Boundary Objects project

The Boundary Objects project (BOP) aims to:

• raise the profile of prehistoric grave goods in Scottish archaeology
• improve access to digital information about grave goods and the burial sites they came from
• create new opportunities for community groups and the wider public to help out with research into prehistoric burial practices

BOP is a collaboration between the Universities of Reading and Manchester in partnership with Historic Environment Scotland and National Museums Scotland. The project will run until 30 April 2022. It builds directly on research undertaken from 2016-2020 on the AHRC-funded Prehistoric Grave Goods Project.

BOP needs your help!

• Help make connections between finds and sites by registering for the Finds Hub and trying out the monthly task
• Have a go at transcribing and tagging images from the NMS archives on the Micropasts website
• Come along to an Ancient Death Café, listen to stories about ancient (and contemporary) burial practices and share your own ideas

If we work together to improve and link up disparate information about grave goods and create new stories about ancient burials, we can generate a new wave of digitally-oriented and widely accessible research into archaeological finds across Scotland. This will help secure the future accessibility of fragile archival material and remote museum collections.

Background to the project

The original Prehistoric Grave Goods Project showed that grave goods are both stunning and incredibly moving emotionally. Amazing stories can be told about the objects themselves, the burial practices associated with them, and the people who found them. Ancient grave goods also allow us to reflect in novel ways on death and burial in the contemporary world.

However, information about grave goods is often hard to access and distributed across multiple data-holdings. This means the stories of things themselves often get separated from the stories of the people with which they were buried and the places in which they were interred. Interpretations tend to focus on spectacular items from rich burial assemblages, overlooking the subtleties and poignancy of simpler offerings – pebbles worn smooth with handling, animal companions, a seal tooth pendant, and so on.

Importantly, despite the huge importance of grave goods in understanding our prehistoric past, there have few opportunities up until now for volunteers to help out with grave goods research. We are trying to change this.

Since April 2021, the Boundary Objects project has:

1. Hosted workshops with heritage professionals, community groups, and other stakeholders in order to establish needs, reflect on action and co-create best practice documents for finds-related volunteering and data flow

2. Built a new online tool – Finds Hub – to help researchers, professionals and the wider public to link digital information about archaeological objects (finds) in Scotland and the places they were discovered (sites). In its pilot phase, the Finds Hub will focus on prehistoric grave goods in Scotland. Once this information is connected, we can create new stories about Scottish burials and the people who found them

3. Created a series of crowd-sourcing projects on MicroPasts aimed at extracting new information and images from archival material at National Museums Scotland which can be used to improve museum records and for public displays

4. Hosted monthly Ancient Death Cafés. These are informal gatherings for sharing and developing ideas about grave goods research. Participants include members of the public, community group volunteers, PhD researchers, heritage professionals and ancient burials specialists. Together we will be producing new material for ‘long reads’ on the Canmore website, exhibitions, display boards and museum handling collections and developing further funding applications so that participants can take their ancient burial ideas further.