Articles in Vol. XXIII, No. 2
Publishing Data in Open Context: Methods and Perspectives
Digital Antiquity and the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR): Broadening Access and Ensuring Long-Term Preservation for Digital Archaeological Data
Website Review: Kommos Excavation, Crete
The New Acropolis Museum: A Review
Aggregation for Access vs. Archiving for Preservation
Miscellaneous News Items
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Index of Web site and CD reviews from the Newsletter.
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Website Review: Kommos Excavation, Crete
Andrea Vianello, Intute
(See email contacts page for the author's email address.)
An archaeological publishing strategy for the new millennium
Kommos is a major archaeological site in the Mesara Plain of Crete, close to the Minoan Palace of Phaistos, the Minoan villa of Agia Triada and several important Minoan tholoi (e.g. Kamilari). The site has yielded Neolithic, Minoan and Greek materials and architectural structures. The website focuses on the Minoan and Greek antiquities. The excavations were initiated by a Canadian team in 1976 in collaboration with The American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the Greek Archaeological Service and are still continuing.
Kommos was understood to be the harbour of Phaistos, but the excavations have revealed that Kommos acquired significant importance after the demise of Phaistos in the Late Bronze Age, with long-distance contacts that have continued into the Iron Age with the Phoenicians, before a Greek centre was established. In addition, the unearthing of structures that have been interpreted as shipsheds has also attracted much attention to the site from researchers. The archaeological site is not open to the public, but there are undefined plans to open it in the future and the Greek Archaeological Service is taking care of the maintenance. The archaeological site is visible from the fence delimiting its external perimeter.
The Kommos excavation has a proud history of prompt publication, and the excavators have clearly understood the need to move from the original paper-based system to digital presentations. However, there are now three barely related digital presentations and little to suggest that those in charge have a structured plan as they move forward. The attempted integration of printed and digital publishing within the framework of highly conservative archaeological publishing is the most important matter and the focus of this review. In particular, I shall look at the integration and potential of the digital output rather than considering any of the websites as an independent resource. The three websites and the printed series are part of a single strategy of publication and cannot be assessed individually with any degree of fairness.
Description of the Websites
The original website, the earliest to have been produced and published by the Art Department, University of Toronto, is elegant in style, rigorous in the data presented, but falls short of the expectations of any researcher or student in terms of information, and it presupposes some previous academic readings on the subject to be properly understood. In short, it should be a window on an exceptional archaeological site for the general public and possibly a first point of contact for interested people, but it fails on all accounts because it tries to be too academic (here in the negative connotation, meaning serious, detached and very knowledgeable), but it ultimately fails even in that because of the paucity of information that it contains.
The new website, still "under construction," may be not ready, and it may seem unfair to comment on it at this stage, but I think that if it is published then some constructive comments should be welcome. It has a powerful story to tell, namely the difficulties related to the maintenance of such a site and the efforts made by several people to overcome them. It has a purpose, to encourage donations and raise the international profile of the archaeological site. It has an audience to inform to reach the purpose. Yet, it looks like a pastiche, where mixed ideas are squeezed incoherently into irrelevance. It seems obvious to me that the authors meant that website to be a blog with some informative sections. So why not use the interface of a proper blog and re-publish all useful contents from the original website to strengthen the new one?
The digital repository is definitely the most developed and usable of the three digital publications (or "websites"). A further edition of the materials in the repository as data disc would be welcome, at least for some documents. It is great that access to the repository has motivated the authors to produce a little extra, even if currently limited to a few tables and short articles. A great opportunity offered by digital versions of hefty volumes is that they make it possible to perform a search of the whole text. In the case of Kommos V and several other archived documents however, one has to download far too many individual files before attempting such an operation: searching PDF files is possible on most search engines, and it should be a mandatory requirement for academic repositories. The decision to place several papers along with notebooks and full books without some proper interface to access them is the major problem: the repository appears a dump of old stuff and may be easily ignored by people fretting around in busy modern lives.
Figure 1 – Home page of the original website, Kommos Excavation
The home page of the primary website is a bulleted list of pages (fig. 1) with a picture that changes as the pointer hovers over the options. No picture appears at first loading.
The Credits section appears at the end of the introduction. Contact details appear at the end of the FAQ page, but amount only to a mailing address in Toronto. There is no email address or contact form specified in the website, and this should be considered a shortcoming.
