Vol. IX, No. 2

August, 1996

History Through Art: Ancient Greece - A CD Review

Donald H. Sanders

The CD-ROM entitled History through Art: Ancient Greece (Zane Publishing, Dallas, TX, 1995; $24.95) is one of nine in a series of CDs exploring the art of the western world from ancient Greece, ca. 800 BC, through the 20th century. The titles are available on so-called PowerCDs, a proprietary CD-ROM authoring and publishing system devised and distributed by Zane. The system allows the same disk to be played on a PC with a Microsoft Windows operating environment or on a Macintosh. No files are copied to the hard drive (although an option provides for executing the program from a screen icon). This CD aims to explore the world of ancient Greece through discussions and reproductions of its artworks. I will cover issues concerning system requirements, user interface, subject coverage, navigation, and functionality.

Minimum system requirements are as follows: for a PC - 386/33MHz processor running Microsoft Windows 3.1x (or Windows95), 4MB RAM (8MB recommended), 2X speed CD-ROM player, VGA monitor (SVGA with 640 x 480, 256 colors recommended), mouse, and sound card; for a Macintosh - 68030+ Mac with 256 colors, System 7+, 8MB RAM, and 2X CD-ROM player. I viewed the software on a 486/66, with 16MB RAM, Microsoft Windows 3.11, double-speed CD, sound card, and video card set to 1024 x 768, 256 colors. The presentation went smoothly each time I opened the program, except for one occasion when the computer froze and an error message appeared. (This could have been the fault of the program or of Microsoft Windows.)

In my earlier review of this title (Sanders, "Surfing Ancient Lands: a guide to CD-ROM offerings" Archaeology 49.3: 63-64, 1996) for the general audience with an interest in ancient history, I came to the conclusion that, for those users, the presentation format, depth of added reference materials, and hyperlinks made the program a valuable learning resource. When I returned to the CD to consider its value for a different audience, I asked different questions, and I examined it from a different perspective. It was no longer new to me, and it did not wear well. Thus, while I would still recommend the CD for a general audience, my recommendation might not be so enthusiastic, and for the specialist or professional, I have concluded that the CD has much less of value to offer, as will be explored here.

Subject Matter and Presentation

After an introductory 17-second segment with images and background music, the program launches into the Feature Presentation, which lasts for about 43 minutes. It consists of a slide show with voice-over and text set below the images repeating the words of the narration. The presentation is a rather basic and simplistic overview of ancient Greek beliefs, some major art works, and a few sites, with such standards as the Greek emphasis on humanism, perfection, and beauty. No more than a sentence or two is given for any image. Missing were in-depth discussion about such issues as why the object was created, cultural context, where the object was located or found, and stylistic development, except in the broadest terms. Often there was no correlation between the image shown and the subject of the narration (e.g., "The Greeks were a traditional people who avoided change for its own sake . . . " - the accompanying image was a distant view over the Athenian Agora toward the Theseum; the image label read "Temple near Acropolis").

During the presentation, the user may click on blue keywords to bring up a list of 184 pre-arranged subjects from the Ancient Greece Index section of the disk's encyclopedia; text in green links to a glossary offering a two- or three-line definition. The presentation may be paused at any point and other sections of the CD viewed. A "Save Position" toggle in a pull-down menu allows the user to mark a location and return to that spot later. However, there is no way to mark multiple locations or to fast forward; the user can advance one page at a time or with a "Go To Page __" option.

Four special icons are available during the Feature Presentation: one to enlarge the photo; one to obtain additional information about the photograph; one to bring up Question mode (see below); and one to jump to the encyclopedia (see Reference Materials below). Jumping to the encyclopedia brings the user not to an entry providing data about the topic in the image but to the first item in the Ancient Greece Index. There is no way to search for a specific topic from here; users may only scroll through the set of topics.

At all times, several "modes" are available for accessing additional information on the CD. "Text mode" brings up a window containing a list of 224 topics relating to the use of the CD, the various presentations that can be viewed, and other Zane products. No search mechanisms are provided; users must scroll through the entries one at a time. Entries include data from each state in the 1990 United States Census (one of several general reference sources included on this disk, see below).

"Question mode" and "Quiz mode" provide access to questions about the material presented - with multiple-choice answers ("Question mode") or not.

For the most part the information that is provided on the CD is accurate (however, two images labeled "The Citadel, 13th century BC, Athens, Greece" were instead views of Mycenae). Some viewers may quibble with some of the dates, but the variance is well within the bounds of general scholarly understanding. Some irregular or nonstandard spellings appeared, and a few editorial errors were noted. Dates are inconsistently given as "b.c." or "B.C.," and for no apparent reason century is sometime spelled out or abbreviated as "Cent."

