WEBSITE \ EVALUATION \ Comparative - 193 – 1: C. Chaves Yates, January 2013
IntroductionAlmost everyone and everything has an internet presence these days, from babies to businesses, from frivolous to academic – archaeology is no different, with hundreds of websites pertaining to archaeology and hundreds more for individual archaeological sites. This section defines and outlines four different types of archaeological websites as well as illuminating the way that they present information in relation to the digital thought of the Urkesh website. The report is based on a scan of the field of archaeological websites conducted in Summer/Fall of 2011.
In general, archaeological websites can be viewed as belonging to two overarching groups - Documentary and Discursive. The Documentary category includes static, linear style websites, also referred to as the PDF style websites. The other Documentary category is databases. The Discursive websites can be similarly divided with the static "brochure" type that provides a cursory overview and Visual style websites which are composed of visual data without interpretation. Obviously, individual websites can belong to more than one category and, in fact, it is our contention that the Urkesh website can be all of these at once. Each of these categories is briefly defined in this introduction. Further information can be found by following the links for each category. An Appendix of relevant sites is also included.
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DocumentaryDocumentary websites are those that have the primary goal of providing access to archaeological data, whether a database or final reports on excavations. These websites usually are maintained by academic institutions or individual projects and are aimed at an academic level.
Linear (PDF)The Documentary: PDF style website is an electronic reproduction of a linear text, reflecting the "Portable Document File" that PDF embodies. Often it is simply the link to a downloadable PDF of site reports or published articles. In other cases it is a full text produced in html with minimal hyperlinks. While this type arguably helps disseminate information about archaeology through ease of access, it does not take full advantage of the possibilities of digital publication. It represents a fixed linear narrative, as if mirroring a paper document. See here for more details.
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DatabaseThe Database category of websites is focused on collection and presenting the data of an excavation (or multiple excavations), generally without the development of an argument or narrative. The internet has changed the way these databases are presented and greatly increased their availability to the general public (Archaeology 2.0: New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration). Archaeological databases are structured in different ways and can be focused on one site (e.g. Catal Hoyuk), multiple sites (e.g. Open Context, OCHRE, tDAR) or have specific research foci (e.g. DAACS). Many databases available are similar to catalogs, including information on the location or distribution of specific kinds of sites or the collection of all finds of one particular type (e.g. Digmaster Figurine Database ). Other databases are more archival, focusing on the preservation of data, particularly data that was excavated some time ago. See here for more details.
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DiscursiveThe Discursive genre of sites provide a more general overview of archaeological materials, often just touching on one aspect of the data or providing a generic summary. These websites are valuable for providing information on a surface level, or as a stepping off point for more detailed research. Here we have broken them down into the more simplistic "brochure" style and the complex "visual" styles.
BrochureThe "Brochure" type is by far the most common, presenting cursory information about the site, excavations and in some cases includes links to the articles published in journals about the site. For this reason some sites are categorized as both Brochure and PDF. The brochure type often includes extensive visuals, including photographs, maps and videos but is generally limited in the scope of information presented. The goal is to give a glimpse of the material but not a full presentation. See here for more details.
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VisualsThe Visual websites take advantage of the web's unique ability to present non-textual information in large quantities. This often includes 3D reconstructions, interactive maps, large quantities of high quality photographs and visual tours. These generally do not provide a narrative or argument, simply providing access to the visual component of the data. There are a few cross-over projects that are also databases or contain links to brochures. See here for more details.
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General AnalysisDuring the course of my research I found that none of the sites visited appear to be creating material/arguments that are explicitly developed for the web in the way that the Urkesh website is. The websites either adhere to the traditional publication format (i.e. an article) projected in an electronic (as opposed to "digital") format or are comprised primarily of visuals with little or no interpretation.
The majority of websites present a short summary of the important aspects of the site alongside some visuals (maps, photographs and/or drawings) and usually a link to published works. Those that include published works are usually maintained by the researcher who published the work, or their home institution. In general the archaeological websites represent projects with ongoing excavations, rather than presenting a summary of finished work.