The layout on all secondary pages consist of a banner with all options from the home page on the top, a series of images on the left and some explanatory text or captions on the right. Clicking an image opens a large version of the same picture. There are very few hyperlinks to other parts of the website. Even for sections such as Minoan Town there is no introductory text.
Figure 2 – Minoan Town (there are further 6 images and captions to the end of the page)
The website proper is underwhelming and a lost chance to present the archaeological site to the public (e.g., see fig. 2 for the kind of pictures with short captions that cannot replace a solid introductory text). In a recent visit to the archaeological site, there were no signs or panels explaining anything on site, and the people maintaining the site were themselves curious about the site but had no access to any information. The base of the excavations is located at some distance from the site itself and is not signposted, preventing any interested visitor to acquire information. Thus, the importance of an accessible website comes to light, and improving the website by adding at least a Greek version and more materials and information targeting the general public is a development that is needed.
A new website on Kommos is being built, but it is advertised only in the digital repository and it appears run by the non-profit organisation Kommos Conservancy, a group of people including the excavators that is promoting the conservation and development of the archaeological site. The website is chaotic in its organisation to say the least, but at least it addresses some of the issues expressed for what is labelled here as the original website. To be fair, there is a warning that the website is "under construction," but the website is also linked, freely accessible and actively updated.
Figure 3 – The opening page of the new website (the home page seems to contain far too many articles one after the other and an oversized navigation bar is available at the bottom of the page)
The new website would benefit from running some blog software to provide it with a familiar feeling and some organisation to the many ideas and articles on very different topics that are available. The home page appears as a blog and lacks categorisation of entries, the articles are presented at their full length. There are at least three articles appearing on the overlong page, one with a personal character and even humour on bull leaping, an informative note on what is happening regarding the opening of the archaeological site to the public and information on forthcoming new research (being printed in scholarly journals and publications).
The bottom bar has a link to a Flickr page, access to apparently unused RSS feeds and some technical pages, links to various websites in a curious alphabetic order, and a list of recent news.
The About page is somewhat puzzling. The first third contains an oversized picture followed by an interactive section presenting the Kommos Conservancy. The second third contains a chronological sequence of the ancient phases of Kommos and is labelled History of Kommos. The final third appears to continue the second half, but it contains a story of the excavations leading to some comments on the future of Kommos. It is made explicit here that the Greek government has simply insufficient money to take care of Kommos and that the non-profit organisation, Kommos Conservancy, has been set-up to fund the future maintenance and study of the archaeological site. The oversized bottom bar is present here as in all other pages, and will be ignored in reviewing the other pages.
The Documents section is another messy page, with some articles appearing as not ready, but actually they can be accessed and are readable. Here the conservation plan, a survey, bibliographical references, the budget, data on the roof shelters over the Greek Sanctuary and the kiln and some of the attempts made to involve the public are presented. I note only that in 2009 the maintenance of Kommos cost € 449,815 (US $ 603,697). This website is up to a considerable challenge in finding substantial funds. It is worth focusing on the attempts made so far to involve the public, in light of my personal assessment on location that the archaeological site was not explained or promoted to the local community or passing visitors (to some popular beaches). Apart from the declaration of the local mayor and city council in support of the efforts on preserving the site, the flyers section seems interesting. The project seems to have been presented in a few occasions, when flyers were prepared. The flyers are in PDF format on the site. Most presentations have been made in Colorado, USA, but the project needs international visibility and to involve the Cretan community. The website could offer a starting point in that direction.
The Donate and Contact pages are single pages with the required information. The Blog contains all articles and allows for comments, but it needs some serious overhaul as it is as counterintuitive as it can be. It seems that while the original website was initially aimed at researchers and then abandoned in favour of the digital repository, the new website is aimed at donors and politicians. The inconsistencies in the use of the digital media and the apparent incompatibility of targeting different audiences in a coordinated manner are problematic. In fact, the new website is messy probably because it is not clear to the authors whom they are targeting, what should be said, and how. The clearest and most effective pages are those (About - the final third - and Documents) with the history of efforts made to preserve the archaeological site against a dire financial situation. It is a story worth telling, but it needs perhaps a storyteller, someone who can write such a story: the actual medium (blog, article, PDF paper, multimedia website) hardly matters provided it is clear what it is to be said and to whom.