The brief image identification labels are not always strictly accurate. For example, one label reads "Athena, 6th century BC" when more properly it should read "depiction of Athena on a vase dated to the 6th century BC." That is, the date does not pertain to Athena, nor is the photo of Athena. The more detailed information about the same photograph reads somewhat better: "black-figure amphora, Athena between columns . . . ." A minor point, but for educating the public through art, it is worth emphasizing that the artworks themselves are the objects.

Sometimes the labels and storylines are just strange (e.g., "Among the 300-odd temples left to us by 800 years of Greek civilization, many were smaller than the Parthenon and many were larger" accompanied by a view of the Olympieon in Athens with the label reading "Temple columns").

Rarely is a topic discussed beyond one-paragraph segments. There seem to be no in-depth analyses of any subject or artwork, no outline of possible scholarly debate on issues, no mention of opposing viewpoints, no presentation of the evidence supporting any statements, and no references cited for the information given. Short, straightforward statements are the norm.

Reference Materials

Beside the census information (mentioned above), a dictionary and an encyclopedia are included on the CD providing information beyond ancient Greece.

Among the glaring reference sources missing from the CD is a bibliography of any sort; there is not even a selected reading list for ancient Greece as a whole or for any topic mentioned on the disk. Although I did not read every word on the disk or look at every image, I did not stumble across any mention of archaeologists (except one 2-line blurb about Schliemann), no timeline, no history of Greek periods or styles, no site excavation data, and no listing of artworks by type, style, or date.

The images play a central role in this presentation. Here, too, the CD falls short of expectations. Too many images are washed out or too dark to appreciate subtle details in carving or painting; a few are out of focus. The main object in some images is inexplicably cut off, as with the head of the statuette of the 12th-dynasty Egyptian steward, Senbi; or with the view of the Giza pyramids. Many important artworks are absent. There is no mention of art forms besides architecture, sculpture, and vase painting.

A few drawings are intermingled with the photographs. Several are ineffective. Such is the case for one diagram of the parts of a Greek temple on which the space between columns is labeled "columns." The diagrams are the only images for which source references are given; in this case the narrator says "original artwork." One of the few plans provided is an old drawing of the Acropolis in Athens, courtesy of the American Geographical Society, with numerous monuments missing and the Propylaea cut off. There is no overall list of photographs or drawings used.

There is no way to get more detailed information about any photograph or to learn more about the subject shown unless a hyperlink is embedded in the accompanying text. Users will have to search through the encyclopedia or dictionary for keywords, and it may take some hunting to see whether background data are available. As with all hypertext media, a negative result from a search leaves the user wondering whether there really is no information on that subject or whether the search query was phrased incorrectly, too broadly, or too narrowly.

User Interface

Navigation may proceed by clicking on icons along the bottom of the screen, by using keyboard shortcuts, or by accessing pull-down menus. Most icons are self-explanatory, a few are not. A camera icon, used to obtain an enlarged image, does not take a snapshot of the image for later use, as that icon usually indicates. The page-up and page-down icons face left and right respectively, rather than up and down.

General subject access is through a series of indices; the main index provides a list of all major topics on the CD. Some of the topics listed have more specific local indices from which to focus on a subject. A History Table of Contents tabulates CD features visited each session.

For specific searches, there is a "Find Word" menu item that allows the user to see how many times a word is used in either of three venues (Feature Presentation, Presentation, and Text), but users are limited to one-word searches. I asked for the "Temple of Apollo at Corinth" and "Temple of Apollo," but only "Apollo" got results.

Apparently there is no truncation, no Boolean searching, no multiword searching, and no way to refine a search should the pick list be too large, as was the case for "Apollo." Inexplicably, the "OK" button does not initiate the search; it cancels the search.

No written material ships with the CD; thus, all Help information is on screen. The exhaustive Help files cover all commands, presentation modes, navigation specifics, and the general organization of subjects. To learn how to use the CD or any specific item found on it, the user has to open the help screens and search for a topic; no context-sensitive help is provided.


Information is imparted through narration, sound clips, still images, and text; there are no animations, no video clips, no 3D images, and no use of virtual reality as found elsewhere (Sanders, "Surfing Ancient Lands: a guide to CD-ROM offerings," Archaeology 49.3: 60-66, 1996).

Although all the extra reference tools provide multiple look-ups for topics and sources of information on all sorts of subjects, the end result is that the focus of the disk on ancient Greece is lost. The lack of in-depth discussions and of opposing opinions on complex subjects make the CD of little use for scholars or advanced students but adequate for early students from 6th grade upward to high school. The curious and critical user will find the data significantly wanting. The inability to bookmark important sections and to mark previously read sections are barriers to use as a helpful resource. The lack of bibliography, supplementary reading list, or sources of images is especially bothersome. Too much has been omitted, and what is presented is of mixed quality. The goal of teaching history through art has not been met.

For other reviews of CD's and Web sites, consult the index of reviews.

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