Additionally, there are some projects that are much larger in scope attempting to create a repository of archaeological data with no interpretation. These overarching databases are presented in the idea of the freedom of information and open access. The underlying philosophy is that archaeological data is thought to be part of the larger heritage of the word and therefore the primary data should be available to anyone, not just the finished publications and interpretations .Some authors have argued that all publicly funded work should also be available in its entirety (Archaeology 2.0: New Approaches to Communication and Collaboration). These databases are discussed further in the database section.
Some institutions maintain a small blurb and links to reports on all of the projects affiliated with their University or Institution . While these websites are little more than a digital repository of reports they are useful in providing a web presence and free access to archaeological data. This is valuable when little other information is available digitally about a site or project. In these cases it is assumed that the actual studying or "reading" will take place off-line .
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TheoryOne of the major drawbacks of digital presentation is that it requires maintenance and continual curation. As discussed in this analysis of "good practices" in digital archiving , it is important to have strong institutional support and a plan for the ongoing care of digital materials. During the course of the website research as many as half the links on any given link aggregation site returned errors indicating the websites could no longer be found. Some of these appeared to be because the researcher transferred universities, or the institution migrated their website but the links were never forwarded. Although it may seem that this issue is of minor importance, these link aggregation sites actually serve an important purpose. Much the way that an oft-cited research article can gain influence through continued citation, a website's influence is also based on how often it is linked, the electronic equivalent of citations. If a website is not linked it is often difficult to locate unless the searcher knows exactly what they are looking for. Because many of the search engines use the inter-linkage of websites in deciding how to rank their search results, these link aggregation sites provide an important service (e.g. google).
Some studies (Archaeology 2.0 - p.141)have disused the "power of contextualization". These studies have demonstrated that catalogues and databases are not considered accessible due to lack of narrative. Although it was considered relatively easy to acquire and understand the tagging or cataloguing systems, users did not find a website to be a useful without the accompanying context. A number of the databases and repositories simply present data with very little to contextualize them or to make the data more accessible to a non-specialist audience, or in some cases, even to a specialist who does not work with the same material.
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AudienceAs G. Buccellati explains on the Urkesh website, the concept of the intended audience of the website is often unarticulated, yet remains important . As discussed above, there are websites that range from a cursory introduction to an in-depth analysis of materials that are specialized even within the field of archaeology. In many cases the audience is simply implied, but there is no discussion of who uses these websites and how they might interact with the data.
A number of websites are clearly aimed at children and educators. These often focus on the "how" of archaeology with the particulars of the excavation as a secondary focus (DigNubia for example). The SAA even has a category in their links section for "Designed for classroom use" and "Interactive activities for kids". The websites often contain little of value for researchers, academics or even interested lay-people. Obviously, these websites are designed with a completely different goal than something like the Urkesh website but it is a popular style and provides a useful service. It would be possible (funding permitting) to run this kind of website alongside a higher level website, or embedded within a more complex web presentation of data.
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ConclusionsBased on my research, the Urkesh website is unique in its presentation of archaeological data alongside a full interpretation. The integration of the data into the flow of the website is unparalleled in other websites. Although a number of databases are working towards incorporating the data included in the UGR in a similar manner, using hyperlinks to move between the different levels of data, they lack the interpretive counterpart of the "left-hand side" of the UGR. The Catal Hoyuk website remains the most promising example with an easy-to-use database that is updated regularly (and apparently while in the field). The majority of the websites are a simple introduction to the site with a map, some pictures and perhaps a link to some scholarly publications.
As discussed above, the Urkesh website includes Documentary and Discursive aspects. It can produce a complex argument that goes further than the traditional linear format (see Digital Thought), as well as presenting complex archaeological data for researchers (see RECORD). There are numerous photographs and videos designed to give both a general impression of the site as well as provide documentary information (see VIDEOS).
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An Appendix of sites catalogued was compiled during the creation of this report. It includes links to sites as discussed above. It is not a complete catalogue of existing archaeological sites but it includes those relevant to the Urkesh website. See here for more details.