Most aptly for an archaeological team that is trying hard to embrace digital technologies to communicate scientific results, it is expected that social media such as Facebook, Twitter and podcasts will join the line. In the meantime, the Kommos Consultancy website contains already one podcast (linked from the BBC and not focusing on Kommos specifically) and the website links to a page on Flickr with several pictures by the archaeological team. There is officially a blog, but clearly I do not share the same idea with the authors about what a blog is, or at least how it is presented. As a matter of fact, the home page has a feeling of a blog far more than the blog.
Figure 4 – The Flickr page
Linked by both websites (with a broken link on the original website) is the digital repository, a treasure-trove of documents both published and unpublished on Kommos. Here there are modern tools such as RSS feeds and mailing lists to keep updated on the archiving of new documents. Most efforts to update the old website since 2007 have been concentrated here. Archaeologists need not access the website to find this repository: it was first advertised in the Preface (p. xiv) of Kommos V, the 2006 volume of the on-going series of printed publications. This creates an unusual set of printed and digital publications linking to each other, to a hybrid publishing strategy. I would prefer to see a CD-ROM or digital disc containing the documents currently archived in the digital repository accompanying future volumes, as has been the case for the Well Built Mycenae series, since the publication of archaeological excavations is definitive due to the destructive nature of archaeology, while no digital repository currently assure its presence in the future. A reliable, long-term Web repository that is kept up-to-date, backed up and with an accessible interface would be the best solution, but such a service is unlikely to be offered by a single institution. My concern is that funding problems could easily affect a repository such as the one run by the University of Toronto. A repository modelled on arXiv is the best option thanks to the mirrors for reliability and back-ups as well as its recognised status of worldwide repository for a certain type of materials, but I am currently unaware of a worldwide central repository for archaeological data. In absence of that, a data disc accompanying the publication is in my opinion necessary.
Figure 5 – The opening page of the repository website
The repository contains a few concise introductory texts, several papers, preliminary reports and field notebooks, as well as the most recent printed volume in the Kommos series of publications, Kommos V. This is a lengthy volume with more than 1200 pages published in 2006, and it is unique to find a recent and expensive book available online for free. Given the costs of archaeological publications and the limited readership of such series, digital publishing may be a good option to cut costs and ensure an appropriate circulation of the data. The volume is available as for all other documents in PDF format (not in the standardised PDF format suitable for the long-term archiving of documents such as PDF/A) without any restrictions. The volume is split in several files, which can be accessed one by one through the interface of the website. The files are fully searchable, but cannot be searched in sequence or without prior downloading.
Figure 6 – Kommos V in digital format (the full volume is split in 43 PDF files)
New contents are frequently added to the repository; at the time of review 228 documents could be found, most of them divided into multiple PDF files. A few documents were maps in JPEG format. In addition to the digital edition of the Kommos V volume there is a series of tables, which have not been included in the volume due to printing costs. There are also the plates of the second volume of Kommos IV, a bibliographical guide and a concordance of artefacts from Kommos stored at the Herakleion museum.
There are a few metadata entries provided on the page leading to the PDF files, but these can be inaccurate (e.g., Kommos V is reported to have been published in 1990 instead of 2006) or pointing to functions not implemented yet (e.g., groups such as Books are frequently mentioned, but no such groups were available to browse at the time of the review). There is no facility to download all PDF files contained in one document with one command, and this can result in tedious downloading of multiple individual files with the risk of missing some files. These documents are not suitable for online reading, and most people will probably wish to search through them or print some specific pages, rather than read through the document section after section. Clearly the digital repository does not offer the best experience to access the data (there is no useful online search) and most people may find it more useful to head to their library.
The field notebooks, specialist reports and trench reports are an extraordinary addition to the publications. It is not common to be able to access such data for most excavations, and field notes have been researched to complement scanty publications only for very old excavations. It is unclear how useful these resources may be, given the detailed account provided by the printed publications and their preliminary status, but nonetheless they are much appreciated. These documents are hand-written and contain sketches and annotated photos. The trench reports are accompanied by some useful maps to identify the exact locations of the trenches (not an easy task however) and are accompanied by a variety of documents, some typewritten, essentially preliminary notes of studies and early ideas jotted down. The field notebooks seem more readable, but are organised by date, and it can be extremely difficult to find the notebook with the potential annotations on a certain artefact or area. Moreover, they contain several notes in personal style or not strictly relevant to the publication of data that make them more suitable as a diary recording the history of the excavations rather than as a primary source of information on the excavations. None of these additional documents significantly adds to the printed publications, and this is good news for most scholars because it can be very hard to extract useful information from these documents.
