Vol. XVII, No. 2
CSA Newsletter Logo
Fall, 2004

Archaeological Site Panoramas on the Web

Harrison Eiteljorg, II

A new web site was recently announced on the Ancient Near East Internet list (anenews@listhost.uchicago.edu). The web site presents Quicktime Virtual Reality® (QTVR) panoramas of ancient sites (and requires both Quicktime and Macromedia Flash® plug-in software) along with bibliographic information, short commentaries, a brief historic outline of each site, still images, and a glossary meant to provide key terms for all sites, not site-by-site. Yet to come are guided tours. The web site is the product of The Virtual World Project -- (http://moses.creighton.edu/vr - hereafter VWP). The project directors are Ronald A. Simkins and John J. O'Keefe at Creighton University.

The ancient sites included are from Greece, Israel, and Turkey, though the home page indicates that ancient sites from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Cyprus are expected.

Progress with the various sites to be included is clearly irregular; so there is a convenient page showing the status of the work. It can be checked for each of the countries included in the long-term plan. For each country there is a list of sites for which any work has been done and a check list of the parts of the work completed. (In the case only of Israel, there are sites listed on which nothing has yet been completed.)

The announcement compared the QTVR scenes to those available via Metis (www.stoa.org/metis), which has a large number of QTVR panoramas for more than 50 sites in Greece and Turkey. I had not looked at those QTVR scenes, which were prepared by Bruce Hartzler, for some time but looked again to compare. I also wanted to look again because the fact that the two web projects are working along similar lines suggests potential waste and duplication of effort, a common problem on the web.

The Metis QTVR scenes are excellent. They are responsive, and the panoramas are well-considered; if a given vantage point is only useful for a narrower panorama, Mr. Hartzler has wisely provided only that narrower view. VWP provides similar images and two higher-resolution modes that make their output more impressive and more informative; I found no narrow panoramas. (The lowest-resolution VWP image is very close to the Metis resolution; the higher-resolution version is about half again as large, and the highest resolution images are just over twice the size of the low-resolution images.) The Metis videos include a map for each one, showing where the camera was positioned, but the method for selecting alternate vantage points is not intuitive and does not permit the user to see other available vantage points in advance. There are "hot spots" in the QTVR scenes on which the user may click to change points of view (and to change the map so the map always shows the current vantage point), and there are labels that sometimes help the viewer recognize the structures in the scene. VWP panorama pages provide a map of the entire ancient site and show all the vantage points from which panoramas were made so that the user can easily select the desired vantage point. There are no hot spots, but the system makes them unnecessary.

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Fig. 1 - Top: the highest-resolution image from VWP; middle: the lowest-resolution images from VWP; bottom: the Metis standard-resolution image. All are shown at actual size.

Both sites indicate vantage points on their maps with small dots. I would have preferred an arrow that showed both the vantage point and the starting line of sight.

The Metis site includes traditional panoramas; vertical coverage is rarely more than the range apparent on the starting screen. Some of the VWP panoramas include much more above and below the line of sight, a full 180-degree vertical view, permitting viewers (for some, not all, of the presentations) to look virtually straight up or down.

In terms of the QTVR scenes, VWP's use of higher-resolution versions is a significant improvement over Metis. I found the map to be preferable as well, since I could pick known vantage points.

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Fig. 2 - Left: the map used for Metis' presentation of Corinth. The red dot in the center is the current vantage point. Right: part of the map used for VWP's presentation of Corinth (scanning and zooming are possible). The "red" dots are locations of standard panoramas; the orange dots are locations of panoramas with 180-degree vertical range. The larger yellow dot is the current vantage point.

The Metis site has, in addition to the "hot spots" for changing vantage points, similar "hot spots" (the icon is the same) that lead to information about the structure currently showing in the panorama. Clicking yields the Perseus page describing the structure. While there are relatively few such links, they provide excellent access to the information available via Perseus. (The small number of links, it seems from my examination, is simply because there are relatively few structures in most sites that have separate listings in Perseus.)

The VWP site also adds a great deal of information to the panoramas. Basic site descriptions, bibliography, and historical overviews are provided (or planned), and there are still images as well. Virtual tours are planned, but I could not find any.

The text presented with the images on the VWP site seems to have been written without any awareness the images. In the samples I read, I could find no references to images at all. The situation suggested to me a slide lecture presented twice: once as lecture only, without the slides, and once as slides only, without the lecture. Despite those limits, the text on the VWP could and did refer to specific structures within the sites.

I found the bibliographies to be skimpy; the historical narrative seemed much more complete.

The still images were not very well labeled. For instance, the old black-and-white photos of Corinth from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens had no indication of their dates. Many recent photos had only the names of the photographers for labels.

Both Metis and VWP provide remarkably valuable panoramas for students and scholars. I found them more helpful for sites I knew, since they could remind me of things I had seen in person. With the added information available via the VWP site, the sites I had not visited could also be viewed usefully. However, with a complex site and no labels on small-scale drawings and only colors to distinguish phases, it is very hard to be sure what one is seeing. The result is less useful than I would have hoped. It would be very helpful if the descriptions referred to the images.

Looking at the Metis site, I had initially been impressed that Mr. Hartzler decided to provide a discrete service without unnecessary bells and whistles. While I might prefer higher-resolution images, there are limits on resolution resulting from time and bandwidth (and it is quite possible that higher-resolution images could be produced today from the original images). I remain impressed with the images and the limited aims. The connection to Perseus adds to Metis' usefulness and shows the kind of cooperative work possible on the web.

The VWP, on the other hand, has more impressive images and far wider aims. Those wider aims are certainly laudatory. However, I find myself preferring the Metis approach. By limiting itself to the images, that site leaves to others the tasks that fall within their purview and takes to itself only that which best utilizes Mr. Hartzler's particular interests. Given the existence of sites like Perseus and the TAY (Archeological Settlements of Turkey) Project, which seem to me to be better positioned to add the commentary, I would prefer to see a site such as VWP conceiving itself as something more like Metis -- useful and effective QTVR panoramas connected to data on other sites -- without trying to do everything in one place. The largest advantage to the web should be the ability to connect data from multiple sources, each with its own strengths; that explains my preference for limiting individual web sites to relatively discrete areas and making wider connections via the web.

In the end, I found myself wishing, as I have before in other contexts, that the VWP personnel had been able or willing to work with the Metis personnel and to limit its aims as Mr. Hartzler originally did. Adding its superior map interface and higher-resolution panoramas would have been very useful and allowed, I think, a good deal more "bang for the buck." It would also have given us one site to check for these useful panoramas instead of two. Linking to existing sources of information rather than writing new information would also, in my view, have provided more benefits at lower cost. Nevertheless, the VWP web site is certainly a useful one that is recommended.

-- Harrison Eiteljorg, II

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