WEBSITE \ EVALUATION \ Comparative - 193-db – 1: C. Chaves Yates, January 2013

Comparative analysis of archaeological websites

Databases


     Many sub-fields of archaeology have taken advantage of the internet as a medium for presenting large data sets. Some of these data sets are created by compiling already published information and unpublished materials by people not directly affiliated with any of the excavations .
     A number of the databases are purposefully designed not to present the excavators' synthesis of materials, unlike the Urkesh website. In the case of OCHRE, it is explicitly done so that the data is available for interpretation by others, hence the licensing under Creative Commons instead of Copyright. Obviously one goal is to put the data in the public sphere so that it can be interpreted but additionally to preserve publication rights for the individual scholars working on the materials through the creation of cite-able data. Some database websites have corresponding sections with syntheses of materials published in a more traditional format.
      The databases that seek to reach across different archaeological sites (DAACS, OCHRE, and Open Context) often are heavy on small finds data. This could be because small finds data (zooarchaeology, paleoethnobotany, ceramic petrography and other small finds analysis) have a more standardized typology and are more easily sorted into a searchable database.
      With the exception of Catal Hoyuk (discussed below), these databases are not the primary data storage system for any excavation. The database is not being created in "real-time" the same way we create the UGR on a daily basis. Rather the databases represent a "final" presentation of data that the researchers have linked together to present. For example, DAACS has created a standardized version of multiple excavations in order to produce a comparative database.
     In addition, some websites seem to be more of an "archive" in that they are a direct (occasionally searchable) replica of older archaeological projects (for example see Penn Museum's Ur repository). They are often presented with little or no interpretation. This sub-category is somewhere between the PDF and the database. In some ways it could be considered a database of the PDF-style materials. The difference between this kind of repository-type project and a true database is that it is cataloged without standardization or categorization. For example, The Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR) has created a database of records including PDFs, excel charts and other databases. This meta-repository stores the information and provides a point of access but does not present any specific argument or true digital narrative.
     Catalog-style databases focus on a specific type of site or an artifact type and link together the materials and information from different sites. For example, there is a database compiling the locations of all known long barrow sites in England or another website that catalogs Persian figurines. These databases are generally non-interpretive and present the data for people to perform primary research.

     Amongst the larger, broader databases here is a movement (supported by OpenContext and OCHRE) towards using the ArchaeoML language for creating and organizing databases of archeological materials. It appears to function as relational database in a similar way to the UGR but more open-ended and certainly not "grammatical" like the UGR. According to the OpenContext website "AchaeoML uses an item-based information model, where individual atomic units of observation are related to each other and their descriptive attributes. Each item does not belong to a predetermined class (pottery, bone, deposit, grave good, etc.), but is, instead, an abstract entity that can have multiple descriptive properties and different forms of linking relations with other items" (citation).
      The remaining databases are of unique interest relative to the Urkesh website and will be discussed separately below. Each database has a slightly different goal and methodology yet none function in the same way as the UGR in developing a coherent argument.

Catal Hoyuk

     The Catal Hoyuk Database has a similar presentation to the UGR in some ways. The database is a subset of the larger website which presents a variety of materials such as site presentation, education, and a bibliography. The database itself can be used by searching or browsing .
     They also use a loose typology of terms for defining their materials and it appears that these are designed to facilitate searches, although it is not a closed system and other terms are acceptable . It is similar to the UGR in that it presents the features, observations and measurements of each feature in a browser format. There are some hyperlinks that allow navigation between different features, rooms, etc. but not nearly to the extent of the UGR. Also each feature, room, etc is presented relatively independently with little to link it to the bigger picture. In this way, the Catal database is more like a traditional database, where certain linkages are embedded in the construction of the database (all items belonging to a room, for example). The lack of systemic linking or a comprehensive underlying web of interconnectedness limits its ability to create digital narratives.
     There are sometimes links to "diary" entries which are similar to our daily entries but less discursive. According to the description of the database, the material/data is primarily added while the team is in the field with the exception of specialist analysis. Other than the UGR this is the only database I located that was created in sync with the excavations. A number of blogs (e.g. Egypt Today) are created during excavation but very few comprehensive databases are developed in this way.

The Open Context Project

      The Open Context database is aimed a broader goal of incorporating multiple archaeological projects into one seamless database (cited). It is still being developed and is run by the Alexandria Archive Institute. The data is organized in a semi-hierarchical structure (site, down to trench, down to feature, down to items). You can move between the levels with relative ease and each observation is attached to the original author. There are some hyperlinks that allow the user to navigate between similar items, or loci of the same stage or stratum, similar to the UGR although less thoroughly integrated. In some cases the majority of the information is included in the "description" section and is therefore not searchable or sort-able (such as Munsell colors). This also limits the flexibility of the database as each long record has to be combed for relevant information - unlike the UGR that presents each piece of information individually, stitched together to create the whole pattern. Instead, the Open Context presents the overall information but leaves it to be broken down by the user.
      The main strength of this project appears to be the open access that it is modeled on which allows it to be adaptable for multiple archaeological projects without locking them into a specific list of acceptable terminologies (unlike DAACS, see below).

DAACS - Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery

      The DAACS database is the distillation of multiple archaeological projects, all relating to slavery. According to the website it is a "Web-based initiative designed to foster inter-site, comparative archeological research on slavery throughout the Chesapeake, the Carolinas and the Caribbean" (cited). The most interesting feature of this database is the level of coordination that goes into formatting all the data from various sites into a standardized form. All data is converted to conform to the database standards, and summaries are produced not by the excavators, but by the database creators (although in conjunction with the original excavators). This standardization has the advantage of ease of comparability which fits with the overall mission of the project. The obvious downside is the possible limitations of thinking within a standard system, or being forced to shape data to fit the database structure, however, the limitations are somewhat mitigated by the fact that the data is standardized post-excavation, thereby not limiting the excavators. Unfortunately a project like this database requires significant post-processing and extensive funding and coordination not available or feasible for all projects.

Pompeii Database

      The Pompeii database is organized based on spatial relations with high quality digital photographs of each room and painting with a brief description. Because the data is organized spatially it limits some of the potential uses as it is difficult to find specific items, although the database does have a search function. The database is primarily focused on the buildings and paintings rather than archaeology. Although all archaeological data is linked to spatial data (loci, trenches, depth, etc.) it is often categorized by time period or typologies with the spatial information in a secondary position. In the case of the Pompeii data the time sequencing is less important and the spatial references take precedence.

tDAR: the Digital Archaeological Record

      This website is repository for archaeological material but as a repository it is generally non-narrative. It includes published papers, excel charts and databases but is not aimed at creating anything more than a gateway to accessing a variety of data. While this facilitates the open access ideals of numerous projects it is only offering access, rather than a coherent research-based presentation of curated materials.

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