There is also a short series of typed transcriptions of interviews carried out in the 1970s with elders in the local village about recent visits by archaeologists in the area (i.e., Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos) and the removal of stones from the archaeological area before the start of formal excavations.
I feel it important to single out another document, Storage and Organization of the Painted Plasters from House X at Kommos, with Comments on the Unpublished “Loose Plasters” by Maria C. Shaw, which is dated 2 October 2009. This is a shorter article on some plasters. It was written specifically for the repository, and it contains information and data that have been omitted in a forthcoming book. It seems therefore that the repository is now being used deliberately as a place for all writings related to the excavations that cannot be published in printed form for one reason or another. I note here that unlike old notebooks and reports that may appear redundant in light of the published series of volumes, some scholarship that may have never been written up otherwise is produced specifically for distribution through this channel. Albeit minor or complementary, the repository seems to have found a role for the future.
The series of volumes
Figure 7 – Two volumes of the Kommos printed series (Kommos V
The actual volumes in the Kommos series that formally publishes the final results of the excavations at Kommos cannot be reviewed here in any detail, but it seems useful to comment on them briefly.
The volumes benefit from contributions by several scholars, and like most such publications, they are part catalogue of data (both artefacts and contexts) and part interpretation of the same data. Each volume follows the state of the excavations and the areas targeted to that date, and therefore the focus remains on specific artefacts and contexts rather than the overall interpretation of the site.
Multiple volumes may return to the same topics as new evidence is found. This is the case for the Late Minoan ceramic imports, first published in Kommos III (pp. 153-183) and then with new data from the Southern Area added in Kommos V (pp. 646-688).
Despite the presence of many tables and plates, the focus remains on single artefacts, and the volumes succeed as catalogues, with some valid, but very narrow interpretations. There is nothing wrong with this; archaeological excavations are painstakingly slow processes, and to have some detailed publications of the materials and contexts found is excellent. The series of volumes will have to continue, and it will remain the essential source of information on the excavations.
The excavations at Kommos are very important, especially in relation to Bronze Age Mediterranean trade, due to the ceramic imports and the shipsheds found. The excavators have decided to embrace digital technologies to improve the communication of their results, and they appear committed to opening up to further opportunities offered by digital presentations, including social media. The attempt to produce a hybrid publishing system involving traditional printed volumes, one digital repository and two websites should be considered and evaluated by anyone publishing archaeological data.
The websites are not intended to be an alternative to printed publications, venues for preliminary publications, or a first point of contact for researchers. They may instead be taken to be an open test attempting to integrate traditional and modern ways of communicating results. The result is somewhat chaotic, but it provides useful insights on what the future of archaeological publishing may be.
I am worried by the apparent proliferation of separate websites, each demonstrating uncertainty about its target audience, its possibilities and its role in the publication of the excavations. The printed publications may not be very readable or organised according to a definitive set of criteria, but they remain useful, indeed critical, because their objective is clear: the prompt publication of chunks of data as quickly as possible, as rigorously as possible, leaving final interpretations and elegant generalisations to the day when the excavations will be over, with all data published. Unless the same clarity of purpose is achieved with the websites, they cannot be expected to succeed. It is not even possible to define success without clear purposes.
Were the aims of the websites more clear, the lack of structure and poor layouts (both of the repository and especially of the new website) affect the usability of the websites. It is not sufficient to consign scientific documents to a repository. Issues of long term availability and appropriate access to the documents to maintain usability and accessibility must be considered. At the very least, a website providing an interface and some organisation of the documents should be prepared, even if the actual documents are stored on another server. It is important that scholars can find the correct documents quickly. As it is, there is great potential, but I would not be able to find the digital documents focusing on the specific materials published on a given page of the printed publications easily. Digital publishing is certainly the right direction to move to, but the current experiment with Kommos demonstrates that some specific understanding of and skills related to digital publishing are necessary to be truly successful. For instance, the documents of the repository should accompany the printed series, and be cross-linked, so that complementary materials can be easily found.
My final comment is reserved to the missed opportunity of presenting Kommos to the local, Greek community and the world through the Internet. I can see that this need is understood (and actually it is becoming a necessity), but none of the digital venues reviewed here is accomplishing that task. Communicating with the general public is different from targeting a scholarly audience, and both could be done using a single venue, a website with a structure and a clear purpose. Sadly, no audience can be satisfied with the current websites and this is a pity, given the exceptional value of the archaeological site and the years of rigorous scholarship that have been put into the excavations and academic publications.
-- Andrea Vianello
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