and transcribing papyrus fragments using online tools and clear online images.

Image of a papyrus fragment made available in the initial press release for Ancient Lives

Image of a papyrus fragment made available in the initial press release for Ancient Lives


In the 1890s two Oxford undergraduates discovered large quantities of papyrus in a series of rubbish tips in the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus. After ten years of excavation, they returned to Oxford with 1000 boxes of papyri – over a million papyrus fragments ranging in size from a postage stamp to a newspaper. For the next century, the were studied by small teams of experts, resulting in the transcription, translation and publication of a mere 1% of the text fragments.

Dr Obbink, from the Classics department at Oxford university, decided that using crowdsourcing for transcription could help the project work on the remaining 99%. In July 2011 the project was launched. The project goals state that:


Ancient Lives combines human computing with machine intelligence in order to expedite the process of identifying known texts, contextualizing unknown texts, bringing together fragments for textual reconstruction, and cataloguing fragments in a more expeditious digital way. The overall goal is to rapidly transform image data from papyri into meaningful information that scholars can use to study Greek literature and Greco-Roman Egypt; information that once took generations to produce.Ancient Lives

These goals, and the way they are phrased, suggest that the target crowd are relatively well educated.


“It’s very exciting that we can use today’s modern tools of astrophysics to get specific information about everyday life in ancient times,” Fortson said. “But it’s really the help from volunteers that will make the difference”.University of Minnesota

The project was launched with a press release and a series of articles calling for  ‘Armchair archaeologists’ (Wired). Over the years there have been a steady stream of articles about the project and the texts discovered, including revelations of match-fixing in Greek wrestling (Ancient Origins), and ancient career advice (Forbes).

Crowdsourcing Type

The project is made up of two main crowdsourcing types:

  • classification gathering – identifying non-papyrus and non-Greek fragments, and measuring fragments using an online ruler
  • transcription and correction – using an online keyboard to transcribe the fragments
Before Transcription

A papyrus fragment before transcription

The user highlights the centre of each letter, then selects the matching letter. The transcription keyboard provides the type written letter, but also shows written examples to aid the transcriber.


The fragments a user has viewed are saved to their ‘Lightbox’ allowing them to return to them, or to create a collection of favourites.

Papyrus fragment after transcription

Papyrus fragment after transcription

Users are encouraged to use the ‘Talk’ tool to discuss a particular fragment with other users and follow the progress of the transcriptions.

Users can complete as many or as few transcriptions as they wish.



Who are the crowd?

The project is open to anyone, however the message boards and the comments on the blog indicate several academics, undergraduate and postgraduate students, and people with Greek language skills. Although the project was initially geared towards transcribing and measuring, some of the comments from users have lead to insights that the project team did not expect.


Users from all over the world willing to help us, both amateurs and professional scholars, have left hundreds of comments, which have revealed a useful source of information on the material uploaded online Ancient Lives Blog

This shows that several members of the crowd could be considered experts rather than amateurs.

Keeping the crowd active

From the start of the project, the associated blog has played a key role in maintaining a relationship with the crowd. In the first two years of the blog, the posts seem to be more personal. The language in these early blog posts help create a sense of community (Ancient Lives blog):

  • “indomitable…warriors”
  • “strenuous…web users”
  • “steadfast, indefatigable web users”

The posts cover a range of tutorials and support for the users. Later posts cover a much broader range of archaeological topics, suggesting the project is confident that it has a core group of transcribers.

For the volunteers there are a number of rewards, the ability to be part of an Egyptian archaeological project, to engage with the academic community, to improve knowledge of the Greek alphabet, to be ‘hands on’ with history. However there are also more tangible benefits:


Will Internet users get credit for the work they’ve done? “Absolutely,” Lintott said, “as with all Zooniverse projects, we’ll take great care to attribute credit correctly.” NBC News Blog

However, Ancient Lives does not use badges, internal competition or a ‘papyrus-ometer’ unlike Old Weather or Transcribe Bentham. However, there is some element of gamification – in fact one user referred to the transcription as a ‘computer game’.


Ridge highlights accuracy (either unintended mistakes or deliberate sabotage) as one of the concerns for teams organising crowdsourcing projects. When the project was originally launched, the intention was for each fragment to be viewed and transcribed 5 times, due to the popularity of the site, this was increased to 70-100 times. This seems to have had the desired effect:


Early tests indicate that the volunteer transcribers are doing an impressive job, producing transcriptions that agree with experts about 80 percent of the time. College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota blog

Is the project a success? 

  • In the first few days, 400,000 papyrus images had been viewed, and by the end of the first week 125000 volunteers had signed up.
  • By December 2012 – 1.5 million transcriptions had been completed which helped identify more than 100 texts
  • Between 1898 and 2012 76 volumes of the papyrus had been published (an average of 1.5 a year). Since the project started, 24 volumes have been published (an average of 12 a year).


Project site and associated links:

Ancient Lives – http://www.ancientlives.org

Ancient Lives blog – http://blog.ancientlives.org

Egypt Exploration Society – http://www.ees.ac.uk

Papyrology at Oxford University – http://www.papyrology.ox.ac.uk/Ancient_Lives/

Press release – http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_releases_for_journalists/110725.html

News reports and blogs:

Ancient Origins – http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/newly-deciphered-papyrus-reveals-ancient-greek-wrestling-matches-0998877

NBC News – http://cosmiclog.nbcnews.com/_news/2011/07/28/7189930-help-scientists-decipher-lost-gospel

College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota blog – http://cla.umn.edu/news/reach/summer2012.php?entry=356380

Discover, University of Minnesota blog – http://discover.umn.edu/news/science-technology/university-minnesota-research-project-combines-astrophysics-and-archeology

Forbes – http://www.forbes.com/sites/ricksmith/2014/09/15/scientists-recently-deciphered-an-ancient-manuscript-what-they-discovered-may-change-the-way-you-lead-and-live/

Wired – http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2011-07/26/ancient-lives-project


Ridge, Mia. “Frequently Asked Questions about Crowdsourcing in Cultural Heritage.” Open Objects, June 3, 2012.

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  1. Warren Urbik

    I saw the fb posting today (3/31/16) by atlasobscura.com. How may I contribute? I have ftried to learn Egyptian Hieroglyphic by myself and would like to think myself keen to know more. I believe that learning can only come through doing. Thank you for your time.

    1. SJKerr

      Hi, The project is run through Zooniverse and anyone can sign up to help. The texts themselves are fragments of Greek on papyrus fragments.

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